“The solution is yourself and positivity. God, I should do a self-help book.” – Me, 2009.
I recently decided to sort through the boxes of storage I had left decomposing at my childhood home. Beneath squashed art supplies and novelty board games, I found a pile of little black diaries: ten years worth of A5 booklets chronicling my meandering thoughts, anxieties, hideous poetry and mundane activities. Within that scrawl was proof I had survived the rickety crossing from teen to adulthood.
Keeping a diary is not unusual: as well as their cathartic benefits, diaries are important for capturing ideas and remembering the past. Personal diaries from literary greats like Kafka, Woolf and Sontag reveal insights into their work and world. Anne Frank’s famous diary shows the impact an individual’s story can have on retelling past events. Her diary adds flesh and blood to the bare bones of historical facts.
But for us simple folk, it’s unlikely our musing on teenage crushes in all their love-heart glory will be republished in twenty-eight languages. But still, we keep them. Like precious little dust-collecting time capsules, our diaries sit and wait for the time we will need them.
For Anaïs Nin, her diary acted as an on-call psychologist. “The diary taught me that it is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately,” she wrote in her 1947 essay, ‘On Writing’. She adds: “I learned to choose the heightened moments because they are the moments of revelation.”
Rather than spending another thirty bucks on the latest self-help guide, perhaps we can use these “moments of revelation” to guide us. Nobody knows you better than yourself. (Your mother might think she knows best, but stay firm: you really do know better!)
The night after finding my little black diaries, I stretched out in bed and cracked open a diary’s spine. Here I was, twenty years old and anxiety-ridden. The scribbled entries revealed a particularly bad period of anxiety. I wrote to myself in soothing tones, usually in second person to distance myself emotionally. “You are in control. Shannon you can do this.” This is something I still do when trying to tackle a difficult task.
Safely observing events from six years ago makes for interesting and reflective reading. While some things have changed (hurrah!), many worries echo those of the present. Here I worry about money. Here I worry about failing. Here I worry, yet again, about pursuing writing. While one could find this depressing, I found it comforting that this little black book understood me so well.
Past-me also offered ready made solutions, perfect for inspiration cards.
On worrying what others think of you:
“What matters is what you think of you,” August 10, 2009.
On fear of failing:
“It’s all about failure … What’s that saying, feel the fear and do it anyways? … But why am I so scared? I’m capable I know that. We can’t know how to do everything at once…” March 20, 2010.
And some optimism:
“After the stress has passed it makes for an interesting story,” November 2, 2009.
This idea of using diaries as a form of therapy is a topic Kafka reflected on in his 1910-1923 diaries. He wrote that keeping a diary is one way of reassuring yourself of the changes in your life. “[T]his right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition,” he reflected. “[F]or that very reason [we] have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.”
While it can be confronting delving into your thoughts and reliving past events, it is also an unexpected source of comfort. We can easily become complacent about the past: we wear rose-tinted glasses and marvel at how easy it was, while forgetting the daily anxieties and stress that seized our hearts and pricked our skins. We can be so busy leaping towards the future that we forget to give ourselves a pat on the back for getting to where we are today.
But your diaries remember. Rather than shoving them into a dusty box for the rest of their organic life, treasure them. Put them on your bookshelf to rub shoulders with your loved literary collection. Your diaries should be within easy reach: offering insight and understanding when you need it, but with no consultation fee or retail price attached.