The Value of Keeping a Diary, Journal, or Writer's Notebook

Writers on Writing

writing journal
"Your journal can be a daily diary of events," says Pat Schneider, "but it can also be your mulch, your seedbed, the womb of your art. It can be the safe place for writing first-draft material, for experimenting, for gathering and keeping impressions and information for future work" (Writing Alone and with Others, 2003). (Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images)
Cecily: I keep a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn't write them down, I should probably forget all about them.
Miss Prism:
Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary we all carry about with us.
Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened and couldn't possibly have happened.
(Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895)

For reasons made clear by these eight writers, now is the perfect time for you to start keeping a diary, journal, or writer's notebook.

  • Sylvia Plath on Holding the Rapture
    November 13, 1949

    As of today I have decided to keep a diary again--just a place where I can write my thoughts and opinions when I have a moment. Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious, I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.
    (quoted by Kathleen Connors in "Word Crafts." Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual, edited by Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley. Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • bell hooks on Safe Writing
    Keeping a daily diary did not mean that I was seriously called to write, that I would ever write for a reading public. This was "safe" writing. . . . It was for me the space for critical reflection, where I struggled to understand myself and the world around me, that crazy world of family and community, that painful world. I could say there what was hurting me, how I felt about things, what I hoped for. I could be angry there with no thought of punishment. I could "talk back." Nothing had to be concealed. I could hold on to myself there.
    (bell hooks, Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. Henry Holt, 1999)
  • Anne Frank on the Patience of Paper
    June 6, 1942

    It's an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I--nor for that matter anyone else--will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart. . . .
    Yes there is no doubt that paper is patient and as I don't intend to show this cardboard-covered notebook, bearing the proud name of "diary," to anyone, unless I find a real friend, boy or girl, probably nobody cares. And now I come to the root of the matter, the reason for my starting a diary: it is that I have no such real friend.
    (The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition. Doubleday, 2003)
  • Thomas Mann on Capturing Days
    February 1934

    I love this process by which each passing day is captured, not only its impressions, but also, at least by suggestion, its intellectual direction and content as well, less for the purpose of rereading and remembering than for taking stock, reviewing, maintaining awareness, achieving perspective . . ..
    (Thomas Mann: Diaries 1918-1939, selected by Hermann Kesten, translated by Richard Winston. Robin Clark Ltd., 1984)
  • Northrop Frye on Confronting His Conscience
    Prologue to the Diary of 1949

    I'm not working hard enough, and I feel that a diary would be useful, as my job is mainly thinking & writing, & I need some machinery for recording everything of importance I think of. . . .
    I also hope it will be of some moral benefit, in passing a kind of value judgment, implicit or explicit, on whether I've wasted the day or not . . .. The feeling of meeting my own conscience at the end of the day may cut down my dithering time.
    (The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942-1955, edited by Robert D. Denham. University of Toronto Press, 2001)
  • The Long Monologue of Edward Robb Ellis
    December 1, 1932
    This evening Ross said to me: "It must take an awfully egotistical person to keep a diary." Surprised, I began to defend myself, citing several reasons for maintaining this journal--a chance to practice writing, the opportunity to analyze myself, the value of a diary as a reference volume.
    November 10, 1973

    [T]here is another way in which I saved myself from madness, and this is the fact that all my life I have tried to communicate with myself. My diary is proof of this effort. My life has been one long monologue. I will go mad only if I am ever unable to talk to myself.
    (Edward Robb Ellis, A Diary of the Century: Tales from America's Greatest Diarist. Sterling, 2008)
    Journalist Edward Ellis began keeping a diary in 1927 when he was a sophomore in high school; he continued writing until his death in 1998.
  • Gail Godwin on Diaries and Fiction
    I need to write a diary just as I need to write fiction, but the two needs come from very different sources. I write fiction because I need to organize the clutter of too many details into some meaning, because I enjoy turning something promising into something marvelous; I keep a diary because it keeps my mind fresh and open. Once the details of being me are safely stored away every night, I can get on with what isn't just me. . . . I had to keep a diary for many years before I could begin writing fiction.
    (Gail Godwin, "A Diarist on Diarists." Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini. University Press of New England, 1991)
  • Franz Kafka on the Courage of Striving
    December 23, 1911

    One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer . . .. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.
    (The Diaries of Franz Kafka, edited by Max Brod. Secker and Warburg, 1948)

More About Keeping a Diary or Journal

  • Your Writing: Private and Public
  • Virginia Woolf on Keeping a Journal
  • Twelve Reasons to Keep a Writer's Diary