The Diary Habit

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Editor’s note: We’ve talked before about how and why to become a regular journaler/diary writer. (I like to call it a journal myself, but “diary” didn’t used to have the feminine connotations its acquired in the present day.) Writing in my journal every night is something I strive to do, although I am not always successful. So I enjoyed coming across some witty and truthful thoughts on the diary habit from one my favorite vintage writers: Arnold Bennett. The following excerpt comes from Bennett’s Self and Self-Management: Essays on Existing, which was published in 1918. Maybe it will inspire you to think about establishing the diary habit in your own life.

I

Let us consider, first, a strange quality of the written word.

The spoken word is bad enough. Such things as misfortunes, blunders, sins, and apprehensions become more serious when they have been described even in conversation. A woman who secretly fears cancer will fear it much more once she has mentioned her fear to another person. The spoken word has somehow given reality to her fear. But the written word is far more formidable than the spoken word. It is said that the ignorant and the uncultured have a superstitious dread of writing. The dread is not superstitious; it is based on a mysterious and intimidating phenomenon which nearly anybody can test for himself. The fact is that almost all people are afraid of writing — I mean true, honest writing. Vast numbers of people hate and loathe it, as though it were a high explosive that might suddenly go off and blow them to pieces. (That is one reason why realistic novels never have a very large sale.) But the difference between one man’s dread of writing and another man’s dread of writing is merely a difference of degree, not of kind. And if any among you asserts that he has no fear of the written word, merely because it is written, let him try the following experiment.

Take—O exceptional individual!—take some concealed and blameworthy action or series of thoughts of your own. I do not mean necessarily murder or embezzlement; not everybody has committed murder or embezzlement, or even desires to do so; I mean some matter—any matter—of which you are so ashamed, or about which you are so nervous, that you have never mentioned it to a soul. All of us—even you—have such matters hidden beneath waistcoat or corsage. Write down that matter; put it in black and white. The chances are that you won’t; the chances are that you will find some excuse for not writing it down.

You may say:

“Ah! But suppose some one happened to see it!”

To which I would reply:

“Write it and lock it up in your safe.”

To which you may rejoin:

“Ah! But I might lose the key of the safe and some one might find it and open the safe. Also I might die suddenly.”

To which I would retort:

“If you are dead you needn’t mind discovery.”

To which you might respond:

“How do you know that if I was dead I needn’t mind discovery?”

Well, I will yield you that point, and still prove to you that your objection to the written word does not spring from the fear of giving yourself away. The experiment shall be performed under strict conditions.

Empty your house of all its inhabitants save yourself. Lock the front-door and the backdoor. Go upstairs to your own room. Lock the door of your own room. Pile furniture before the door, so that you cannot possibly be surprised. Light a fire. Place the writing-table near the fire. Arrange it so that at the slightest alarm of discovery you can with a single movement thrust your writing into the fire. Then begin to write down that of which you are ashamed. You are absolutely safe. Nevertheless you will hesitate to write. And you will not have got very far in your narration before you find yourself writing down something that is not quite so unpleasant as the truth, or before you find yourself omitting some detail which ought not to be omitted. You will have great difficulty in forcing yourself to be utterly frank on paper. You may fail in being utterly frank; you probably will so fail; most people do. When you have finished and hold the document in your hand, you will start guiltily if the newly moved furniture creaks in front of the door. You will read through the document with discomfort and constraint. And you will stick it in the fire and watch it burn with a very clear feeling of relief.

Why all these strange sensations? You could not have been caught in the act. Moreover, there was nothing on the paper of which you were not fully aware, and which you had not fully realised. Nobody can write down that which he does not know and realise. Quite possibly the whole matter had been thoroughly familiar to you, a commonplace of your brain, for weeks, months, years. Quite possibly you had recalled every detail of it hundreds of times, and it had never caused you any grave inconvenience. But, instantly it is written down it becomes acutely, intolerably disturbing—so much so that you cannot rest until the written word is destroyed. You are precisely the same man as you were before beginning to write; naught is altered; you have committed no new crime. But you have a new shame. I repeat, why? The only immediate answer is that the honest written word possesses a mysterious and intimidating power. This power has to do with the sense of sight. You see something. You do not see your action or your thoughts as it might be on the cinema screen—happily!—but you do see something in regard to the matter.

II

The above considerations are offered to that enormous class of people, springing up afresh every year, who say to themselves: “I will keep a diary and it shall be absolutely true.” You may keep a diary, but beyond question it will not be absolutely true. You will be lucky, or you must be rather gifted, if it is not studded with untruths. You protest that you have a well-earned reputation for veracity. I would not doubt it. When I say “untruths” I do not mean, for instance, that if the day was beautifully fine you would write in your diary: “A very wet day to-day; went for a walk and got soaked through.” I am convinced that you would be above such lying perversions. But also I am convinced that if a husband and wife, both as veracious and conscientious as yourself, had a quarrel and described the history of the quarrel each in a private diary, the two accounts would by no means coincide, and the whole truth would be in neither of them. Some people start a diary as casually as they start golf, stamps, or a new digestive cure. Whereas to start a diary ought to be a solemn and notable act, done with a due appreciation of the difficulties thereby initiated. The very essence of a diary is truth—a diary of untruth would be pointless—and to attain truth is the hardest thing on earth. To attain partial truth is not a bit easy, and even to avoid falsehood is decidedly a feat.

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