Journals, diaries and expressive writing

~a column by ColleenO’Brien

Keeping a diary started with me when I was eight. When our two kids were 11 and 14 years old, we moved them away from what one of them called dramatically “the only home we’ve ever known.” For their unhappiness, I gave them each a scrap book in which to keep photos of their new home and friends, plus a diary for their new thoughts. “Write whatever you want,” I said. “That you hate trees [we’d moved from a desert area on the ocean to a pine-forested mountain], even that you’re not too fond of your dad and me. I’ll never look in them.”

And I haven’t. The younger, our daughter, like me has kept a diary sporadically over the years. Our son now has stacks of them. The diligent diarist who will turn 50 this year wrote daily for more than three decades. The famous Englishman Pepys, who wrote about his own life and what he ate and what he saw at the theater and with whom, as well as about the great fire of London, one of the great plagues of the era and a civil war, wrote only for nine years, between 1660 and 1669. And there’s Richard Ellis, a transplanted Midwesterner to New York City, who wrote 15,000 volumes over 80-some years.

When I look back at my random diaries — no chronology, as I just picked up the handiest one at the time and wrote — I am embarrassed by many entries but delighted that I wrote down things my kids said, those innocent brilliancies that all our children utter and that we all forget. One of my favorites, after the family stopped along a river to watch fly fishermen, was, “Dad, why would ya fish for flies?”

There are vast studies now on how valuable it is for us to write our lives. I’ve read that it improves our memories as well as our dispositions, according to scientific researchers at Duke, Stanford and the University of Texas. Writing about yourself and your experiences each day not only improves your mood and your memory, it helps reduce symptoms of serious diseases, improves after-heart-attack health and reduces doctor visits.

With this kind of positive — well, almost hyperbolic — PR going for it, one would think journaling, diary keeping, even a mere day-keeper class would be at least one mandatory course somewhere between K and doctoral.

One of the catches in the new and self-help variety of personal record-keeping research is that the journal writing needs to be edited. . .not by anyone else — this is after all, private stuff — but by you. Some researchers believe that we all have our story, our “personal narrative,” but our “inner voice” doesn’t always get it right, so after we write it down, we need to look at it carefully and then tell the truth; or, as the researcher said, “change our perceptions.” (Quoted phrases from Tara Parker Pope’s Well Column in the New York Times of Jan. 19, 2015.)

This is a bit of pop psych that seems to work: go ahead and write that you think you’re a flaming loser, but when you edit, tone it down, be reasonable, just tell your diary in your rewrite that you are indeed the intellectual or creative or athletic or spiritual equivalent of your peers, or at least on your way in that direction and not a dumb you-know-what. Your life outlook will improve. And who can argue with that.

Or, rather than writing about your problems, write about yourself from the point of view of a neutral observer. I don’t know exactly how one does this; I suppose it’s akin to writing fiction? I’m not clear on this part, although it does remind me of a friend telling me after my forgetfulness of half the speech I was supposed to give — “Just pretend you said it like you wanted to say it, or as if you actually remembered everything you were supposed to say. After awhile, you’ll think you did.”


I think this new kind of diary tending (AKA “expressive writing”) sounds quite valuable and might even be something I give a whirl to on the odd day that I actually think I have something to say to one of the many journals floating through my life.

But, in the classic tradition of Pepys, Virginia Woolf and other famous, oft-read and beloved beacons of self-disclosure and documentation of lives worth living, I doubt there was a lot of editing going on from the diarists themselves. I like to think that what I read from their most intimate jottings is the real thing, not a better version. I really like to think that the term self-help was not around in the 1920s; not to mention the 1660s.

But, in all fairness to the new paradigm of journaling unavailable prior to the era of formally helping oneself to be a better person, Pepys gave it up after only nine years. And Virginia did walk into the river with a pocketful of rocks.

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