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Why Writing a Diary can Save your Life

Why Writing a Diary can Save your Life

mental health writing skills Apr 18, 2024

I got my first diary when I was six. I think my mom gave it to me. It had a princess cover, and it was very little, the size of my adult hand. I used to write things like: Today we got a cat. I named her Rayi. She doesn't like me. But I still love her.

And I would do a little sketch about my cat in a dress.

You know that writer's joke about how Kafka writes very much like a child? Well, it's funny 'cause it's true. But besides Kafka, there are many famous well-established writers whose diaries were published after their deaths. Luckily for us, we get to know how these writers felt towards everything: their love, their lust, their problems and their disconnection with the world. There's no better way to get into a person's head than reading their most private thoughts. 


So today we're gonna talk about what makes diaries so special, so comfortable to read, and how you – whether you write fiction or not – could start writing your own diary. 

Writing a diary can save our lives, I'm sure about that. 

Or at least, improve them and in the process make us even greater writers.


Why did writers keep a diary?

Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Alejandra Pizarnik, and many others are incredible writers and poets from the 20th century. When we see their diaries, I think we can find some similarities: we will find painful lust, an enormous amount of sadness, and incredible confessional prose. 

Why? Was the world way too horrible to accept them all? Was their love something they could not share so they would write about it? How much of the perception of society tricked them into believing they could not be what they wanted to be?

Writing is, among many things, a way to resist. So it makes sense that some of the most sensitive people to walk on earth will write about their fears and wishes, the crushing weight of the world on their backs, as a way to fight against it and eventually win.

Or at least let us have something to remember them for.


Where does the publishing tendency of selling diaries come from?

Talking with a friend, I told her I don't really know where this old publishing tendency comes from. Was Ana Frank telling her story in a secret diary she kept hidden from the Nazis? Was Kafka feeling sorry for himself and keeping track of his existential crisis? Or Plath and her desire to live many lives despite her inevitable fate? Of course not, there were many more before them. 

Writing a diary is as old as a tale. No one could really know where the first one started. 



But, as we're publishing students, we are curious about this kind of thing. So I asked her this question: why do you think it was important? To sell books that only have thoughts and anecdotes? No worldbuilding, no plotting, just unfinished stories about their perfectly normal lives? My friend Car said: “I think it's the same as publishing the first sketches of painters. People are still wanting fragments of their wit. Even though they're from their private ambit or are unfinished.”

I put it in quotes because I really like what she said and wouldn't change a thing. We still want to desperately grab other people's words. It gives us comfort and pleasure to know there are such powerful minds out there and they remain even when they are gone.

ALSO: Why is Literature so Important in a World that is Literally Dying?

It also gives us the satisfaction of seeing these great minds as they are: normal people like us. Something that tends to happen with famous and prodigious writers is that they become myths. Readers become a cult. We pray to them for answers, and we repeat their words in desperate times.

To see their thoughts is to understand them as they were: complicated people with complex minds.


5 reasons to start a diary

There are five fundamental reasons to start and keep a diary, whether you're a writer—meaning that you write regularly, train yourself in the craft, are curious to try new ways, and write, let's say, mostly fictional stuff—or if you're not—if you're just a regular guy passing through this blog and thinking, huh, maybe I should try this one to stop the voices—then these reasons are for you, too. Sound good?


Let's start.


1. Avoid forgetting stuff

Keeping a diary is keeping a record. If you're like me and have a horrible memory, then this is a trick worth trying. Memory is something precious for a writer, if we can remember all of our ideas –good or bad – then we can experiment with them all the time. But as we have ideas, we also have many things we want to do, supermarket lists, recurrent characters, routines and outlines, things for work, themes to study for an exam, other writers and phrases they once said, music lyrics, all these memories of past relationships. 

We have a lot going on in our heads all the time. A way to separate without losing any of these pieces is to write. Write about your ideas, the ones you want to try, but it's not the right moment yet. Save things for later. 

This is like storing for winter. You're saving your best meat and fruit for when time gets hard and you run out of ideas. 


