Fifty issues in. As good a time as any to take stock. Now, I’ll spare you the usual thinly disguised reams of self-congratulation (has there been any other word that has been quite so misused and abused in recent years in the online sphere as ‘humbled’?). And I’ll spare you the usual recourse to posting screenshots of upward trending analytics. I’m not above doing such things, but I would like to be. I am trying to transcend my baser instincts here.
So what I am going to talk about instead then is the very nature of taking stock. And the pound-for-pound undefeated champion of doing so is via the humble diary.
What I’m Talking About When I Talk About A Diary
I can’t believe how long it’s been since I last did this. Indeed, it seems that I spent most of the year not Journalling. Shame, really.
- Fragment of a diary entry from your humbled author, dated 12/12/18
Again, the necessary annoyance or laying out definitions. Long time readers will know what I mean.
So. My mom keeps a diary, as she calls it. It’s a little black W H Smith book- faux-leather with the present year embossed on the cover, if memory serves. A week is spread across a double page and each entry is a biro’d list of expenses and appointments and reminders. To-do’s and countdowns until upcoming holidays and day trips. And this is great- I keep one myself- but it’s not what I’m talking about when I say ‘diary’.
When I say ‘diary’ I am referring to what my American cousins may well call a journal. A diary in the Samuel Pepys sense. A diary in the sense of a succession of recollections and introspections in what occurred in the preceding hours and days. A soon-to-be cringe-inducing series of confessions and self-justifications for the benefit of the future version of yourself that will end up reading it. Or- as you may tell yourself in a caffeinated flight of fantasy- the archive that will prove to be the cornerstone of the posthumous biographies that will be written about your particularly triumphant shuffle along this mortal coil.
Are you following my definition here? Then let’s move on…
Home visit. Wasn’t present due to focusing way too much on twitter on ipad. Reached 1000 followers. Who gives a fuck?
-Entry dated 20/12/18
Read through novel manuscript this morning. Still needs more work. Been humming away in the periphery of my life for years but I imagine the cumulative hours of true focus spent on it are not that many. Damn bluebird app is the chief culprit. Or it’s the chief vehicle through which laziness and fear are made manifest.
-Entry dated 24/01/21
The main boon of keeping a diary- so the productivity gurus will tell you- is that it allows you to see patterns. The more consistent you are with the practice, the starker these will be, especially if you set aside sufficient time throughout the year to go back and read what you have written. A stiff drink is not essential for such occasions but it may well be something to consider, as you can disguise the shudder of full body cringing with the whisky-shudder that comes from the first swig of Islay’s finest export.
Without documentation of some sort- however haphazard and inconsistent- it is all too easy to fall into a holding pattern of repeating the same unwise procedures and actions over and over. And you know what Einstein said about insanity and repetition and different results, I’m sure. Conversely, if you are on to a good thing, it can be easy to forget ‘what got you to the dance’, to draw on my deep well of sports commentator cliche- and drift from the path that it would pay you to stay on.
We forget the good, we default to mindlessly repeating the bad, just one of those grimly amusing quirks of human nature. Patterns.
So a diary doesn’t have to (only) be an earnest examination of goals and iterations and striving and so forth. But it can be. If I were tasked to sell you on the idea (presumably via some sort of commission basis from Moleskine or Mont Blanc or whoever) I would probably take this dryly utilitarian tact. Continued and consistent introspective writing about whatever task you are trying to improve at will make you excel more than if you didn’t bother. It’s common sense.
It’s easier to lie to yourself in your head than it is to lie to yourself on paper day after day after day. It’s possible either way, but the ephermerality of unspoken or unwritten thoughts have a way of orienting themselves towards acts of rationalisation. This is also why writing on paper versus writing on a computer or device is preferable. You can easily delete or amend a Word document after the fact. But you can only shred so many handwritten diary entries before at least some part of you starts to reel from the sheer weight of the cognitive dissonance.
In the evening we went to L and K’s for dinner. [Rest of page is a long discussion about food, anecdotes told, work talk, wines drunk etc]
-Entry dated 01/05/19
I wouldn’t necessarily join Thoreau in saying that most men live lives of quiet desperation. But most men do generally live quiet lives. Life lies mainly in the gaps between one thing and another- commuting, quiet nights in, lying in bed, coffee at the place you normally go, a walk to the shop to buy a pint of milk, watering the plants, that sort of thing. Life is ordinary, most of the time. But knowing that and living in accordance with that rather than trying to run away from it is what makes life extraordinary. What is great poetry but a single ordinary fact of existence given the close attention and consideration it deserves? And how it that any different to the state of enlightenment?
Life fades fast even when it moves slow. People try to capture moment by an endless stream of screen-trapped photographs, but this largely serves to degrade the memory, rather than preserve it, at least in my experience. But writing about an event doesn’t seem to fall prey to this same mechanism, or at least not as starkly. Yes, you can’t put your arms around a memory, as Johnny Thunders once sang, but you can write about how it made you feel and what details you recall and what, if anything, you think the event might have meant.
You can train your eye to pick out the telling detail just as you can train your brain how to effectively convey these in prose. Knowing you are going to write about your day- especially if you embrace the idea of capturing it, mundanity and all- trains you to begin to pay attention. To the weather and the buildings, to the sounds and smells, to what the people in your life actually say and the ways in which they say it. To everything.
And there is value in this. A well-lived life, a life that it may indeed be fun to read about, is one that is lived with open eyes. Is one that is lived in honesty. Is one that holds faults, received ideas, the zeitgeist and the environment that holds it up to the clear light of scrutiny.
And the only real and sustainable way I know of turning on that light is by turning to a fresh page, writing today’s date in the top left corner and then beginning to draft an account of what just happened.
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I've been journaling for some time (not every day, unfortunately) and I see the benefits of it now, the patterns, as you said, and the mindset change, paying attention, the urge to remember more things to write them down. I found that trying to narrate it makes it more enjoyable and that has been my main approach. Although I have not been writing exactly about things that happened on that day, I always tried to make a story out of what happened and it's been a fun thing to do. The next step for me is doing it regularly and on paper, at least to try.
Anything from the last paragraph was inspired by you and your 50 essays. So, thank you, Tom, and congratulations! (looking forward to the physical copy of your essay collection vol. 1).
Just like writing regularly, diary writing is a thing I've endlessly flirted with for years. Probably because self development books always told me I should be doing it.
This has convinced me to at least try and stick to it this time.
I appreciate that about your writing. Always thoughtful but not prescriptive. This is just the beginning.