Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Assorted thoughts on diary writing

Volumes I to XIII, autumn 2007 to present

I write a daily diary. This is the first in a three-part series about diary writing.

After reading the Diary of Anne Frank at an early age, I thought it would be important to chronicle my life. In fifth grade, our teacher required each of us to keep a writer's notebook, and I distinctly remember one little proto-diary with a blue and brown cover. In it lives my larval political outrage at Bush v. Kerry 2004, a detailed account of a roadtrip to Yellowstone National Park and the wildlife I saw, and my goals for my Pokemon Sapphire progress.

Sometime around that, I received the volume with the blue cats on the cover for a birthday and abandoned my old notebook for it. I abandoned that one, too, when daily writing became a bore. I rediscovered the cat diary sometime in college, where it fell in line as Vol. VIII of my archived life. The first fifteen pages contain the imaginations and ramblings of a ten year-old who hated school, and the rest contains the long-winded agonies of a nineteen year-old studying for the MCAT. The last page contains my score.

I began writing in earnest in August 2007, and then daily in August 2008 at the start of high school. Every day has an entry, whether it was written before midnight, after midnight, the morning after, or in pieces over the subsequent week.

Materials and Methods

I am very fond of beautiful notebooks. Many of the more recent volumes have come from Paperblanks, which have beautiful covers, luxurious paper, and a shocking sticker price. However, it is important to me that these volumes last long, lay flat, and are a delight to write in. Hence, I can justify throwing money at expensive stationery, and am seriously considering buying a fountain pen for the next volume. I currently use any number of pens around my desk to write, but reserve my favorite pens for diary writing.

I write mostly about what happened to me on any given day, anything at all. I don't follow prompts and I don't describe this process as 'journalling,' which is becoming more popular nowadays. I have poured out my heart before, but have also written in exhaustive detail everything I could remember from surgeries that I have shadowed, complete with sketches. During gross anatomy, my entries read more like a dissection manual than anything else; when I was in Germany, it was an itinerary with as much sensory details I could fit in. Memorable patients, memorable places, etc. It varies. I could be more reflective, emotional, and introspective, but those entries are not common.

Rules and Rituals

Over the years, some rules and rituals have emerged. Exceptions are noted if ever applicable.
  • write in pen only
  • begin each entry with the date
  • end each entry with a signature
  • write at night immediately before going to bed, but fill in details the morning after in case I missed something (rarely) -- only under very specific circumstances will I revisit an entry after a day
  • if I am currently writing Vol. n, I am not allowed to read from Vol. n - 1 until I finish Vol. n
  • at the end of Vol. n, I write a postcard to myself to read when I begin writing Vol. n + 7. This began with the end of Vol. VIII
  • include ephemera (ticket stubs, stickers, etc) if they are important or beautiful
  • write legibly, but try not to waste space
  • note the Vol. number on the front page
  • copy a meaningful poem or quote on the back page
  • be HIPAA compliant
  • one entry each day, every day, ad infinitum
Next time: what I have learned from writing a diary, why you may want to consider it yourself, and how it has affected me


  1. That is some amazing dedication! I love the idea of writing a diary but I've always found handwriting laborious and probably wouldn't be able to decipher it later on. Looking forward to hearing more about your process, it's so interesting.

    1. Thanks! It's more out of habit than dedication, though it did take me a few tries to get daily writing to stick long-term.

      Writing longhand does get to be a pain sometimes. I still type much faster than I write, but the very act of writing longhand forces me to take time to consider my words. Also, I'm a bit surprised at how much my penmanship has changed over the years

  2. WOW you've been doing this for awhile! It'll be so great to look back on :D When I was little, my mom got me in the habit of writing diaries. When I was too young to write, I'd dictate to her what to write, and she'd write it down for me. And when I got older, I wrote it in myself. I don't remember how long I did this for, but it was very early on in my life. I definitely was not doing this anymore in middle school or high school. But at the end of high school, I started blogging, which I think is my new manifestation of diary writing :) -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

    1. It's a great habit to have! Diary writing and blogging (not that I do much of the latter) fill two different niches for me.

  3. I've never been able to stick to diary writing, though I've started and stopped a few times since high school. (I really like buying pretty notebooks, but can never stick with using one for any real length of time, eep, so I have a lot of barely-used notebooks.) It would be interesting to look back if I had more of a written record of what I was thinking all these years.

    1. The tangible link between past and present is very important to me. What I choose to write about (out of all the things that happened to me day to day) is also really telling of what I was preoccupied with or prioritized

  4. I LOVE seeing people keep a paper diary, and in such nice notebooks!!

    I have kept a diary since I was in elementary school and I get kind of embarrassed to read old entries...lots of whining and drama LOL

    Quality notebooks and pens are always nice to have; I don't mind spending a little extra in that arena, either.

    Love your idea to write that postcard and not allow yourself to read the previous diary until you're done with the current one.

    Now that I "scrapbook" (not a big fan of that word hmm...) I see the value of adding ephemera and wish I had started years ago!

    I'm looking forward to your next post!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! I agree with you on all points. So much whining and drama indeed, but I do think that writing it out helped me control my emotions and practice restraint in real life.

      I always like finding people on the internet that keep a diary, but I feel a great distance from the "journaling" community on the internet, even if many would describe what I do as "journaling."