Why You Need a Diary (Not a Journal)

Last night we were watching “The Man from Earth.” In one scene, the main character asks another character, “What were you doing a year ago today?” His point: just because you can’t remember what you did, doesn’t mean you weren’t there.

I don’t like spoilers, so I won’t share the importance of this remark, but it did make me think, “What was I doing a year ago today?”

The answer to that was easy: my son was married one year ago today. I remember a lot about that day, but I looked up August 14, 2010, in my diary – just to see what I might have forgotten. That day’s entry was sort of sketchy, but what I’d written triggered more memories that I hadn’t written down. I remembered exactly how I felt – stressed, happy, sad, and ready for the reception to begin.

Which is why I keep a diary.

What is the difference between a diary and a journal? Aside from the impression that ‘diary’ sounds more feminine than ‘journal,’ they have different purposes, in my opinion.

A lot of people, including me, keep journals – especially if they write. My journal is a tool: a place to brainstorm, sketch out ideas and vent feelings. I like thinking on paper; not everyone does.

I’ve kept a journal for a long time. When I look at my old entries – ten or more years ago – I always wish I’d spent less time venting and rambling about stuff and instead made more notes about what was actually happening. Angst-y moods will pass. It’s the little things we tend to forget that give shape to our existence – visits, appointments, phone calls, meals, movies, conversations. Details can trigger the memories we didn’t bother to write down.

For the last three years I’ve kept a diary as well as a journal. I write in the journal when I feel like it. I write in my diary several times a day, every day. What I record is quite mundane: I stop at various points during the day, note the time, and summarize what I’ve been doing: 08:06 / working on blog idea re: diaries.

I’m not experiencing any dementia, but at this point there are too many days in my life to remember each and every one of them. Most of the events are not important, but they are my life, and every now and then it’s nice to visit them again. Another bonus: I can settle all those petty arguments about where we ate or what movie we saw months ago; I can recall gifts I’ve given and received, figure out when I last had my hair cut or talked to my mother. No guessing.

A lot of famous people have kept diaries. I don’t believe it’s because they knew they would be famous and everyone would want to read it. It’s just a habit of mind, a way to give meaning and focus to existence.

This is the value of keeping a diary. 

Some planning and organization are necessary. There are many choices for paper diaries, which quite a few people prefer. There are beautiful blank books, practical Moleskines, and ones with tiny locks and keys. I love paper, but I am digital these days.

When I used a PC, I just wrote in Word because there weren’t a lot of options then. Now it appears that there are more. Most look pretty similar to the mac offerings, but I can’t make any recommendations because I don’t use a PC anymore.

Here is a brief rundown of the mac applications I’ve tested:

I use MacJournal for most of my personal writing – both journal and diary. It is very similar to the now semi-extinct Journler. Smart Journals, labels, tags, links, tables, locking, view options (including full screen), and a nice iphone app that actually syncs without problems. A quick-entry window makes it easy to add to an existing entry or create a new one. Very friendly, clean, and intuitive.

Another popular app, viJournal, is set up more like a paper journal, with a ‘page’ for every day. You can name entries, but they are grouped by date. Like MacJournal, it has a calendar interface in the sidebar, along with a list of journals and entries. A couple features MacJournal lacks: a Gallery for pictures and a drawer for notes. It also has a nice iphone app, and syncs very well.

Chronories is for people who don’t really want to write a lot, but would like a record of each day. It can be set up to record various data: weather, computer activity, web sites visited, people contacted, screen shots, and mood. There is a place in each daily page to type a description of activites as well. Minimal, visual, pretty to look at. I found it too structured and cluttered, but can see how others might love this.

I used Memoires for a while before I discovered MacJournal. It has a clean interface and is simple to use. A calendar allows you to click and view a day’s entries. It has a search function, but lacks any way to link entries or group them other than by day. For many diarists, this would be enough, though.

I used Opus Domini, another app, for a while, but found it limiting. Very nice to look at, though.  It is geared towards those who use Getting Things Done, with sections for goals, etc. Some people love this, but I wanted more control over the content and organization.

A very simple approach is Day One, a menubar app that lets you pop open a small window to enter your thoughts. Minimal, elegant, it gets the job done with the least amount of fuss.

You don’t have to keep your journal on your computer, however. There are many online diary sites where you can keep a private or public journal.

Most of the online diary sites have a young clientele – lots of teens and twenties. The emphasis is social, allowing others to read and comment on your entries; like a blog, only less bloggy. A good deal of voyeurism is involved. Most sites allow photos and video posts; some of the entries are explicit.

Initially I was intrigued by the possibility of anonymously peeking into other people’s lives. I quickly discovered that other people have lives as uninteresting as mine, and many of them do not write very well. There are probably stories worth reading out there, but you will have to wade through a lot of “OMG!!! my bf is such a jerk!!!” posts. I say this not because I think my diary is great literature, but because reading these diaries can turn into a huge time sink. If the point is to write a diary, you might need fewer distractions.

I decided against having my diary online. Even though it contains nothing damaging or embarrassing, I can see no point in sharing it on the internet. If you do go with the online option, I would recommend creating a pen-name and sharing it only with close friends and family.

One web diary that might appeal to those who don’t want a social journaling experience is Penzu. Private by default, encryption options, and a very nice interface. Penzu looks like a pad; writing and editing are simple. It has a free version; paying gets you more view options, multiple journals, etc.

My diary will probably never interest anyone but me. I write it for myself and my faulty memory. Posterity may do as it pleases.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jordans222
    Aug 14, 2011 @ 17:54:06

    I love this post. I keep a journal myself, and record just about everything- all the time. I’m sure that not only would it never intrest anyone but me, but also that it would probably bore anyone else to death; it’s filled with such mundane events. I’ve never heard of any of the online journals you mentioned, but sharing everything I’m thinking that I write in my journal is not something I would do. It doesn’t sound like something anyone would do- after all aren’t diaries supposed to contain our deepest darkest secrets? But anyway I just wanted to tell you that the post is great.



  2. Sharon
    Aug 15, 2011 @ 00:08:21

    I love this post, too! Two of us can’t be wrong. I’ve always considered a journal to be an adult’s diary. It’s more of a catch-all for me and I like hearing how other people use them. Well done!


  3. edupassion
    Aug 24, 2011 @ 20:22:18

    I like the idea of separating these two sources. Great website info thanks!


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