What is a Diary?

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A personal record of events, experiences, thoughts, and observations.

"We converse with the absent by letters, and with ourselves by diaries," says Isaac D'Israeli in Curiosities of Literature (1793). These "books of account," he says "preserve what wear out in the memory, and . . . render to a man an account of himself to himself." In this sense, diary-writing may be regarded as a type of conversation or monologue as well as a form of autobiography.

(See Examples and Observations, below.)

Although the reader of a diary is usually only the author herself, on occasion diaries are published (in most cases after an author's death). Well-known diarists include Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), Anne Frank (1929-1945), and Anaïs Nin (1903-1977). In recent years, growing numbers of people have begun keeping online diaries, usually in the form of blogs or web journals.

Diaries are sometimes used in conducting research, particularly in the social sciences and in medicine. Research diaries (also called field notes) serve as records of the research process itself. Respondent diaries may be kept by the individual subjects participating in a research project.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology: From the Latin, "daily allowance, daily journal"

Excerpts from Famous Diaries

  • Excerpt From Virginia Woolf's Diary
    "Easter Sunday, April 20th, 1919
    . . . The habit of writing for my eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. . . What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art."
    (Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary. Harcourt, 1953)

    "I get courage by reading [Virginia Woolf's Diary]. I feel very akin to her."
    (Sylvia Plath, quoted by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in No Man's Land. Yale University Press, 1994)
  • Excerpt From Sylvia Plath's Diary
    "July 1950. I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. Nothing more than an empty house, the warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool sweet milk, and a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I'd call myself a fool to ask for more . . .."
    (Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Karen V. Kukil. Anchor Books, 2000)
  • Excerpts From Anne Frank's Diary
    "Now I'm back to the point that prompted me to keep a diary in the first place: I don't have a friend."

    “Who else but me is ever going to read these letters?”
    (Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, ed. by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. Doubleday, 1995)

Thoughts and Observations on Diaries

  • Safire's Rules for Keeping a Diary
    "For people intimidated by their own diaries, here are a handful of rules:

    Four rules are enough rules. Above all, write about what got to you that day . . .."
    (William Safire, "On Keeping a Diary." The New York Times, September. 9, 1974)
    1. You own the diary, the diary doesn't own you. There are many days in all our lives about which the less written the better. If you are the sort of person who can only keep a diary on a regular schedule, filling up two pages just before you go to bed, become another sort of person.
    2. Write for yourself. The central idea of a diary is that you are not writing for critics or for posterity but are writing a private letter to your future self. If you are petty, or wrongheaded, or hopelessly emotional, relax–if there is anybody who will understand and forgive, it is your future self.
    3. Put down what cannot be reconstructed. . . . [R]emind yourself of the poignant personal moment, the remark you wish you had made, your predictions about the outcome of your own tribulations.
    4. Write legibly. . . .
  • Vita Sackville-West on Capturing Moments
    "[T]he fingers which have once grown accustomed to a pen soon itch to hold one again: it is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on on the hop."
    (Vita Sackville-West, Twelve Days, 1928)
  • David Sedaris's Diaries
    "At the start of my second year [of college]. I signed up for a creative-writing class. The instructor, a woman named Lynn, demanded that we each keep a journal and that we surrender it twice during the course of the semester. This meant that I'd be writing two diaries, one for myself and a second, heavily edited one, for her.

    "The entries I ultimately handed in are the sorts I read onstage sometimes, the .01 percent that might possibly qualify as entertaining: a joke I heard, a T-shirt slogan, a bit of inside information passed on by a waitress or cabdriver."
    (David Sedaris, Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls. Hachette, 2013)
  • Research Diaries
    "A research diary should be a log or record of everything that you do in your research project, for example, recording ideas about possible research topics, database searches you undertake, your contacts with research study sites, access and and approval processes and difficulties you encounter and overcome, etc. The research diary is the place where you should also record your thoughts, personal reflections and insights into the research process."
    (Nicholas Walliman and Jane Appleton, Your Undergraduate Dissertation in Health and Social Care. Sage, 2009)
  • Christopher Morley on Diarists
    "They catalogue their minutes: Now, now, now,
    Is Actual, amid the fugitive;
    Take ink and pen (they say) for that is how
    We snare this flying life, and make it live.
    So to their little pictures, and they sieve
    Their happinesses: fields turned by the plough,
    The afterglow that summer sunsets give,
    The razor concave of a great ship's bow.

    "O gallant instinct, folly for men's mirth!
    Type cannot burn and sparkle on the page.
    No glittering ink can make this written word
    Shine clear enough to speak the noble rage
    And instancy of life. All sonnets blurred
    The sudden mood of truth that gave them birth."
    (Christopher Morley, "Diarists." Chimneysmoke, George H. Doran, 1921)
  • “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
    (Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895)
  • "It seems to me that the problem with diaries, and the reason that most of them are so boring, is that every day we vacillate between examining our hangnails and speculating on cosmic order."
    (Ann Beattie, Picturing Will, 1989)
  • The Lighter Side of Diaries: Adrian Mole
    "Sunday, January 25 
    Third After Epiphany


    "10 A.M. I am ill with all the worry, too weak to write much. Nobody has noticed I haven't eaten any breakfast.

    "2 P.M. Had two junior aspirins at midday and rallied a bit. Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13¾  year-old undiscovered intellectual.

    "6 P.M. Pandora! My lost love!"
    (Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾. Methuen, 1982)