I write in you every day. You listen but never criticise. You welcome each day with a fresh, crisp page and never turn your back on yesterday. You preserve my past and present; every wrinkle on your cover is a sign of our penmanship.
The notion of writing something down, expressing our hopes and fears and releasing our emotional energy through a pen is something women have done for centuries. Documenting our lives in order to piece together our past and present can be both sentimental and empowering. For some, a diary signifies a friendship and the ability to control feelings and thoughts. To others, it is a form of art, documenting inspirations and creative whims. Diaries can be both humorous and historically insightful, and more often than not you will find it is a woman’s handwriting you are reading.
Some of the most pivotal moments in history have been discovered through the unveiling of a woman’s diary. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the diary of Anne Frank, the young girl who fled her home in Amsterdam to hide form the Nazi regime. Her document is powerful, telling and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. Without her written words, her endurance and remarkable story would never have been known, allowing the vicissitudes of the war to erase her evidence of courage and humanity. The entries of Virginia Woolf during her time as a writer and the unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath are further examples of the power of the diary, revealing and defining an appreciation for the masters behind literary works that continue to resonate today.
These women have provided us with an insight into their lives, fed us a taste of their creativity and told us of a past that would have otherwise vanished. Through the power of the diary, we are able to share their stories and relate to their emotions and experiences. But never would they have dreamt their stories would have such a powerful impact. Never were they to know that one day, their entries would be read. Just like most of us who keep a diary, we write without knowing who else is reading. But if our diaries are just for our own use, to read only at our own discretion, why do we do it?
Research from the American Psychological Association has found that the psychology behind writing down your daily encounters or even keeping clippings, notes and images is to “reduce intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improve working memory”. Keeping diaries and journals is seen as an effort to change the habits and attitudes so as to maintain a healthy and positive mindset. It has also been found that women are more reactive to stress than men and are therefore more likely to keep a diary in order to channel this energy and convert it into positive memories. Women document their lives to feel close to themselves, as a way of getting to know who they really are and to understand their identity.
However, it is not just diary authors who can learn form their entries. Since the release of Anne Frank’s diary, millions of people have been touched and moved by her story. A diary can ease someone’s suffering or allow the reader to empathise and explore their own emotions. Every word we write is evidence of our being, a footprint on our journeyed life, an echo of our voice; it is also a lesson to another. Although at present your diary may lack the oxygen of an audience, it will be cherished as a memory by loved ones, who will discover it when they most need it.
Psychologists have been studying diary entries for decades, and we have our own unique reason as to why we keep them. But for me there is one person who summarises the purpose and art of journalling perfectly and that is none other than Virginia Woolf herself, in her own diary entry on 20 April 1919:
“But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay my hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.”