The personal diary is a sacred space where one can confess their deepest emotions, but it is also a chronological report of the exactitudes of past events that is far better than using just one’s own faulty memory. A diary is like a memoir made by oneself and for oneself. There are many kinds of diaries, of course, like food diaries that are used to count calories or watch for patterns in health, or a dream journal to collect one’s most confusing memories, or an online journal where one can publicly post their inner most thoughts for everyone to comment on. The private diary, however, is the most interesting to me. It is completely uncensored and raw because of the knowledge that it will (hopefully) never be read by anyone but the author themselves.
Diaries were first used primarily as a way of recording events, largely used by government, the military, and businesses, for reasons obvious. But shortly after the common era, they began to be used not just for recording numbers and various affairs, but for personal accounts. Since it hasn’t always been safe to speak one’s mind, especially about things that question government or authority, the diary is a wonderful place to pour out one’s thoughts and feelings without the fear of being judged or prosecuted. It is a place for self-exploration, where one’s thoughts and words can ebb and flow without a care about making sense. It also a place for self-examination; where one can peruse at their pleasure their own patterns of thinking, as well as things like one’s grammar, handwriting, maturation, and opinions. All these things can change, even from one entry to another. Having a diary is powerful, and, in my opinion, puts one above the rest in terms of self-actualization.
One of the most interesting aspects of the personal diary is the fact that it’s audience is not an audience at all. We ascribe these entries to the diary itself, an inanimate object, but for what reason is this? Why not “dear future self” or absolutely nothing at all, and just let the date speak for itself? Personally, I used to title my entries “Dear Max,” a name I had decided on early in life for my first-born son. When it began, my life was simple, and lacked anything too embarrassing or vulgar, yet I still never had the actual intention of sharing it with my future son. Then, for some unwritten reason, on June 19th, 2013 I switched to the standard “Dear Diary,” and began my descent into talking to myself through carefully chosen prose. One example of my rhetorical prowess can be seen here:
“I understand love now. Love isn’t that urge to stalk someone, not at all. Love is when you want what’s best for them, what THEY want, and if they want you, great. If they don’t, you’re happy for them anyway.”- December 10th, 2009
Wait, did I say rhetorical prowess? I meant complete insanity in the form of the (incorrectly used) English language. But that’s the best part of the personal diary, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter how or what you say, because it’s likely not going to be read by anyone other than oneself, and even maybe not even so. I mean, the only reason I look back on my own diary is to find information about myself that I had forgotten, or when I recite entries for my friends to show them how crazy I am when you leave me alone with a pen and paper.
The reason I began writing a diary is uncertain; I suppose deep down knew I wanted to, no, needed to, write. My mind was such a mess, I knew I needed to get it all down before the thoughts and feelings moved to the recycling bin in my brain. Even in my elementary classes I was already high above the reading level of my peers. I had even begun to write stories during class time. However, my diary never came to school with me; it was too risky. I couldn’t have “some peeps in my class” (November 6th, 2006) know that I think they’re dumb!
My first diary commenced at the close of 2005:
“Hey! I hope by the time I wright another one of these near Cristmas Its only November 11th ❤ 😊 plz! Ask mom for fashion feaver doll or a Edgyption Barbie. Love, Andria 9 yrs”
I had bought it from Claire’s (back when they had the deal that you could choose something like fifteen items in the sale pile for ten bucks, which was a steal for little nine-year-old me). Its cover was swathed in a lovely pink fur coat, with a sewn frog on the front. It also came with a lock and two keys, which were quickly rendered useless as I found that the lock didn’t work. The glue that once held pages neatly inside has begun to give way, and sections have since been falling out. The reasoning behind me starting this diary could be as simple as thinking this fuzzy journal was cool, but I know that could not be true, considering I had previously wrote in a pink Barbie diary that contained only a few illegible pages that spoke solely of what boys I liked in second grade. So, the real question is; why did I continue with my journaling? What was I getting out of it that I felt so compelled to keep up with it?
My second, and current, diary began in 2010 after the start of my high school career. It was a gift from a friend that I’d stopped being friends with by the time I’d started using it. It is a shiny red like a Christmas ornament and came with an oddly long strap that was supposed to wrap around it and keep it closed, though I quickly found it was similarly useless to my previous diary’s locking system, and so I cut that crap off. This diary has been much more “mature” than the previous; I kept my handwriting neat and tried to be as grammatically correct as possible. In fact, I wrote on the inside cover “Hopefully, this diary won’t be as controversial as the last and I won’t mind people reading it” (November 14, 2010). Of course, that was quickly thrown to the wind as I started my controversial dance with the devil of depression. “I’m too afraid to be depressed,” I had said on Valentine’s day of 2009, and my greatest fears were realized as I dove into the throws of pubescent despair.
“By the way diary, you’re outside right now!! Honestly you probably haven’t seen the light of day in a while. I’m on the deck, smoking, obviously” July 25, 2016
Unlike my diary, most diaries will never see the light of day, and are doomed to live in darkness inside a drawer, untouched, only to be spread open at the consent of its author. But some diaries have a different fate, some are written not just for self-exploration, but with intent to distribute. There are many differences between writing for a memoir and keeping a personal journal. Rosner Kopf, in his article “The Diary as Literature,” states that “unlike memoirs and autobiographies which recollect and report at some later time in the subject’s life, a diary records events and feelings as they are happening to the writer or very shortly after they occur.” This immediacy not only creates a more vivid and accurate depiction of the event, but has a personal rhetoric attached. The private diary shows one’s raw emotions, thoughts, and opinions, without being censored for explicit content or to save oneself some embarrassment. Those uncut words say it how it really is. Diarists write what they are afraid to say out-loud, and that’s what makes the private diary so unique.
