The art of diary writing: Keep your feelings out of it

by Margo White / 25 August, 2018

Essayist and diary writer David Sedaris reading to his partner, painter Hugh Hamrick, in the 1990s. Photo/Getty.

Scribble, scribble, scribble – but are you writing the right kind of diary?

If you’re of a certain age, you might struggle to remember new things, like the name of the book you just read, but also to remember things you never thought you’d forget. Should you be keeping a diary, then, to provide ballast to your fading memory? And if so, how do you write a diary you can actually bear to reread, without feeling compelled to burn it?

This might surprise you, but apparently you should keep your feelings out of it. That’s what long-time diary writer and essayist David Sedaris said when interviewed by Kim Hill last year. He’d just published his first instalment of two (heavily edited) diaries, Theft by Finding. Hill said she’d burned all her diaries at New Year. Sedaris suggested she’d probably reread them too soon, that nobody likes what they wrote last week. Hill said no, the diaries dated back to decades earlier. “Oh, well, perhaps... you were writing about your feelings?” said Sedaris. “Were you doing that?” Hill said: “Ah, well now, we have the problem here. Yes, I was, and it was terrible...” Sedaris said: “Yeah, a lot of people have your problem.”

Kim Hill.

So I emailed Hill, and asked her why and how she burned her diaries, and if Sedaris was right. Kindly, she replied. “It was New Year 2017,” she wrote. “I carted them all down to the bach and burnt them in the brazier one night. No ritual.”

The diaries went from her late teens to her late 40s, and yes, Sedaris was absolutely right. “They were pretty much all about my feelings, and very ‘sturm and drang’ because happiness usually writes white, and misery… needs a good editor.”

I have two diaries kept in the back of a drawer, written over eight months of backpacking around East Asia 30 years ago. I was 20, everything was novel and bizarre, and there was plenty to write about. Thirty years later, unable to remember much of those incredible months, I can’t bear rereading the diaries, because I can’t stand the sound of my 20-year-old self.

I’ve dabbled in diary writing a few times since, usually during some intense emotional experience, and every time I reread what I wrote, I promptly tore the pages to shreds. That’s the thing about diaries: we seem to want to write in them as if we were writing to a therapist, the general idea being that putting things down on the page will stop things going around and around in our heads. There’s good evidence it will, but would you ever want to reread that kind of diary?

When it comes to subject matter, all diaries are different, Sedaris writes in the introduction to Theft by Finding. He never liked writing about his feelings, not only because they weren’t interesting, but because they were too subject to change. He would write about other people’s feelings, though, along with overheard conversations and jokes, surprising things other people have told him, and “remarkable events”, such as a stranger eating a sandwich with his eyes closed, which he found riveting.

Writing a diary was a discipline that helped him become a writer, and he recommends all would-be writers do the same. “When you first start writing your diary, you’re going to suck, so it’s good to keep it to yourself, until maybe you don’t suck as much,” he advises on a video on YouTube.

While his advice is aimed at aspiring writers, it might be useful to anyone thinking of writing a diary – to remember that which they’ll probably forget. But it takes practice. Reading over his own earlier entries, Sedaris admits, is “like listening to a crazy person”.

Many people (me, for example) might be put off keeping a diary because there are days, weeks, maybe months, in which nothing happens. Yet some of the most successful published diaries are those that document the significant along with the utterly banal – such as those of English writer Alan Bennett: “All this weekend we have kept seeing a pair of grey wagtails, grey-headed with bright yellow breasts, which seem to be nesting in the creeper rather than by the beck, which is what the bird book says they should be doing… Not sure how common grey wagtails are, I knock on Timmy Hutchinson (Timmy the Twitcher)’s door to tell him so that he can put them in his bird column in the village bulletin.”

Or Samuel Pepys, whose diary – which he kept for only nine years – became a 19th-century publishing phenomenon. “Dined at home in the garret, where my wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand.”

Like Sedaris, journalist and writer Lynne Barber keeps a diary as a form of writing practice. She once wrote in the Observer that she was “appalled by people who say they only write when they have something interesting to record – usually, fatally, their holidays... A diary is not about the highlights, it’s about the quotidian, it’s about what you think and do on a dull day as much as on an exciting one.”

Not all writers would recommend it. Author Zadie Smith has tried to keep a diary several times and gave it up, partly because she couldn’t stop wondering who might end up reading it. When it comes to the real, honest, warts-and-all kind of diary, she concluded, it was all there in her email account. “In there… is probably the closest thing to an honest account of my life, at least in writing… When I am dead, if my children want to know what I was like in the daily sense, not as a writer, not as a more-or-less presentable person, but simply the foolish human being behind it all, they’d be wise to look there.”

Smith wasn’t going to reread her own emails though – she said she’d rather die than do that. But her comments made me think: if you want to write a diary to remember, perhaps you could write your diary as you might write an email. That is, something written as if fit for public consumption, and therefore likely to be palatable for your own private consumption.

“My biggest fear was suddenly dying, and whoever had to clear out the garage finding the damn diaries,” wrote Hill, in her email. “So embarrassing, even when dead.” And yet: “I did feel sad about the purge, because the diaries represented such a waste of time, scribble scribble. I guess a therapist would say one should learn compassion for one’s younger self. My younger self needed a kick up the bum, actually.

“I am, however, in favour of diary writing because one forgets stuff. And it’s a private space, which is old-fashioned now, I suppose, but I think important. If only I’d written down the things I wanted to remember, instead of carrying on about the things I didn’t – the wrong kind of diary.”

It strikes me that Hill’s email would be the right kind of thing to put in the right kind of diary. Well, if I wrote that, I’d read it without wanting to die, and probably wouldn’t even mind someone else reading it if I was dead.

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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