The Dimensions of a Diary

Given as a speech at Unitarian College, Manchester, in 1989, but revised in 2000.


I'll approach this in three sections: first of all what constitutes a diary as opposed to a journal and a novel, secondly how the diary serves the individual and thirdly how it becomes a subversive social document. I give this lecture as someone who has been a regular diarist every day. Over the ten years of 1980-89 I wrote an open ended diary of which the largest entry in one day was 14 pages, and I missed out writing an entry on the same day only three times. The result was 18,600 pages or over 6 million words in ten years. After 1989 I continued diary writing to this day but not with such long entries. Usually the minimum is an A4 page and three pages is rare. So I speak from experience as well as with some reflection on the first chapter in a 1923 book called English Diaries by Arthur Ponsonby.

The Diary

The diary is not just understood in terms of content, that is periodic news and thoughts of an individual, but also in terms of framework and style. The framework is that of individual authorship and a high degree of privacy. This means that the writer does not show anyone the product of his or her thoughts for a very long time: however, it does not preclude the writer from addressing an imagined reader, and indeed it may help the process of writing to think in terms of an imaginary reader. The main feature of style is a certain spontaneity. This usually means writing at the time the words are thought up: there is, as such, no editing. This can mean scruffy, incoherent writing, that even can even include features like the building up of a point which is suddenly left up in the air as the writer's mind diverts to something else. There is nothing wrong in this, and it is rightly to be expected from time to time in that the diary is open to the risks of immediacy. That is its beauty. But it is diary writing that gives an insight into an individual's mind like no other kind of writing. And it is through this that it gives an insight into the active social world too like no other writing.

But here I want to discriminate between the type of diary that I have just outlined and journals. A journal is much more a prepared document without the spontaneous nature of diaries and it is usually intended for public consumption. Many of political diaries fall into the category of journals. Of course, many have written both kinds of document, such as John Wesley whose Journal was important for public record but who also kept a private diary.

Journals lose the intimacy and directness of diaries, and of course they just do not contain the highly individualist self-criticism and self-ego of diaries. They trade some of the most valuable insights of diaries for form and specialisation of subject. This is all we can expect, and no one really wants to reveal themselves warts an' all within a person's lifetime, and also most of the time we do not want to know just about them but much more the area of the public life with which they are associated. So a politician will write about the cabinet and how she observed colleagues stabbing each other in the back, or the minister will write about the kinds of people encountered and the sermons preached and how she sees her life developing.

Both of these are, of course, constructions of literature, however crude they, especially the diary, may be. They both contain the main life story as one goes from page of page of what has been written. And there are a range of sub-plots. There is often enough to construct the lives of those with whom the writer comes into contact over a period of time, and much tells of the institutions that the author relates to. It all looks in some ways like a complex philosophical novel. However, the difference is that the novel pays self-conscious attention to form with the message and the novel exists only to be read. The diary, and less so the journal, usually pays only unconscious attention to the form of the text as it is being written. Furthermore the diary is not an internally constructed piece of reading material produced directly for consumption by reading. It as much serves the writer as any other reader. However, diaries do develop narratives and and sub-themes - often running for very long periods - but, they are different in that they separate and divide writing from any further reading.

Diaries as Personal Documents

However, relating to what has just been said, the diary like the journal is an item of consumption. Of course, the difference is that the diary is mainly consumed by the producer and becomes an item of self-reflection. One way is that very rapidly after writing, insights can be seen in the style of the text that were not realised when writing. For example, criticising someone else as at fault can display a self-arrogant style; or, the search for a partner displays all kinds of personal insecurities. But this form of reading back work best after some time when the text has gone cold. But the diary also works best as self-counsellor when actually writing, rather like a prayer life, simply through the process of writing and recording itself. Writing the day down is in some sense to lay the events to rest, to pass beyond them, and this does not lose effect even with no intention to read the material again of which there develops a huge quantity.

Now, I believe that for a diary to work properly it should be written every day. Very often, again not unlike like the prayer life, it should be done in one place, like a sacred space. This is a good way to create discipline. It has been for me the kitchen table, on the floor of the foyer at UCM or at home on the living room floor. This aids the process of producing good introspection.

Diaries as Social Documents

Up to 1989 there were 101 volumes over ten years, 1 from 1979, and a few booklets on themes. 1999 started near the end of one A4 book and then there were 3 more and during the next book I began entries for 2000. I hope to begin a book for the new millennium in 2001. Because I have written them I am not going to voluntarily destroy them and they should be around for quite a time. Their writing and drawings too could fall into the hands of someone.

Imagine the day long after Unitarianism has conked out and we are all dead and gone. In a large decaying house, a researcher from a university comes along to its attic, takes my diaries away and uses a handwriting scanner to put the text and drawings into a computer and indexes all the material. What a find they would be!

In them is not just material about me. There is also a passing history of institutions. So there will be all the unsaid goings on about university life. For example, my diaries contain material not just lectures and seminars, exams, conversations and thoughts, but how some students did not sleep in their own beds every night, or the lecturer who slept in the library after going to the pub at lunchtime, and a whole list of internal intrigue. And then take churches and religion. My diaries contain material not just on services, fellowships, and religious discussions but how people create factions and go around stabbing each other in the back. Or take the Unitarian College and how it runs, or doesn't....

However, in 1999, I decided to very slowly release extracts from long enough ago of public interest. The diary becomes a journal. There is no scanner and each selection takes a long time to write. It gives way to other projects. However, the internet is a great publishing method, unforseen in 1989, and so certain selections can appear without needing researcher or publisher.


And that's the end of my lecture. I have said that diaries are written with only an imaginary reader in mind, and are as such different from the carefully prepared journal with a readership in mind, and from the novel written in narrative and style directly for the reader. The diary works psychologically for the writer both in the act of writing itself and later reading, and finally it can become a subversive social document showing how institutions and their people really work. The sociologist and social anthropologist in me never quite lies down.