I don’t remember how I felt or what I was thinking on any particular day more than a couple of weeks ago – and I have no way of recalling it. Liz Beardsell does. The 39-year-old has kept a regular diary since she was 12, which means she now has more than 9,000 entries, as she points out in the introduction to her podcast Diary, She Wrote, which just finished its second series.
In each episode, Beardsell, an events producer, reads a curated selection of her diary entries aloud. Before she made a podcast, she read excerpts of her diaries at spoken-word events – and, happily, the warmth of her Stockport accent and natural charm is just as audible through a pair of headphones as I imagine it would have been in a cosy London pub. Her voice has a gentle excitement about it, but is never overbearing; like her diary, it can move between the light-hearted and the serious with ease.
Some episodes span just a few days of entries – an action-packed weekend on a solo holiday to Paris, for example – while others tell stories pieced together from two decades’ worth of entries. In one, Beardsell dwells on the death of her father when she was a teenager, and considers how her relationship with grief has evolved since. Each is relatable in the truest, most joyous sense.
I have been drawn to Diary, She Wrote lately not just because I am inordinately nosey, but because I have an on-off relationship with diary writing myself. I kept diaries – tacky notebooks, always with a flimsy, easily breakable lock and key – intermittently during my school years, but without patience or any real dedication. I would spend hours copying down text messages from my first boyfriend, and then let months go by before I considered opening the journal again, when I would describe the disagreements that tore through my friendship group, leaving half of us in tears every lunchtime.
I didn’t write consistently, and I never tended to the small, ordinary, daily things I most wish I remembered now. I never thought to write about how I found the service at my local Pizza Hut, as Beardsell does, or about the H&M jeans I dreamt about for weeks.
[see also: Annie Ernaux and the brutal art of memoir]
In truth, I am envious of Beardsell, who has a record of every significant event of her life and more, ready and waiting for her to dip into at any moment: to browse, remember and smile – or cringe, as the case may be. As someone with a poor long-term memory, the idea of having such an archive, neatly kept and organised, is immensely desirable. There is no practical reason why I’d ever need a record like this, but as someone who enjoys lists and thoroughness, and who has a desire to preserve memories I would otherwise never be able to hold in my head, I find the idea comforting.
It’s too late for my archive to ever be complete, of course. But, inspired by Beardsell, I have decided to start one, and have kept a daily diary during this second lockdown. I belatedly realised lots of people seemed to be doing the same during the first lockdown – evidently spurred by the thought that we are living through history: we must document it! – and felt annoyed at myself for missing the opportunity to write an account of those strange months. I have already forgotten what they were like.
I’m late to the game, but I now fill a page or so of an A5 notebook with descriptions of what my work consisted of each day, what I cooked, whether I ran, which friends I talked to, what I read, how bored I was feeling. These are not scandalous details – there really is very little happening in my life at the moment – and I doubt anyone else would find anything of interest in what I write (which is, in a sense, a relief, given the pressure that comes with writing for a magazine for work). But it is satisfying to know that I have recorded something about every day, and that, if I wanted, I could one day look back at my entries, as an aid for remembering, and for distinguishing one day from the next.
Beardsell says she finds keeping a diary “extremely restorative and beneficial”. She has, of course, also created a very good podcast out of her diary-keeping. But, since podcasts weren’t around when she was 12, this wasn’t, and it seems still isn’t, her overall objective. For Beardsell, it is the act of writing that is significant. And while I’ll admit a diary is certainly cheaper than therapy, it is not so much the writing itself but the knowledge that I have written something which will exist outside my own head that appeals to me.
Writing your feelings down is a proven mindful practice. But the reason I have, until now, never been able to keep a regular diary is because the pressure to consistently find the time to write is itself stressful – therefore diminishing any therapeutic effect. I berate myself when I forget to write an entry for a couple of days in a row and so have to play catch-up, because the longer I leave between an event and writing about it, the fewer details I remember accurately. I have let myself down, I think, if I don’t commit everything to paper; I am not preserving as much as I could.
But a lockdown diary feels achievable: I do, finally, have the time. I know I can spare 15 minutes before I go to bed. The irony, of course, is that I only have the time to write in my diary daily because I don’t have much else to do; and this means I have relatively little to write about. How exciting it will be, I think, when I have days full of seeing friends and exploring new places to write about. But when those days come, how will I find the time to write in my diary at all?