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9 August 2023

Journalling won’t save you

The art of writing our inner lives is being lost.

By Grazie Sophia Christie

When Granta Books reissued Virginia Woolf’s diaries this summer, it advertised them as “unexpurgated for the first time”. I was struck by the word choice. After all, I associate “purging” with the process of writing a diary, not publishing or editing one. Taking up the pen, opening the blank page like a toilet bowl, spilling guts and confidences. The last time Woolf’s diaries were published, between 1977 and 1984, they comprised around 2,000 pages of such intimate disclosures. The latest versions come with new, apparently exciting inclusions. Our eagerness for more reminds us why Woolf’s diaries were always so good in the first place. They had sweep, scope, density, an unsparing garrulousness and self-absorption that, in turn, absorbed us.

This reissue is an apt moment to ask ourselves why, sometime in the past 50 years, we stopped keeping brimming, confessional diaries in the style of Woolf, the ones we like so much, and instead began to keep something fundamentally different, contrived and sterile: journals. 

Social media is crammed with bullet journals, gratitude journals, manifestation journals, dream journals, prayer journals, therapy journals, but very rarely diaries. Certain algorithms on TikTok and Instagram will return endless videos of women filling out templated, “guided” notebooks from the public-privacy of their rooms, where the light is flattering and so are the words they write – not too many, in cute bubble letters, lists and under dedicated sections, such as “feel-good goals” or “wellness maps”. These are a bastardised form of self-help journalling, which emerged during the 20th-century interest in the subconscious, and crystallised as a trend in the Sixties and Seventies.

Such workbooks take for granted that well-being comes in the form of productivity, or inversely, that productivity makes you well; that darkness is meant to be healed, “processed” but not dwelled upon or, God forbid, relished; that the only acceptable form of egotism is improving yourself; that if productivity, healing and self-improvement are the chief ends, the journal habit is our means of reaching them – and so they can be solved without much nuance, like plugging variables into equations. These limitations arise from the way contemporary journals are used: as therapeutic tools. Subliminal and subconscious possibilities are eliminated, probably because they can’t be filmed. Woolf’s diaries belong to an earlier tradition, when diaries were literary, but also confided in, confessed to, ranted to, almost like friends.

The terms diary and journal are almost interchangeable, but have very different meanings. Historically, a diary documents events almost daily, while journals allow for a freer, multi-use page that can be picked up or put down spontaneously, used for anything from jotting down grocery lists to bouts of intense reflection. Today, a diary is for freely pouring your heart out, and a journal is for purifying it, like a performance aid, and as one part of a broader health regimen. I distinguish between the two terms as the before-and-afters of a historical and spiritual cleavage.

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Much has been written about our therapeutic society, and the creep of terms such as “holding space” and “trauma” into the mainstream – sometimes for better, other times for worse. In 1981, the New York Times reported that “Diary writing turns a new leaf”, signalling the practice’s pivot away from its history of Puritan self-scrutiny and Enlightenment individualism, and towards therapy. We began to treat diaries like tools rather than witnesses. This was an outcome of history, of a bundle of trends. Jungian analysts prescribed dream journals for recording and interpreting the symbols of sleep. Ira Progoff’s 1966 “intensive journal” method pushed for three ring binders with labeled sections and corresponding workshops that could yield “inner perceptions”, “integrations”, connections with “your true self”. Aaron T Beck and his Cognitive Therapy of Depression, published in 1979, introduced now-standard CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) protocols and suggested patients maintain a “daily record of dysfunctional thoughts” – so that they could be treated. In 1992, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way promised to unlock creativity through stream-of-consciousness “morning pages” and worksheets.

These experts thought that the right coaching could induce catharsis, that it could free and optimise our minds, but in practice it made our thinking rote and formulaic, our journals too goal-oriented; inputs aimed at outputs. The problem: minds are lawless, but science looks for laws. “Writing is fundamentally an organisational system,” stated another New York Times article, much later, in 2018. Really?

