The Benefits of Keeping a Private Diary

I started a blog, and then, almost as immediately, I failed to keep up with it. This was fine. The reason I started a new blog was because I wanted to free myself from expectations and write for myself. But if I were truly writing for myself, why publish at all? Why not keep a private journal, which no one but me would ever read?

The first year of the pandemic was hard. As 2020 came to a close, I, like many others, was starting to feel burnt out, angry, frustrated. I needed to take time to relax and heal. I could not focus on others; I needed to spend my own words on me.

This was a novel concept. As a writer, words always seemed reserved for others, something to buy and sell and give away. I present my words to like a neatly-wrapped gift. I think and I edit and organize… and I cut out the things that are too deep, too personal… the things I don’t want others to know about me.

But when writing for myself, I can put down any sort of nonsense. Lengthy descriptions of dreams, angry rants towards those I most love, very boring to-do lists of my day. It doesn’t matter, if no one is reading it. I’ve no audience to amuse or entertain.

* * *

Keeping a journal is nothing new. I’ve kept diaries since the time I could write. If you dig through my box of dusty childhood keepsakes, you’ll find some pink loose leaf pages with my large, childish print—an old diary that has fallen apart. In one entry, I rank my favorite rides at Disneyland. In another, I put down the name of a new book I bought at the mall.

The purpose of these early diaries—of all my diaries—is to remember. (There’s another reason, too, but I’ll get to that later.) The precise thing I wanted to remember has shifted over time. When I was young, I wanted to remember all my little adventures, the games I played, the possessions I loved. When I was living in Japan, I spent pages describing the scenery, the food, everything that made the country so unique. When the pandemic hit, I tried to record my day-to-day life in a world turned upside down.

All these efforts carried with them a sense of history. Growing up, my mother read me the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The “Little House” series told Laura’s childhood, which had become an important and interesting part of history. In my childish mind, I thought I could do the same, that my stories of childhood would one day be important. I never completely abandoned the notion, even as I grew older.

But, as I mentioned, there was another reason I wrote, a reason that had less to do with history and more to do with a desperate need to figure out my own head. I first discovered this in high school. Sometimes, when I was in a bad mood, I wrote about it in a notebook. (I could do this in class; as long as you looked busy, no one really cared what you were writing about), Writing was a way of venting, understanding, and finally releasing emotions.

If I were lucky, it might even lead to an epiphany. I had one or two, and I felt proud of them. Other times, I’d go round and round the mulberry bush, until I got bored of writing the same negative things over and over. Over time, journaling became a way of making my bad moods go away. A teary, time-consuming, inefficient way—but the best way I had.

* * *

Two things made this latest diary new.

First was the consistency. Unlike previous attempts, I wrote nearly every day. This came about partially as a fluke of time (having more free time, I mean), partially as an accumulation of discipline, and partially as a change of attitude. I began to think my inner thought had value.

The second, and far more important addition, was that I chose to type this diary on a single word document on my computer. This meant that it was far easier to go back and read my diary. Rather than having to sift through half a dozen journals, battling through my ugly scrawl, I could now open one document and have access to all my thoughts for a year.

I re-read my diary in December. It took nearly a month, but I got through all of it. I discovered a record of my emotions, in all their raw state. Before then, I had never seen much value in my fits of rage and anguish, preferring them to go away so that I might be more productive. But forced to reconcile a year’s worth of emotional toil, I began to see patterns.

It’s surprisingly easy to forget your emotions. There were nights in September I spent awake, my thoughts spinning in a fit of all-consuming passion, pondering questions of the universe that seemed of utmost importance to me—nights that I completely forgot about just two months later.

Emotions are like vapor. They are not concrete; they seem to vanish when you look away. But if my conscious mind could not hold them, my unconscious mind did. My fits gave way to conclusion; the conclusions led to new thoughts and new feelings; and very slowly, actions began to form. I was changing. And for the first time I could see how that changed about, not in terms of momentous events, but in terms of all those inward struggles going on below the surface.

* * *

This week my emotions drove me to start up my blog again.

I was feeling sad and empty. I suspected it had to do with the business side of writing. I write, and I think I write well, but my audience is small. It is hard to offer my words to the world. It hurts. It’s not that I feel like the world is mean, but rather, that it is indifferent. I send my words into space, and they vanish into a black hole.

Eventually, you get it into your head that your words aren’t worth anything. No one wants them. No one needs them. In this state, you can’t muster the heart to send them out. It’s easier to keep your words private.

There is something about going inward that teaches you validation. I want to have external validation: praise, money, movie deals. I want other people to tell me, “You are good.” But that’s not what happened. Instead, I went inside and learned to tell it to myself.

Sometimes that makes it hard to come out of your shell again. Often times, I peek at my News app, glance at the state of the world, and want to hide. But if sending words outward too often causes burn out, sending them inward leads to isolation. I want to be able to share what I’ve learned, even if it’s with a small audience.

There is something hopeful about sharing.

* * *

Tips for Keeping a Private Diary

1. Write down whatever interests you in the moment, rather than the things you think you “ought to” write.

Sometimes, you have an idea of what you should write in your diary, whether it’s the news or the weather or reasons you should be grateful. I, in trying to record for posterity, often found myself getting stuck on really mundane details. But having an “ought,” implies an audience, and no one is going to read this. So write the things you want to write about. Make it interesting to you.

2. Be honest with yourself—or as honest as you can be.

There are some things I’d rather not write down, even if I know no one will read it. This is fine. But I try to push myself to be as honest as I can, even when it feels uncomfortable or unpleasant or really, really mean. The negative parts of yourself are still part of yourself and if you can’t share them with you… who can you share them with?

3. When faced with strong emotion, after describing the feeling and the circumstance, ask yourself “Why?”

It is easy to write long tirades in anger, or anxiety, or sadness, and it’s fine to acknowledge that feeling, but I personally hate getting “stuck” in whatever negative emotion happens to overtake me. Sometimes it helps to ask myself why I am feeling this way—not the circumstances that triggered the emotion, but what the real underlying issue is. For me, once I understand this issue, the emotion tends to seep away, and I feel calmer.

4. Give yourself enough time to write.

I can write for hours each day, and when I am in the middle of a fit of emotion, it can take me hours or sometimes days to finally hit upon what’s wrong. I know that most people don’t have this kind of time, nor do I think you need to commit this kind of time for journaling. But if you feel strongly and need to write about it, clear out a segment of your schedule and give time to express yourself. Be patient with your emotions.

5. Make sure you can read what you’ve written.

My hand-writing is not the best. I can read it, but it is so aesthetically unpleasant, I’d rather not look at it. That’s why I’ve been typing up my current diary. I even label some of my entries, to make it easier to skim through. I do still keep physical diaries, since I’m used to writing impassioned rants in pen—but afterwards, I type up the key things I wrote down, so that I can look back on it.

6. Read what you’ve written.

It can be harder reading what you’ve wrote than actually writing it. You might cringe at your behavior or re-experience painful feelings you’d rather forget. There’s no rule that says you need to read your old journals, but I find that it helps me to understand larger patterns in my feelings and learn more about myself. At the very least, I try to re-read it in December, as a way of reflecting on my year.

7. Take my advice with a grain of salt.

These suggestions work for me, and if they work for you, great. But everyone has their own unique style. Find what works for you and throw out all the rest.

* * *

Thank you for reading this blog post. If you found it helpful or interesting, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear from you. If you want to check out my novels or other writing, you can find these on my website: http://www.rebeccalangstories.com/

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