I, like my mother before me, have kept a diary since childhood. She was about 17 when she started. I became a scribbler a bit earlier. I was 13 when I received a black and white polka dot book with pink pages and "Sassy" on the front cover for Christmas or my birthday (can't remember which, since my birthday is four days after Christmas). Shockingly, I still have this diary (though the cover is falling off, and here it is in all its unabashed pre-teen glory:
As the years passed, a diary became the one place I could shoot off my darkest thoughts, desires and raging "hormoney teenager" feelings without any negative consequences whatsoever, as well as pass English classes with grades that didn't require lying about my progress. Little did I know that I was already in a sort of self-inflicted training camp that, combined with my freakish love of books, would turn me into the crazy weirdo writer I am today. However, after over twenty years of journaling, I am convinced that the practice is not only good for writers, but for non-writers as well. Yes, that means men too! Though this post is focused mainly on the benefits that journaling can offer writers, I encourage you to read on and see what it can do for those that have taken different paths in creativity.
Why You Should Keep a Diary
It's a good way to stay in good "writing shape."
Basic sentence writing, fluidity, grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc... I am appalled by how many people in the comments sections of social media have no idea how to write a sentence I can comprehend. Even more appalling, if possible, are the grammar police who poke fun at them. This is not only unkind, but it doesn't solve the problem. What can help is reading a lot, combined with regular writing practice. Why not write about your life? Chances are, your kids will want to know more about you in years to come, and a diary might just end up being the only thing left of you when you're gone.
For writers, a journal is a great way to practice dialogue.
By challenging your brain to remember and record interesting conversations you've had with people, you will get to learn how real people actually speak. They need to talk that way in fiction, or they will sound fake.
Consider this brief excerpt from my new YA historical paranormal novel, The Ruffian Redeemer:
"Alright; here is what we are going to do," said Westley. "I am going to take you into the auditorium to seat you. No one will notice you going in; it is nearly a full house tonight. But do not leave the theater to go to the john until the picture is over, or you might get caught by the ticket man. Agreed?"
Now read the same passage, and see if you can detect the subtle changes that make it flow better:
"Alright: here's what we're gonna do," said Westley. "I'm gonna take you into the auditorium to seat you. No one'll notice you going in; it's nearly a full house tonight. But don't leave the theater to go to the john 'til the picture's over, or you might get caught by the ticket man. Agreed?"
Thank God this was the one I used in the final version of the book. Not only does it read more smoothly, but also more naturally. People, especially the younger crowd, say gonna, goin,' doin,' 'til, ya, etc. The list goes on. Think about how people speak in real life. There are many dialects spoken in every language. Learn to recognize them and portray them accurately. It will make your characters seem more real.
Journaling makes writing second nature. Read: EASIER.
No one is born knowing they can write. Well, maybe Stephen King did, but the guy's a legend among authors. The rules don't exactly apply to him. For the rest of us, regular writing helps your mind stay sharp and work out the kinks that scream, "I'm a novice writer!" In a journal, there is no judge but you. No one is there to poke fun at your spelling, poor word choices, abhorrent usage of cliches, or the way you described your mother-in-law's not-so-French-after-all French cooking. You'll be able to look back at earlier entries and think, "Wow! I've really improved." It's how we grow as writers. Practice may not always make perfect, but you can still get killer results that won't disappear like your abs after too many beers. Good writing skills will stay with you long after your youth checks out of the bars and party rooms and into the fuzzy world of AARP and hearing aids. Good writing skills will outlast the longest battery for that hearing aid, as well as your overnight Depends and a naked upper lip.
While we're on the subject of developing high levels of proficiency in writing...you may be a crack shot at dialogue, but your narration may be full of holes. Or perhaps when it comes to world building you were born with blueprints in your brain, yet you struggle with filling that world with characters that don't have the personality of tomato pulp. Your diary is just the place to practice setting scenes by creating highly-detailed descriptions of events from your life, analogies, and good paragraph transitions. Honestly, what writing weakness can't be improved by journaling?
Diaries help you develop your own unique style.
After awhile, the mechanics of writing good prose become second nature, allowing your thoughts to turn to style. Be honest here. How well do you really know yourself as a writer? Are you trying to emulate your favorite authors (and who could blame you?), or are you just doing what comes natural to you? I hope your answer wasn't emulation, because I have news for you: imitations suck. Trying to enjoy a substitute is like trying to pretend that fat-free yogurt is an ice cream sundae. Sure, they're both made with thickened milk and sweetener, but there is a HUGE difference in taste, color, texture, and even aroma. You don't wanna be a wannabe. It's okay to be inspired by other authors, but don't copy them.
Leave a written legacy for your kids.
Diaries serve as raw, firsthand accounts of your life and the era you wrote them in, without media censure, sanitizing, or fluff. Everything there is present in all of its disgustingly honest glory, and you owe it to yourself to leave it as such. This was your life. Ink may fade with age, but not nearly as much as our memories. Keeping them recorded is a great way to look back years from now and remember them again, even the bad ones. Memories shape us. I've written down events, only to come back to them several years later, and it's like they happened yesterday. As forgetful as I am, I don't want all my memories to fade away with my faculties when I start wearing support hose and bifocals.
Helps clear your mind and spot unhealthy patterns in your life.
Every once in awhile, a person just needs to vent, or they might explode, taking out their anger on unsuspecting (and undeserving) family members. Writing out your frustrations is as therapeutic as a psychologist, but without the hefty hourly fee, the gas money spent to get there, and the discomfort of telling a total stranger your most private thoughts.
A diary makes no judgement, has no time limit, and is a great tool for helping you to recognize toxicity in your life. Maybe, as you're going through what you wrote a year ago or even a few months ago, you will see mistakes you repeated over and over that led you to disaster. Or perhaps you've got a few unhealthy relationships that need to end, but maybe you never would have recognized them as toxic in the first place if you weren't recording significant events on paper. For example, maybe your best friend keeps asking you to go to places for a night out...and you're the one who ends up paying. Every time. Chuck her to the curb and give your diary a pat on the back.
If you happen to be an artist, a journal can also be another medium.
If you have the eyes of an artist, you can up the ante of a regular old sketchbook and make it more of an illustrated journal. If you craft, a you have a place to sketch out ideas for projects, or glue snippets of materials you plan to use:
And if you're not an artist or a crafter, you can still do this:
Create a scrapbook of your life.
Journals are not just made for words, you know. I've filled mine with photos, ticket stubs, event brochures, and things you'd never even think of. Everyone loves pictures. With photos being more easy to capture than ever, now you have a place to put them.
Last but not least, journals are just cool.
Have you been to a Barnes & Noble lately? Or Target? A Medieval Fair? Craft stores? Beautiful blank books are everywhere:
Even the dollar store has pretty ones to choose from. While you're at it, get yourself a special pen to go with it. I've been using fountain pens since I was about 10. Stay tuned for a post on why I love using them so much. However, if that Papermate InkJoy gel pen with the cute little hearts on it floats your writerly boat, go for it. If you feel the urge to use a cerulean blue crayon for inspiration, do it. Just write, and remember that there are no rules.
So, what are you waiting for? Grab a blank book and start filling it with memories, pictures, snippets, bookmarks, even an advertisement you like. Just have fun, and let me know in the comments how you journal, and please post pictures if you feel like sharing them!