Let’s look at diaries specifically, because I believe there are a couple of key thoughts to be assigned to diaries. The first question that comes to mind is the reason behind keeping a diary: of course it’s all about writing things down, but going one level deeper an important question beckons:
What’s most important: writing things down or being able to read them later?
Most would probably answer right away that it is meant to be a reminder of important thoughts and occurrences, meaning that it’s all about the reading and experiencing those things once more sometime in the future. This is clearly a reply based on the experience as a writer rather than the reader. Most people are in the process of writing more or less regularly, or recording their lives by other means, like blogs, vlogs, emails to friends, etc. However, the basic concept is the same: everyone thinks that we need these things to remember later on. And that is the motivation to keep writing.
Have you ever read your own diaries? In many cases, the content is either pretty mundane, but often just not interesting (any more). What was a big deal back in the day now pales compared to more recent experiences. There is usually a certain level of embarrassment over the content and most will likely put the diary down soon to move to more interesting items.
Well, let me burst a bubble: while this intention to write and retain is clearly one reason, I believe there is a much more important, underlying, reason for keeping a diary: not so much as a repository of your personal history, but as a means to write about emotions and experiences, in order to help you deal with them.
What’s in there? The good stuff or the bad stuff?
What are we writing down? It’s the personal stuff, right? The things we are embarrassed about and can’t quite tell anyone. The things we are afraid of. The things we feel strongly about. If you think about it, those are the things you may not necessarily want to be reminded of later in life, and most definitely you would not like anyone else to read those pages. Clearly, whatever we write in a diary is not meant to get out, but the point is to write it down. Maybe the point is to clear the mind, put things into perspective, or simply let go of certain horrible things that have happened in life and have left you scarred in some manner.
Of course, if you write about the lovely memories, you want to be reminded of those and it’s brilliant if you can read about them later in life. If, however, you use the diary to write things off your chest, we are looking at a different kind of diary altogether: one that is not so much about recall, but about therapy.
If you find that the latter is the case, maybe there is reason to take another step after writing down. In order to really let go, it would make sense to make those written down phrases disappear, really. Maybe there is room for some kind of ritual that will help you deal better with the bad stuff, like burning the pages after writing them or something along those lines. It certainly makes no sense to keep those texts, pages and pages of bad memories, anywhere near you. The only thing that can come out of this is a feeling of depression and hopelessness.
Good memories are nice to have written down, but not essential: you’ll remember them anyway! Bad memories should be dealt with and then made to disappear: having them lingering with intent at the periphery of your perception (or re-reading them over and over again) is probably not such a good thing.
That brings us to the question at hand:
Why keep diaries at all? And why pass them on to someone else?
Most diaries hold the writer’s deepest secrets that they have decided to keep from their closest friends and family, and often for good reason. If you have spent a long time not disclosing certain things from those people, why would you run the chance of them finding out by accident? There are many ways for this to happen, most likely by leaving a diary lying around, or in the worst case scenario: after you have passed away.
In one case I have come across a lady who held on to her mother’s diaries that had been left to her dozens of years ago with a piece of paper that they should NOT be read. It’s a tricky one: those little books hold the essence of her mother, but her last will (and that’s what it is, really) was for those things not to be read. The question here is to find out why my lady was holding on to them still: out of respect for her mother’s memory and not so much for the content of those diaries? Or out of curiosity? Or out of obligation that she could not possibly throw these books out?
Each one of these and other options hold their own issues and problems, of course. In this particular case we got lucky: we found out that her main reason was that the books were nice-looking and many of them were written in wartime, so there might be some historical value to them. Since my client was more concerned about the usefulness of the books than about her personal attachment, my advice was to find out if a museum or historical society would be interested. Those people reading the books not involve a personal interest in the mother’s affairs, but in the situation at a crucial time in her life.
A way forward?
Suffice it to say, progress was made in that particular case: my client has made up her mind about letting go of the books because she has now realised why she has been keeping the books (not so much out of obligation, but more for lack of an opportunity to ensure that the diaries would make sense to someone) and can move forward and deal with them in a meaningful way.
As you can see, there is more to diaries than ‘just writing things down’. Your intrinsic motivation to start writing informs the reasons for keeping or discarding the writings, after a grace period. As with so many things we keep, emotions take a front seat in our decision process, but diaries hold so much personal emotion that it becomes very difficult to find out what is the right thing to do, and if you are ready for it.
As with other highly emotional items my advice is to figure out correctly what your motivation for keeping them really is: embarrassment, a means to remember, obligation, habit, laziness even? Make sure to find out your REAL reason, because once you are clear about the reasons, finding a way to move forward will be much easier.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.