For example, this is a direct excerpt from my own diary, showing that I intended to keep it private:
“Anne Frank is a Lesbian… even I, and I think of myself as highly weird, do not talk about wanting to feel people’s breasts. Then again, I’ve never had the urge to, ha. But it’s not like I’ve written down ‘I want to give John Doe a BJ’ I don’t think anyone is that creepy. Although it’s not like someone, other than me, is going to read this.” – December 10th, 2009
If I had known my diary were to be published or shared, I may have written something like this:
“Anne Frank wrote about some pretty sexual and private things in her diary. I wonder if she is up in heaven really embarrassed about everyone reading her diary. Thankfully, I know I’m publishing this diary so I’m going to delete almost all the good stuff”
See the difference? If you can, you understand that some things are better left unsaid when you have an audience, but also that the “good stuff” is missing. You can write a critical essay on whether or not Anne Frank is indeed a lesbian, but with a diary you can bring in your own experiences, which makes the piece that much richer in content and merit.
This intense kind of intimacy and immediacy makes some consider the personal diary as not a piece of literature. But what makes a diary different from, say, a memoir or autobiography? Aside from the fact that diaries are usually not meant to be published. One of these differences, as explored by Kopf, is the fact that a diary is written as the event is happening and is only from the perspective of the author. This makes it so the understanding of what happens after the fact, or the other information that may completely nullify the argument being made, is simply not there. Of course, since a diary is normally ongoing, we have the following entries to help us comprehend the whole situation. But you will still never have the full story because of the first-person narrative, because in literature, the first-person is often an unreliable narrator. For example, in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne pens a diary that incriminates her husband, and it is taken as evidence by the police for her “murder.” It is hard to refute the dead, and so her diary was taken as fact until the truth was unearthed. But that is precisely why one cannot take something as one-sided as a diary as the complete, unbiased truth. The diary is the same as any other non-fiction piece; mostly truth with a bit of embellishment for flavor.
Anne Frank’s infamous posthumously-published diary is a great example of the diary as literature. Her diary, though originally written in privacy while she was hidden away in an attic during the second World War, beginning at the ripe age of thirteen, can still be considered a masterful piece of prose. Waaldijk Berteke said in his article for the Woman’s Studies International Forum: “Anne Frank’s symbolic value as an innocent victim of fascism should not prevent us from reading her diaries as a literary work. The outrage of her death is in no way diminished by taking her seriously as a writer” (327). Anne left us an invaluable piece of art that depicted not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but the way in which adolescents write and develop.
Though there are some published diaries that hint at the idea that it may be published. To some’s surprise, Anne herself had the intent to publish her diary, having made edits of her diary at age fifteen (Prose 1). She thought of her diary as her “work” as explained here by Kopf:
“Anne used her diary as a place where she could practice her writing skills, both because she found it easier to express herself on paper than through speech, and, more important, because she hoped to become ‘a journalist someday and later a famous writer.’ Her diary was her apprenticeship, or what she refers to over and over again as her ‘work.’”
Anne took her journaling, rather, her ‘work’, quite seriously, which is understandable considering her situation. Anne’s diary was not just the “spontaneous outpourings of a teenager,” according to Francine Prose, who was “convinced that [she] was in the presence of a consciously crafted work of literature” after reading the diary again as an adult. Some even consider Anne’s diary as a “coming-of-age” narrative, which is accurate in the sense that it depicted her growth as a young woman, along with Anne’s “fully developed characters, vivid and acutely observed scenes, careful attention to language, and increasing suspense about the fate of the protagonist” (Kopf 2). It becomes something of a piece of fiction, like Go Ask Alice (which is, by the way, fiction, and not a “Real Diary” as it claims on the cover).
Am I making out the diary to be more than it is? Maybe. But I know that my diaries are my most valuable objects to me, even more-so than my teddy bear, Bubba, who has been with me longer. Of all the times that I have talked to him, he hasn’t written a single thing down! But thankfully, I did, and it is one of my greatest achievements. I do not have the greatest of memories, especially in terms of chronological order, and so having the year, day and time attached to my own recounts of events and various memories is an invaluable superpower to me. It’s like having receipts of every decision you’ve ever made, along with the price you paid for it. And while you can’t return the decisions you’ve made, you’ll always have them to look back on and learn from.
I will leave you with this, the last entry of my first diary:
“This will be my last entry … This entire book is just one chapter in my life. One chapter full of devastating experiences. Beginning before I could barely spell, ending with my first hook up. Getting older, and having it written down, is amazing. My experiences will follow me for the rest of my life. I’ve been through so much in the last fourteen years of my life. I’m proud to have written it down. Most people don’t have diaries and their stories and memories are lost. After they passed, no one will ever know how they truly felt. I hope my story is read. And remembered … I’m not proud of the many things I have done, but I live for experiences and memories and to FEEL. The more things that happen to you, the more complete of a person you are. Goodbye 5 years of my life. We had our memories, and the memories will last forever.” – September 7th, 2010
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl: A Novel. Crown, 2012. Print.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. Contact Publishing, 1947. Print.
Grant, Andria. Personal diary, 2004-2010.
Grant, Andria. Personal diary, 2010-present.
Kopf, Hedda Rosner. “The Diary as Literature.” Children’s Literature Review, edited by Tom Burns, Gale, 2005.
Prose. Francine. The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. Harper Perennial, 2010. Print.
Sparks, Beatrice. Go Ask Alice. Prentice Hall, 1971.
Waaldijk, Berteke. “Reading Anne Frank as a Woman.” Woman’s Studies International Forum, 327-335, 1993