2. Get to know yourself better

Write about your daily thoughts and experiences. Your pain and joy, your memories. The people you meet, the places you go. Doing this is not only a way to remember everything – potentially becoming ideas – but also a moment to do a little introspection

At times when everything moves way too fast, it's hard to process emotion while dealing with a current situation. Take some time alone with a journal. And write consciously about the things that torment you, reflect on why you acted this way or that, what you'd like to do, how you're feeling.

Writing a diary can be a way to discover yourself. 



Write about your goals, dreams, and aspirations. Make a list of wishes, things to do before death, and things you would like to achieve before a certain age. Tell the diary about that past relationship that didn't work out and ask yourself why it didn't last. It might be uncomfortable at times, but if you continue to do this exercise, you will find sources for your writing process and recurring themes

Do you write too much about death? About love? What's important to you? What kind of characters are slipping through the real people you know? As I said, what you put constantly in your diary is an incredible source of ideas to write.


3. Improve creativity

But if you're too bored with your own life, or you just don't like to rumble about your true feelings and problems, how about using it as an excuse to be creative? Use your life as a source for practice: when you know the story well, you can try different ways to tell the tale. 

For instance, use yourself as a character and write about yourself in the third person. Or write a letter to someone and try to describe the situation you're going through without naming it. Use other people in your lives as characters and make them do stuff. Write about something that infuriates you and plan an act of revenge. Write letters and tales and make a lot of lists.

ALSO: How to Write a Good Revenge

Try being ironic or sad or anything you want. A diary is a good way to discover your authorial voice, the one that comes naturally and you need to nurture. Be reflective about the style you use. 

When you feel ready, start writing about things outside of yourself: the lady in the cafeteria, the neighbour, the park.


4. Clear your head before work

This will be like emptying your head to all the stories being born there, you need the space, so it's fair to write about how you're feeling before getting to write with conviction. To keep up with your current project, you need to leave the frustration behind. Write about what is bothering you. Write about what confuses you. Either your personal life or your project. Maybe you have a bad week trying to find a solution to your plot hole, well, maybe write about it it's a way of reflecting and choosing a good outcome. Write to get clean.

ALSO: Writing is My Therapy


5. Time travel

As a person with more diaries than years of age, it amazed me how much of a time machine a diary can be. I can recall myself at fifteen, seventeen or twenty. And at those ages, I was very different. But I also find some patrons, things I do repeatedly, behaviors that have stuck with me through the years. Of course, what interested me then was very different from now.

At what moment do you get to see yourself with brand-new eyes? It's really hard to take perspective and see yourself objectively. 

Writing about yourself will help you understand yourself better.

Now, I see it as a wonderful opportunity for new ideas. New ways of seeing the world and the images that a young girl portrays –this helps me with my young female characters–. It also connects me with a different side of my creativity. Sometimes, I use phrases in poems I wrote years ago as a detox for heartbreak. Sometimes, I read concepts of my life that inspire new short stories. I also write a lot about my dreams. 



You never know when a phrase said a decade ago can evoke something new now. Ideas work like that. We reassign meaning and find new ways of making old concepts attractive. So, your diary is your register. It will allow you not only to never forget what you did and said –maybe you even want to forget from time to time– but it will also provide you with a new perspective of who you are.

Knowing who we are is important for every writer, and it is at the core of every story we write.

ALSO: Why Do We Write What We Write?


Why should you keep a diary?

The best thing about writing a diary is that you write only for yourself. You write with no expectation of being read by anyone else, so you free yourself from your demands. You no longer worry about writing pretty or even grammatically correct. You don't need to prove anything. And that's when creativity comes creeping in.

It's a way to lose your hand, clean your head, and practice your prose without actually feeling like you're trying. 

And who knows? Maybe, in the future, it will be published and recognized as something unique. A way to remember you. 


Juliana Palermo
Written for The Plottery

Juliana Palermo lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She's 22 but hasn't learned how to do her taxes yet. She works as a freelance editor and book cover designer, but you will find her drinking coffee and daydreaming during working hours. She is currently writing her first fantasy novel. You can find her as @julippalermo both on Instagram and Twitter. 

If you need her, you can say her name three times in front of a mirror and she will appear with a cynical smile. But let me warn you, her jokes are not as funny as she promised, and if you invited her in, there's a chance she will never leave.



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