The Dying Breed of Diarists

Everything is fine. I crane around towards the plane window to catch hills and roads become undulations and creases in a blanket; I feel the air conditioning chill my ankles. There’s the usual air-hostess, complete with scrunchie, and the obligatory huge passenger across the aisle, obviously a trial to his companion.

I reach into my bag for that symbol of teenage girlhood – my diary. I rifle through pens, paper-bagged souvenirs, sandy beach reads. I scrabble among hair grips and shells. The contents of the receptacle are tipped onto my foldout table, after-dinner mints from Tapas bars rolling backwards under seats.

Finding the diary absent, I wildly rewind back to the shared seaside family flat, and to the moment I stuffed the thing onto a musty wardrobe shelf in haste. Unable to speak, I vaguely picture hordes of cousins ripping out pages and passing them around.

After a hoarse consultation with my parents as to the next occupant of the apartment, I am assured that the diary will be in the safe hands of a kindly Uncle twice-removed. I sit back, my silly but nevertheless real panic subsiding, and scan over the notebook’s contents mentally.

There’s nothing shocking in it, no “intensely personal” poetry or seedy misdemeanours. Yet it’s difficult knowing that a self-obsessed and sentimental reflection of myself is lying open for anyone to see.

The common cliches of our culture – reality TV voyeurism; the instant gratification of technology; the trend towards therapy as a solution to everything – all seem destined to overtake the dedicated and private introspection that diary-keeping entails. Yet since I could hold a pen, I’ve had a rather inconvenient urge to record.

Jotters held innumerable lists – of friends, enemies, meals, books, presents – even lists of lists. I quickly discovered the allure of the blank notebook, open like a window and seething with possibilities. The seductively smooth bone-white page of a Moleskine still gets me going.

My first attempt at diary-keeping ended badly: a bitter indictment against my primary four class teacher ended up in the bin, gaudy padlock and all. I felt guilty; the secrecy of the writing meant that the only one able to justify and approve it was me. The newfound power and responsibility of writing scared me.

I learned that giving a form to feeling changes its nature. Even now, I find writing a way of controlling an experience. That means some of the less attractive details are skimmed over, and the rest given the rosy glow of short-term hindsight, but to my mind the quest for truth is the duty of the historian and only a mere concern of the diarist, who is really accountable only to herself.

The desire to pin down the moment prevailed, however, and a second diary was begun. I soon realised that by capturing the fleeting and gaining a temporary closure, it is instantly easier to reflect, to regret, and to change.

Diaries can be a catalyst for emotional development. However, they also tend to reveal one’s flaws, trivialities, and the sheer limitation of one’s scope, marking out the fact that original ideas are only ever really old ones in new forms. In that way, no matter how earnest and grave the entries are, you’re reminded not to take yourself too seriously.

Term-time flits past, a rush of weekday associations, deadlines and throwaway remarks, and it goes even faster if you haven’t noted it down. The occasional unrecorded week soon becomes dim and hazy, as if at the bottom of a rock pool, but words make it real and clear. Over the course of a human life, the cells making up the body change and recycle, so that eventually, we are completely different from when we started. The only continual thread is memory.

It would be nice to be people who live continually straining forwards, but some need the occasional backwards glance over the shoulder, and find it comforting to have a past life – or, more accurately, past self – lined up in a row of volumes.

Still, there is a balance.

Beware the trap of rereading, and falling back into a self-created world: you may find it hard to lasso yourself back to the person you are now.

At the end of the holidays, I receive a crumpled package in the post with a stamp from Lincolnshire.

Out it slips, nondescript and dog-eared. As I flick through the pages, wrinkled with bath steam and fat biro characters, my relief is aloof and almost self-mocking.

A note slipped inside assures me that it hasn’t been read, but I realise that I don’t really care, and instead find myself half-hoping that it has.

Perhaps that’s the only real regret of the diarist – the person that is never shared.


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