I meet people who consider diary keeping as virtuous as daily exercise or prayer or charity. I've tried for years, they say. I start a diary every January. Or I don't have the discipline. They imagine I have willpower or strength of character. It would be harder for me not to write it, I try to explain. It doesn't feel like (in one friend's words) a big fat piece of homework. I write the diary instead of taking exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky. It's a vice. (10)
As a child I tried to keep diaries and failed. Felt like a failure too. Every single time. Each attempt began with a new notebook, likely something cool or pretty. The first page scared me, but all it took was writing down the date, maybe the time and place, and I was underway. Except... There wasn't anything to say. Nothing in my life felt important enough to write down. It was all just my thoughts I knew for sure they weren't worth marring the pages of a clean book. There on the first day I was already stumped. But still I wanted to be writing.
One time I made it through a few days, maybe a couple weeks but then made the mistake of bringing the thing with me to school. Sixth grade. I wanted to carry it with me. I wanted to feel its presence all day long. I wanted someone to notice that I was keeping a diary. A journal. A book I was writing. Of course someone noticed. A boy in homeroom picked it up while I was out of the room. I came back to him reading aloud from it. Kids laughed. Not that it revealed especially embarrassing details of my life. It was all dull. That's why they laughed. Being revealed as a writer turned out to feel awful. That was the end of that diary. I can still bring to mind the red cover, those six tiny, chrome rings, the way it felt in my hand, and even the shape of my awful handwriting. I remember the store from which my brother and I had purchased them. His was blue. Mine red. I can also see that boy, my friend, and the rest of them laughing.
I gave up on that diary, but I didn't give up writing. I didn't give up on wanting to be a writer. I didn't lose the things I felt I was meant to say. I just hadn't found them yet. It took ten years to find even the first one. Ten years of continuing to write.
I do Morning Pages now and I suppose we can consider it a kind of diary. I'm just shy of 1,700 days in a row writing those. It fulfills most of the wishes I've ever had for filling pages. I don't leave it lying around in homeroom any more but neither do I worry much about the other kids laughing.
A diary (even if I call it Morning Pages) is a way to be writing, to keep track of the days, to think things through, to understand, and maybe to share with others. That last bit is tricky. Once written, the diary itself is probably worthless or nearly so if handed over to a stranger. The diary isn't a finished document and it isn't often even a draft but it can become those things. David Sedaris has done it. Dani Shapiro used her journal as a jumping off point. I need to check out Virginia Woolf's diary. And word is that Thoreau's journals are fantastic.
There comes a point in keeping a daily practice such as Morning Pages or a diary when there is no will power involved. At some point, and the point varies person to person, the decision to practice becomes so automatic it goes away. The practice itself does not grind down into routine, but the toughest part, deciding to do it, evaporates. This often coincides with someone else asking, how do you do it? and suggesting that you're amazing, but you and I know better. It's that we've been wanting to write since we can remember and have come to a point in our lives when this is what we do, this is who we are.
Then we pause for a moment, considering, and add that we came to that point so long ago it's tough to remember things being otherwise. We are writers.