I have a distinct memory of unwrapping a pink, glittery secret journal, complete with lock and key, on my sixth birthday. The journal was my favourite present that birthday, far superior to the various toys and games which I received from my family. I’m not sure what it was, but something in me at the time was fascinated by the idea of a secret journal; the thought of being able to write down anything I wanted, and lock it away from the prying eyes of my parents and younger brothers thrilled me. Since that day, I’ve kept diaries regularly, noting down the comings and goings of my day, teenage crushes, and occasionally writing at length about my ponderings on life and death, as best as a girl in her early teenage years can.
On my shelf in my bedroom at home, covered in dust and the long-abandoned remains of spiders’ webs, I still have every journal which I’ve ever kept, including the first one that I received on my birthday nearly fourteen years ago. Taking it down, and prying open the first page (lock and key now long-gone), I find pages and pages of scrawled writing and drawings, dates and numbers which now hold no meaning for me, and my first entry which reads, in its totality, ‘I was six today. I had lots of fun. I had reaty [sic.] good fun.’ Hardly the prolific writings of a child genius, is it?
But further down, however, I do find something which genuinely interests me in the entry for the day after my birthday. With no preconceived notions of how to write a journal, nor really how to write outside of school at all, I started to ask rhetorical questions in my diary to some unknown reader. These questions may be trivial (e.g. ‘I have a cat. Do you have a cat?’), yet I find it so fascinating that, in writing a diary for the first time, I tried to create some sort of dialogue.
I’ve since grown up, and my spelling has (hopefully) improved, but I’m still interested in those first few journal entries. It seems to me now that they exemplify what’s so important about diary-writing as a concept: it’s not only a tool of self-reflection, but also one of self-identification; a way in which to construct a version of yourself on paper. In writing those questions, I seem to have been attempting to define my experiences against those of someone else, whether it be a reader or some figment of my childhood imagination, and, even though I kept that journal locked, I seem to have been consciously trying to engage with whoever I thought would be reading it.
This idea can too be found in the common phrase ‘dear diary’, which seems to present diary-writing as some epistolary feat, a collection of letters compiled and never sent. In my journals, I never used to start entries in this way, until I read Anne Frank’s Diaries for the first time. As she addressed her diary to ‘Dear Kitty’, I began each entry with ‘Dear Cass’ (inspired by the heroine of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle), self-consciously adopting the common diary trope of creating a dialogue in a more explicit way, drawing on the precedent set by Anne Frank in my own diary-writing.
The established history of diary-writing is another reason why I think it is so important to keep a journal; without Samuel Pepys or Anne Frank, we wouldn’t have such unobstructed access into the thoughts and actions of people from the past. Without Anne Frank’s diaries we wouldn’t have her testament of the horrors faced by Jewish people at the hands of the Nazi regime. Without Samuel Pepys, we wouldn’t have a first-hand account of the Great Fire of London in 1666, nor would we have his opinions on many other important 17th century events. Diaries are not only important for us individually, but for the whole world – a document of one’s own very specific existence within a wider context.
For me, diary-writing will always be enriching. While I rarely find time for it anymore, due to either writing university essays, or poetry, it is something that I will always believe is very important. In fact, the poetry I write now, and have had published, is something that I started to write in the pages of my journals, trying to order words in the same way I was trying to work through complex teenage emotions. In a world of increasing digitisation, having a blank page in front of you, whilst scary, can be a liberating place of experimentation, away from expectation. And, in these “unprecedented times”, writing about your life in the time of Coronavirus could be something of real importance in the future, for you to read when you’re older, or for your grandkids. The value of diary-writing can never be underestimated.