in: Character, Featured, Habits

• Last updated: June 4, 2021

The Diary Habit

Vintage man in office writing at desk.

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.


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.


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.


Having discouraged, I now wish to encourage. Many who want to keep diaries and who ought to keep diaries do not, because they are too diffident. They say: “My life is not interesting enough.” I ask: “Interesting to whom? To the world in general or to themselves?” It is necessary only that a life should be interesting to the person who lives that life. It you have a desire to keep a diary, it follows that your existence is interesting to you. Otherwise obviously you would not wish to make a record of it. The greatest diarists did not lead very palpitating lives. Ninety-five percent, of Pepys’s Diary deals with tiny daily happenings of the most banal sort—such happenings as we all go through. If Pepys re-read his entries the day after he wrote them, he must have found them somewhat tedious. Certainly he had not the slightest notion that he was writing one of the great outstanding books of English literature.

But diaries are the opposite of novels, in that time increases instead of decreasing their interest. After a reasonable period every sentence in a diary blossoms into interest, and the diarist simply cannot be dull—any more than a great wit such as Sidney Smith could be unfunny. If Sidney Smith asked Helen to pass him the salt, the entire table roared with laughter because it was inexplicably so funny. If the diarist writes in his diary, “I asked Helen to pass me the salt,” within three years he will find the sentence inexplicably interesting to himself. In thirty years his family will be inexplicably interested to read that on a certain day he asked Helen to pass him the salt. In three hundred years a whole nation will be reading with inexplicable and passionate interest that centuries earlier he asked Helen to pass him the salt, and critics will embroider theories upon both Helen and the salt and will even earn a living by producing new annotated editions of Helen and the salt. And if the diary turns up after three thousand years, the entire world will hum with the inexplicable thrilling fact that he asked Helen to pass him the salt; which fact will be cabled round the globe as a piece of latest news; and immediately afterwards there will be cabled round the globe the views of expert scholars of all nationalities on the problem whether, when he had asked Helen to pass him the salt, Helen did actually pass him the salt, or not. Timid prospective diarists in need of encouragement should keep this great principle in mind.

You will say:

“But what do I care about posterity? I would not keep a diary for the sake of posterity.”

Possibly not, but some people would. Some people, if they thought their diaries would be read three hundred years hence, or even a hundred years hence, would begin diaries to-morrow and persevere with them to the day of death. Some people of course are peculiar. And I admit that I am of your opinion. The thought of posterity leaves me stone cold.

There is only one valid reason for beginning a diary—namely, that you find pleasure in beginning it; and only one valid reason for continuing a diary—namely, that you find pleasure in continuing it. You may find profit in doing so, but that is not the main point—though it is a point. You will most positively experience pleasure in reading it after a long interval; but that is not the main point either—though it is an important point. A diary should find its sufficient justification in the writing of it. If the act of writing is not its own reward, then let the diary remain for ever unwritten.


But beware of that word “writing.” Just as some persons are nervous when entering a drawing-room (or even a restaurant!), so some persons are nervous when taking up a pen. All persons, as I have tried to show, are nervous about the psychological effects of the written word, but some persons—indeed many—are additionally nervous about the mere business of writing the word. They begin to hanker, with awe, after a mysterious ideal known as “correct style.” They are actually under the delusion that writing is essentially different from talking—a secret trade process!—and they are not aware that he who says or thinks interesting things can write interesting things, and that he who can make himself understood in speech can make himself understood in writing—if he goes the right way to work!

I have known people, especially the young, who could discourse on themselves in the most attractive manner for hours, and yet who simply could not discover in their heads sufficient material for a short letter. They would bemoan: “I can’t think of anything to say.” It was true. And, of course, they could not think of anything to say, the reason being that they were trying to think of something to write, and very wrongly assuming that writing is necessarily different from saying! Writing may be different from saying, but it need not be different, and for the diarist it should not be different. And, above all, it should not be superficially different. The inexperienced, when they use ink, have a pestilent notion that saying has to be translated or transmogrified into writing. They conceive an idea in spoken words, and then they subconsciously or consciously ask themselves: “I should say it like that—but how ought I to write it?” They alter the forms of their sentences. They worry about grammar and phrase-construction and even spelling. As for grammar and spelling, in the greatest age of English literature neither subject was understood, and no writer could be trusted either in spelling or in grammar. To this day very few writers of genius are to be trusted either in spelling or in grammar. As for phrase-construction, the phrase that comes to your tongue is more likely to be well constructed than the phrase which you bring forcibly into being at the point of your pen. If you know enough grammar to talk comprehensively, you know enough to write comprehensibly, and you need not trouble about anything else; in fact, you ought not to do so, and you must not. Formality in a diary is a mistake. Write as you think, as you speak, and it may be given to you to produce literature. But if while you are writing you remember that there is such a thing as literature, you will assuredly never produce literature.

This does not mean that you are entitled to write anyhow, without thought and without effort. Not a bit. Good diaries are not achieved thus. Although you may and should ignore the preoccupations of what I will call, sarcastically, “literary composition,” you must have always before you the ideal of effectively getting your thought on to the paper. You would, sooner or later, say your thought effectively, but in writing it down some travail is needed to imagine what the perhaps unstudied spoken words would be. And also, the memory must be fully and honestly exercised to recall the scene or the incident described. By carelessness you run the risk of “leaving out the interesting part.” By being conscientious you ensure that the maximum of interest is attained.

Lastly, it is necessary to conquer the human objection to hard labour of any sort. It is not a paradox to assert that man often dislikes the work which he likes. For myself, every day anew, I hate to start work. You may end your day with the full knowledge that you have had experiences that day worthy to go into the diary, which experiences remain in your mind obstinately. And yet you hate to open the diary, and even when you have opened it you hate to put your back into the business of writing. You are tempted to write without reflection, without order, and too briefly. To resist the temptation to be slack and casual and second-rate involves constant effort. Diary-keeping should be a pastime, but properly done it is also a task—like many other pastimes. I have kept a diary for over twenty-one years, and I know a little about it. I know more than a little about the remorse —alas, futile!—which follows negligence. In diary-keeping negligence cannot be repaired. That which is gone is gone beyond return.

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