Today’s journal-keepers are mainly in their twenties or teens, younger than Virginia, who began her records seriously at 33. I’d call such journals adolescent, with their pastel themes, instructions and lower-case credulity. But they’re devoid of youthful rebellion, of that blinders-on subjectivity that used to tell teenagers they were the very first to love, hate, sweat, write their feelings. The modern journal espouses a deeply general and prescriptive view of the world, and involves, actually, little writing. In part because they’re designed to be filmed and viewed while being written, and only so many words fit readably on a screen. Their purpose is to chronicle a life that is “#aesthetic” and thus constantly filmable and viewable, even if only in theory. Thanks to this virtual audience, the journal-keeper edits as she goes, catharsis filtered. (Some old-fashioned diary-keepers like Woolf half-expected their diaries to be read eventually, of course, but not until after an intervening editing process, like memoir-writing or death, which in the meantime let them write freely.) But also because journalling has become an action verb, like bathing or working out. It helps us to flex certain muscles, espousing a corporate view of self-improvement marked by predetermined areas of focus or KPIs. Journalling is where self-help tried to live, before the process of journalling itself killed it.

[See also: The politics of free time]

“Bullet journal with me,” one TikTok creator exhorts her 16 million viewers. Using colour-coded grids, she ranks her days from one to five; logs her colds, anxiety levels; assigns her dreams labels like “happy” or “boring”; charts her daily steps, sleep, water intake. Not a syllable is scrawled, but she does have a page for doodles. “It was a four-star day,” she says in voice-over. She is 27. Other videos provide journalling prompts for those, say, devoid of ideas: “Positive affirmations and manifestations”, “Where am I putting myself last?”, “Today’s goals”. Journal-keepers are astoundingly sincere in their magical thinking. They’re convinced that dwelling on nice things, wishing for nice things, treating yourself with extreme niceness will not merely make you feel nice, but might actually make nice things happen to you. They were told “what you write has power”, and took it literally, overdosed on pink and positivity. Above all, journal-keeping can’t be divorced from illusions of control: the productive morning routine, recorded in 30-second videos. Hypnotising in their sameness, depressing in their optimism. Take your coffee how a millionaire does and you too might retire early!

The journal-keeper’s routine goes like this. She wakes up in her micro-shorts. We join her in the shower. She loofahs, dries, stretches. Her false nails go clack-clack-clack. She blends her smoothie. Each of these steps takes longer than writing in her five-minute journal, a social media staple. Woolf sometimes wrote of stealing five or ten minutes for her scribbling, but she also wrote that “the mind must be allowed to settle undisturbed over the object in order to secrete the pearl”. The five-minute journal demands specific secretions only (“I am grateful for…”, “What would make today great?”) on three blank lines, like in primary school.

Woolf describes writing, in her diaries, as “a species of mediumship. I become the person.” The journal-keeper of today is training to become #thatgirl, an umbrella term for an archetype-turned-aesthetic-category. A highly productive, regimented woman, with boundaries, gratitude and blow-out intact. Emotionally coherent, so emotionally simple. She is grateful, so her day is great. Trust the process, the cover of one journal says. She trusts it entirely.

I think of Virginia Woolf writing daily affirmations and I laugh. Because her diaries didn’t function as exclusive receptacles for positivity. They were receptacles, often enough, for her self-doubt. So much so that her husband, Leonard Woolf, in his preface to the first published extracts of her diaries, warned readers: “Diaries give a distorted or one-sided portrait of the writer” who “gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood – irritation or misery, say”. Duly noted! Woolf whines and suffers, grows morose, confesses herself “very jaded & tired & depressed & cross”. Writes sad metaphors: “All the lights sank; my reed bent to the ground.” She doubts her genius, calling her novel The Years “that odious rice pudding of a book”. In other words, she’s funny. She delivers catty, ugly remarks. Most importantly, her diaries are lovingly peopled, while the photogenic keeper of journals caught on video these days looks so alone, doing sit-ups in an eternal loop. Woolf has Leonard – L, so dear to her he monopolises the letter – Katherine Mansfield, Vita Sackville-West, her sister Vanessa, Lytton Strachey, her in-laws, her household help.

