Everyone should keep a diary

Smartphones can make written records seem quaint. But they don’t capture everything

June 12, 2023
“Schreibender Knabe” (1908) by Anker Albert. Image: Painters / Alamy Stock Photo
“Schreibender Knabe” (1908) by Anker Albert. Image: Painters / Alamy Stock Photo

Who keeps a diary these days? Really—can you be bothered? It’s so easy now to record our lives visually that the written record seems redundant and somewhat quaint. An evening out with friends is easily glossed with some photographs of what you ate, what you drank, a grinning selfie against a pretty background. In my case there may also be an image of my own foot and another of the inside of my hand—but the glitches can be deleted and the encounter smoothly memorialised in an attractive package. A few months hence your smartphone will turn it into a film, set it to music and offer it back to you as something heroic, or poignant, or lovable, depending on your preferred soundtrack (recently my phone invited me to watch a film called “Miranda through the years”, a bittersweet experience). The memory is beautifully complete.

The optics are, at any rate. But what about everything that happened on the other side of your eyeballs? The way you noticed one friend’s hand shaking as she raised the glass, or how the waiter reminded you of Clint Eastwood; the many things you thought about as your mind drifted from the scene.

Recently I published a memoir, The Writing School, which is about the reasons why people want to write and tell their “story”. The book is also partly about my own story, specifically the suicide of my brother when he was 25 and I was 15, and its repercussions years later. Writing about that meant trying to remember what it was like to be a bereaved teenager. Luckily, I didn’t need to reconstruct the experience, because the evidence was in a diary that had lain unopened at the bottom of a drawer for decades. It was really embarrassing reading it again: there were pages and pages about fancying boys, getting drunk at parties and going shopping for lip-gloss. And then, to my surprise, there were pages in which I described late night conversations with my brother, who told me that he was depressed, and later, with my broken-hearted parents. These pages were a revelation because they recorded all kinds of things I had forgotten. In an act of self-protection, perhaps, I had expunged them from my memory or remembered them quite differently from the way they were set out in my diary.

Cognitive psychologists have shown that our memories are more malleable than we realise. Elizabeth Loftus, among others, has found that “the alteration of recollection appears to be a fact of life”. We seem to remember not an event itself, but the last time we remembered it. So memories become copies of other memories. They lose their shape which is doubtless why, as the Queen (memorably) put it, recollections may vary. 

Christmas book roundups used to include at least one hefty volume of diary, usually by a politician, often Alan Clark, Tony Benn or some other figure who has been clever enough to record their daily experience of a particular time—Chris Patten on the Hong Kong handover; Bernard Ingham on working as Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary. Nowadays the juicy details that might have been saved for a diary get blurted out on WhatsApp, and so much energy generally is expended on social media that nobody feels like settling down to record their thoughts at the end of the day. For those who do, the practice has been repackaged as “journalling” and requisitioned by the wellness sector. Written diaries seem doomed to go the way of written letters. Yet a regular (not necessarily daily) diary habit is useful because it records the way you were, and how you thought, at a given moment in your life. Your memory will pretend to do the same and so will your smartphone. Don’t trust either of them.