Why do people write diaries?   Are they truthful?   Are they worth reading?

I read once some learned person’s views (sorry, he was too much of an expert to have mere opinions like the rest of us – he wrote Explanations.)
So, the reasons he offered were a) diarists write because they are lonely;  b) because they have had a difficult childhood, and c) because they do not have a strong sense of personal identity.

Bowing before the Professor’s superior wisdom, I acknowledge that these might all be reasons why diaries are written.    However, as a lifelong diarist, I do not think they are the principal reason why I write them.   Although in some senses I was isolated in my childhhood – my parents did not pursue a normal social life and I can distinctly remember each time we had visitors to the house as it was so rare an event;  bringing other children home to our house was unthinkable – yet for all that, I craved solitude.   I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘lonely ‘ – I’m with Smilla (Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by                            )
) in that my spirits rise at the prospect of a few hours alone.     I’ve never had any problems in finding companions, female or male;  and in my childhood there was always Eugene who was a fine and lovely brother.    As must be quite clear to any reader, I have a very strong sense of identity.   I suppose some people would categorise our childhood as ‘difficult’ but I was not unhappy.     Whose childhood is a golden odyssey of delight anyway?   I recently saw the film, The King’s Speech about King George VI, and if it was historically accurate, his childhood was utter misery compared with ours and he was a future king  of England.       So, plenty of people have difficult childhoods but few of them go on to be diarists (or kings, for that matter.)

I write a diary because I enjoy the writing.   I’ve always been interested in words.   I can remember repeating to myself the phrase ‘Suez Canal’ and savouring the exotic unfamiliarity of the word ‘Suez’.    For me, the writing is part of the thinking process.   There is a sense that things haven’t completely happened to me until I write them in my diary.   Also you have to decide, to conclude, to think about what happened and that clarifies your opinion and indeed commits it to your memory banks.   It also sharpens your powers of observation, because you flag things that occur, to enter in your diary.

Although I have always written diaries, I periodically destroyed them, and I hold them now since 1980.

I find the actual process of writing my diary a pleasure, and even though when travelling I write a hand written version, on my return I fall on my desk and computer as if into the arms of an old friend.

Are diaries worth reading as an historical record?   Well, they are of course a primary source.   The witness of the younger Pliny of the volcanic explosion at  Pompei – how they rowed for their lives into the bay ‘pursued by a horrible cloud’, or Samuel Pepys account of the Fire of London shine out for us cross the centuries  as a vivid and contemporary witness.   Otherwise relatively dull people can be briefly illuminated by powerful emotions – as with John Evelyn on the death of their son: ‘Now is all joy and pleasure ended for us in this world’.

Often the diary gives an unwitting testimony.   It is necessarily limited because you look only through the eyes of the writer, who records what is important to her but may entirely overlook important matters that do not interest or concern her.    (Reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries – so marvellous in their use of metaphor – one would hardly be aware that the first world war was taking place.)    The monstrous selfishness of Queen Victoria (and that in a sanitised version edited by some dutiful daughter with nothing better to do) is quite staggering to contemplate and her diary is in my view an
unwitting testament for the case against the monarchy.

Are they truthful?    I would think that most people would write what they understand to be the truth – at that moment – in their diary.     But while truth is not relative, people’s perceptions are, and reading Peter Mandelson’s account of his time in office, he describes himself as a calm, reasonable, thoughtful, considerate fellow.    Other people describe him as having hissy fits, slamming doors, threatening others, devious, cunning, manipulative, self-serving.   You have to form your own opinion.      So, the reader has to use discernment.

But at least their diaries were readable.   In spite of repeated attempts, I’ve never been able to read Richard Crossman’s diary beyond page 40.    On the other hand, you haven’t to allow yourself as a reader to be beguiled by someone’s wayward charm – such as the entertaining and engaging – but not entirely admirable – Alan Clark.

Then there is the fact that the diary is ‘of the moment’.   I don’t correct mine on principle.  But if some of my remarks written in irritation were extrapolated, they would not give my considered opinion on that matter.   In fact if you read the diaries, you can see opinion gradually being formed into something more reasonable ad detached.    Then of course two people may view the same event quite differently, though neither is ‘wrong’.   I notice my account of an event in our childhood is always more ‘upbeat’ than Eugene’s.   He tends to view things in a more detached socio-economic-cultural style.   His eye for beauty and love of wild things is expressed through his photography.     As for what we write about our childhood, the facts are more or less the same.   He is not incorrect.   I tend to concentrate on what I think and feel with blithe indifference to the wider  implications.   I am sure his view would be of more value to historians.

I think to write a long term diary, like Victoria, you require Vanity and Ego.   Even though you don’t intend to publish them and hardly ever re-read them, on some level you think your thoughts are worth recording.   It is a demanding undertaking to which you devote time and energy every day.   The physical diaries have to be ordered and cared for.

Although personally I almost never re-read my diaries, I do not think it is true to say that the diarist is not aware of some possible, eventual audience out there somewhere (possibly in the future when your nasty comments on people, all the more lethal because true, will be of no concern of yours.)   So,
though the diarist may appear to be revealing, that is not to say they are revealing the whole of themselves.   People quite often say to me, ‘You always know where you are with you…’ and I think, No, not really…   I almost never reveal the whole of my thoughts, and there are matters of significance to me which never appear in my diaries at all.     I have often thought that I could never take the American oath of allegiance (supposing one should want to), which I
believe includes the words, ‘without mental reservation’.   I ALWAYS have mental reservations.   Re-reading the diaries prior to storing them, there are slightly uncomfortable passages where, with hindsight, you can see that you were becoming aware, at some level, of developments which you had not yet acknowledged consciously.      In retrospect it’s all clarion clear, you wonder why it took you so long to understand it.   This makes rather alarming reading, as if pages were filling themselves up in your diary but you hadn’t written them.

So, why do people write diaries?  For many reasons.   Are they truthful?   Possibly, in part.     Are they worth reading?   Depends on the writer and the reader.


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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