She has some routines, but none like the demands of craft. Her diary-keeping is “good practise” for novel-writing. She copies out dialogue from memory, writes in scenes, flexes her skills of description, conjuring one “wet soft vaporous day” after another, afternoons with an “elongated pallid look”. Woolf doesn’t manifest the future, but she worries about it: “I’d give a lot to turn over 30 pages or so, & find written down what happens to us.” Me too. Something that shocks is how much Virginia does. Her novel-writing happens in the margins, in between trips to the London Library, shopping for stockings, dinners and hours at the theatre. It astonishes me when she finishes a book; when did she do that? Virginia keeps her diary. It doesn’t keep her. So she uses the language of liberation when turning to it: “How glad I am to escape to my free page.” It’s hardly the to-do lists and strangling prompting of contemporary journals, which restrict the mind even as they aim to empty, elevate it.

Given Granta’s “unexpurgated” claim, I wondered what unprintable, juicy secrets had been cut from the original diaries some 50 years ago, only to be restored in these new versions. To my disappointment, I discovered only a few remarks and one slim little appendix called the Asheham Diary, a separate notebook Woolf kept in her holiday house in 1917 and 1918, in recovery from a major breakdown. The impulse is to scour it for the revelatory, but the problem with the Asheham appendix is that compared to Woolf’s real diary, it’s more like a journal in the contemporary style. Just a concise—albeit well-written— record of errands, the weather, what eggs cost. Fully Instagrammable; astonishingly flat. For it’s neither honest nor introspective, dancing around the very thing we expect divulged: Woolf’s madness. Which proves my point about staying positive. Even with a mind as bottomless as Virginia’s, it manages to hamper the profound.

Our loss of the old-fashioned diary tracks with other losses. Attention spans. Communities. Our feeling that bad feelings are worth having, understanding, writing about. Journals hold us accountable, but diaries set us free. Diarists raised the human project – aimless self-involvement – to the level of an art form. Journals reflect our discomfort with that, our wish to make self-interest and self-obsession more palatable by calling them self-care. Journalling is the pastime of a society very sure of itself and bored of the individual: confident in the habits that will make us happy, in our collective resemblance to one another, the identical traumas we share, and the sips of water that will save us from them. Diary-keeping asks questions, tunnels through inconsistency and delusion, berates and pities the ego, searching above all for an intimate self-knowledge that applies to no one else. It’s ironic that with all our talk of individuality, compassion and subjective truth, we’ve replaced diary-keeping with a practice centred on its opposite. There’s something about self-help that turns our imaginations into pastel sludge – probably our attempt to generalise, teach it. The lesson might be that we can only save ourselves. We’re all too different. And way too lost. 

But who saved Virginia? The editor’s preface to the final volume of her diaries in the Granta edition suggests that it “can be read as the longest suicide note in the English language”. Woolf kills herself four days after her last entry. When years earlier Woolf asks, “What sort of diary should I like mine to be?”, her answer is something “so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes” to mind, “& yet steady, tranquil composed with the aloofness of a work of art”. Art can’t save you. But it can let you live on.

In 1918, Woolf makes a nasty comment when describing her sister-in-law. “The great machine turns out millions like her every year.” Then in 1937, “How I interest myself!” Of course she interests herself: Woolf is famous, brilliant, important. But what of the millions that are alike? We still have them. I watch them now on my phone screen. They write with markers and I can read their thoughts. They’re not spending their time with the Bloomsbury group, or displaying much talent, but they interest themselves extremely. And why shouldn’t they? “How difficult to make oneself a centre,” Woolf muses. But women now are so good at it. I hate their journals, but I’m strangely, deeply moved by that. Perhaps Woolf and these journal-keepers have more in common than my snobbery would like me to admit. Woolf is always lamenting what she doesn’t write down, “lost thoughts”, she calls them. She worries about “memoirs” and in the next breath, “the platform of time”.

A few weeks before her death, she describes her dinner. Sausage and haddock. “I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage & haddock by writing them down.” It’s the same instinct that makes a young woman film her salad. The hardest thing about life, it seems, is the impossibility of holding on to it, recording it. Watching it slip by. The platform of time. One of the earliest films ever publicly screened, by the Lumière brothers, shows a train arriving at a station in 1895. If Woolf met the journal-keepers of today, maybe she’d disdain them. Or maybe she’d envy their cameras.

[See also: Virginia Woolf’s living book]

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