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Journals or diaries? The value of inward reflection

Ellie-Jai Williams explores historical diaries and what we can learn today.

The boundaries between diary and journal are blurry, with the terms frequently being used interchangeably. Little attention is paid to the differences between the two – even the OED conflates them, defining a diary as a journal. However, nowadays a diary is considered to be a simple recording of factual daily events, whereas a journal is something more elaborate – a recording of how events have affected the writer personally. In short, journals have achieved a special status because of the emphasis placed on their emotional content.

There are plenty of examples of famous diaries that serve as historical objects, such as Samuel Pepys’ diary that records the Great Fire of London. Many diaries of this nature serve as invaluable eyewitness accounts of living through extremely turbulent times. But what has given these diaries their lasting mark on culture is the fact that they make use of the blurred boundaries between diary and journal, mixing detailed recordings of daily events with the authors’ emotional responses to what is happening around them – people care about, and are impressed by, the emotional content. As history repeats itself and we find ourselves once again living through a time of turbulence and isolation, people are drawn again to the emotional value of journaling. Spending more time alone and indoors, we naturally turn inward – books on self -care are trending more than ever, ads imploring us to learn mindfulness are all around us, manifesting and spirituality are trending topics on TikTok. Now more than ever, we are called to recognise the value introspection and mindful reflection has in bringing clarity to a confusing reality.

But an all-too-familiar problem with journaling is the need to actually make a sustained effort in order for it to be fruitful. (I recall now all the times I’ve proudly stated I would keep a diary this year – only to abandon the notebook on January 23rd, and find it abandoned and dust-covered a few years later). Bombarded with examples of hugely profound and intimidatingly famous journals, we expect our own attempts to achieve the same thing with ease. We are disappointed to find our recording of what we had for breakfast and what we watched on telly with mum does not initially lead us to some profound emotional insight.

Persistence is therefore the key to keeping a journal – but in order to keep us motivated to write, we need a reason why we should persist. I was reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe last week, which I believe can help shed some light on this. The novel is another account of living through turbulence and isolation, though this time fictional. Crusoe’s fictional journal takes up a fair amount of pages; initially, it is tedious to read – simple recordings of measures Crusoe takes to survive after finding himself shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. His journal entry for 26th to the 30th of October is simply ‘I work’d very hard in carrying all my Goods to my new Habitation’, whilst December 25th which states nothing but ‘Rain all Day’. However, compare this with after he has spent half a year journaling: the content has shifted to a focus on Crusoe’s inner reality and his thoughts about the world around him. He begins to ask: ‘What am I, and all the other Creatures, wild and tame, humane and brutal, whence are we?’ and ‘Sure we are all made by some secret Power, who form’d the Earth and Sea, and Air and Sky; and who is that?’. A journal that initially was born out of the need for a coping mechanism eventually becomes an account of spiritual reflections that will subsequently shape the rest of Crusoe’s life.

Although fictional, Robinson Crusoe reflects how a key feature of journals is that they often move, organically, from what is happening around us to how we think about it. In this way, a diary can metamorphasize into a journal the longer we stick with it. Psychoanalyst Marion Milner provides a stunning portrayal of this. Her book A Life of One’s Own takes the reader through her journals on a co-journey to discover what it is that makes Milner happy. However, much like Crusoe, Milner writes that the longer she sticks with journaling, the more her interests shift from ‘what to do with [her] life’ to ‘how to look at it’. In other words, her work moves from a diary to a journal. Upon reading her journals in retrospect, Milner reveals how she now sees what she couldn’t at the time – that ‘the effort of recording [her] experiences was having an influence on their nature’. She shifts from only writing when she believed she had something interesting to say, to recording everyday interactions without any expectation of their insight. And when she releases these expectations, possibilities open up. Milner comes to realise from seemingly unassuming events profound truths about herself, such as her tendency to self-sabotage. She is brutally honest in her writing; she does not write every day – in fact, some entries simply state that she is too tired to do anything at all. Nonetheless, she stuck with journaling, and it eventually transformed into a deeply moving published book. This is because the nature of continuously recording her experience allowed Milner to access deeper layers of significance behind them. Like many examples of journals, Milner’s moves from the mundane to the unimaginable and profound.

Therefore, I believe we can learn a lot from Crusoe and Milner’s approach to journaling: stick with it, record even things that seem mundane, then watch as an unassuming diary grows into a profound journal. And when you ask yourself why you’re sticking with it, think of the possibilities it could open. To bring the conclusion back to the world of Marion Milner and psychoanalysis: if the purpose of psychoanalysis is to introduce you to the person you’ll spend the rest of your life with, yourself, then I’m a strong advocate that sticking with journaling can do something similar.

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