Dear diary: our relationship with written reflection

It occurred to me recently, whilst considering how I like to spend my time that I write every day.

As someone that lives inside their own head, I have always found the best way of making sense of the innumerable thoughts bolting around my brain on a daily basis is to write them down. Seeing musings visualised in written form can often be a great process in settling an anxious mind; you can begin to determine the ludicrous from the reasonable, spot any recurring themes, and gain greater clarity about yourself as a human being.

I still have my teenage diaries which provide me with a poignant dose of nostalgia when I need it. These written accounts serve as the perfect easy-to-access time capsule, featuring printed out MSN messages from the early 2000’s stuck jauntily to my notebook pages, and lyrics from all my favourite songs which chart the subcultural shift from boyband fan to nu-metal maven jotted in an array of coloured (and probably scented) gel pens.

In amongst the lyrics and messages, there was also a great deal of angst. With the benefit of wisdom, I can see that my teenage self suffered from all-consuming anxiety and depression, and her self esteem was nowhere to be found. Societally we are much more knowledgeable about anxiety and depression eighteen years ago as we are now, and 33-year-old me wants to reach into the pages and hold my 15-year-old self tight, urging her to speak up about her feelings rather than pushing them down. We didn’t speak about our mental health back then, and it’s easy to forget just how stigmatised these conditions were. The only place I ever felt able to be totally honest about the darkness in my mind was in the pages of my diary, which I did regularly and with fervour.

My diary keeping faded during my mid-twenties. I traded my analogue ways for Tumblr and kept a visual record of my feelings, finding solace in the online community. This time period was punctuated by big life events, a soul-crushing break up followed by a big move to a new city. It was a pre-Instagram and Pinterest era, so this kind of image sharing was not as commonplace as it is now. A level of anonymity existed in this platform; that I was aware of, none of my IRL friends used Tumblr, and if they did I certainly wouldn’t have let them know my username for fear of them seeing “the real me”. It felt deeply personal, the same as with the pages of my written diary. By keeping a visual snapshot of these years I still get the same sense of who I was and how I was trying to gain a greater understanding of myself as I did when keeping a written record.

The practice of morning pages developed by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way is something I’m now intentionally incorporating into my daily routine rather than accidentally:

“Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages – they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. “

It’s diary-keeping with a reason; purposefully carried out in the morning to help de-clutter your mind ready for the rest of your day. Through Morning Pages I’ve gained clarity on so many issues both big and small, from an innocuous comment that has caused me disproportionate irritation to deciding to end the business I had been working on for three years after realising how unhappy it made me.

Keeping a diary has been the vehicle that has driven me to a greater understanding of myself. It’s a process that has highlighted my strengths and weaknesses, helped me establish unhelpful thought patterns, and gives me the space to be my utterly unfiltered self in a world where filters now dominate our culture. So whether you choose to go digital or analogue, just write it down.

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