Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition
Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition

“I find it difficult  to write each day, but if I don’t I’m swamped with guilt. Where does the compunction come from?,” wrote Derek Jarman in a diary he started after moving to the Prospect Cottage on the bleak coast of industrial Dungeness. The diary, called Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman, was first published by Century in 1991, three years before his death. I can certainly relate to Jarman’s sentiment, having been writing a journal for well over a decade. I don’t write every day but keeping a journal is a necessity I don’t question. It’s an integral part of my life. I believe that once you’ve started writing a journal, it’s hard to stop. The famous French-American writer Anaïs Nin, whose several volumes of published journals span more than 60 years, was at a time believed to have an addiction to the diary, which various people, including her mother, therapists and friends tried to cure her from. Fortunately, for all Nin’s readers, they didn’t succeed.

Apart from my own writing, I have always been interested in the diaries of other people. And there’s a lot of reading material to choose from, for people have had the urge to take notes of things that happen to them and how they feel about it for centuries. Marcus Aurelius, the famous Greek philosopher and the head of the Roman Empire (161–180 CE), used his journal not only to keep track of events but to analyse his emotional responses to all the daily challenges he had to face and to exercise his ability to defeat bouts of depression. Earlier this week I went to the V&A Museum of Childhood to see a very interesting display of diaries dating from 1813 to 1996, borrowed from The Great Diary Project archive at Bishopsgate Institute. The Project was initiated by historian Irving Finkel who has been rescuing and storing found and unwanted diaries in his British Museum office. The idea of the project, as we can read on the website, is to “collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

It will be indeed interesting in 100 years’ time to see the records of everyday life in the 21st century. But Finkel’s successors will have an infinitely more complicated job processing the diaries of our time because today, unlike the Victorian era, we have far more mediums and tools for documenting our lives than a notebook.

The Feltron 2010/2011 Biennial Report | Image from www.bldgwlf.com (fair use)
The Feltron 2010/2011 Biennial Report | Image from www.bldgwlf.com (fair use)

Thanks to a whole variety of software and apps, we are witnessing a growing interest in recording personal data, our thoughts and the environment in a digital form. Written journals have a long history and they still exist, though a hard-bound notebook with a padlock and a key has been largely replaced by a Word document and a blog with a password. I have written a little bit about Facebook and its TV-like obsession to share the most mundane things from one’s life with friends and strangers in a recent post, but what I have been thinking more about recently is not merely the sharing but the act of recording. One of the major changes that have been taking place the last decade, is that people have become more visual-oriented when documenting life. After the expansion of blogosphere, we were introduced to sites such as Flickr, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and many more, where photos, statuses, “checking in” are all part of the modern visual documentation. Even a photo-less status (“Enjoying a latte in Hyde Park”) works more as an infographic which enables people to immediately translate it into an image in their heads. And indeed, sometimes it’s not even words but a smiley face. The type of recording that goes on social media is by its nature dictated by potential viewer’s response; it’s less about an intimate account of our experiences and more about carving a mark in a cybertree. The kind of photos most people take and upload are usually non-ambiguous statements which everyone can relate to, whereas textual information remains simplified enough to conceal the complexity of the experience that goes within.

Still, there are people who escape the modern standards of online visual journals, recording things which reveal more about their personality. Needless to say, I find those a lot more interesting. But obscure and ambiguous photos and statements requiring people to engage with and process the information don’t gain popularity exactly for the same reason as Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations will never have as many readers as celebrity ghost-written autobiographies.

“Take Notice: All persons who look at this diary without my leave, are Beastly Sneaks,” wrote on January 25th 1886 Godfrey Williams, whose diary is presented as part of The Great Diary Project at the V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition. The archivist tells us though, that the Godfrey’s further diary entries suggest that he was hoping for the Beastly Sneaks to eventually look into his diary. People who write blogs often prefer to preserve anonymity, hiding under nicknames, but there are plenty of those who are happy to share facts from their lives with strangers, just like a lot of people do on Facebook and Twitter. Written diaries, though traditionally equipped with padlocks, which implies strict privacy, are often given to the next generations or published – or happily donated to Irving Finkel’s project. So is a diary ever meant to be private or isn’t there always a potential reader in mind?

Anais in Paris by Mardou
Anais in Paris by Mardou

The tension between revealing and concealing when recording one’s life is a fascinating topic and people approach this in various ways. Anaïs Nin, mentioned earlier, who wrote a journal from the age of 11 until her death, kept two different versions of journals, the expurgated (i.e. self-censored) version and one that was much more explicit. What was discovered later by one her biographers, was that she fantasised and lied in both. But it doesn’t change the fact that both versions are a fascinating read and a great insight into the writer’s character and life, which, despite the made-up adornments, remains mostly undistorted.

I can’t remember whether I had already discovered Anaïs Nin when I started writing my own journal at the age of 13, but throughout my teenage years until mid-20s, she was a major inspiration for my writing. My journals have so far been kept private but if I ever have grand-children, they will be the first readers and guardians of all the notes I’ve gathered.

In the past, my journals used to be scrap-book-like, with doodles and bits and pieces stuck on the pages, but in the past six years I’ve limited myself to words, perhaps as a counterbalance to the visual quality of my art work. However, on a few occasions I did keep visual diaries too, alongside the written journals. They were hand-drawn, cartoon-like attempts at capturing the essence of a day or the feel of it. Here, the inspiration came from Frida Kahlo, whose very expressive painted journals I read with fascination.

But drawing takes time, and at some point I abandoned those. Yet the need for visual documentation has remained. These days, when I write not more than once or twice a week, I feel I want to record each day somehow. And while my journal entries are long and descriptive (often around a thousand words in length), I want the every-day journal to be a collection of selected moments, more or less obscure but memorable and meaningful to me. After wondering about the medium for it (I decided against a notebook for fear of abandoning it), I have finally decided to set up a Tumblr page.

What is the point of keeping a journal? For a long time, when I restricted myself to written diaries, the agenda was clear: self-analysis. Journals help me arrange thoughts and feelings, and avoid the mistake of romanticising about the past. I don’t always remember accurately how I felt about a particular situation or experience, and going back to its record is the perfect way to check the facts against my distorted memories.

But the visual journal is something different. It’s almost like adding a significance to the day. Recently, someone I knew passed away: A lovely, cheerful and incredibly kind girl, only a year older than me, lost her battle with cancer. She had a heart-breaking goodbye on Facebook where she was describing how 18 years ago she nearly died of leukaemia and so she always felt she had been given a second life, which she tried to live as fully as she could. It is not the first young person I have known personally who have departed much too soon from this life. Experiences of this kind bring up the clichéd, yet very true memento mori/carpe diem reminders. Tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. And there is no guarantee that it will.

While in my in-depth written entries I often travel between the past and the future,  in the visual journal I want to focus on today, recording something about it without the slightest need to be descriptive.

That said, my written journals aren’t exactly detailed and exhaustive in their descriptions either, for they often focus on a particular problem. The matter-of-fact documentation of my life happens in the second time of journal – a daily log.

This one is the most dry collection of data and figures, such as the time I got up and went to bed, activities during the day, vitamins or painkillers I took, my menstrual cycle, my mood. While written journals are quite philosophical and auto-analytical, the log is factual. This kind of recording is part of a trend called The Quantified Self that is currently gaining more and more popularity.

QS is a movement which incorporates technology into data acquisition on aspects of our daily life such as the food we eat, the medication we take, the amount of sleep we have, the emotional state we’re in, and our performance (mental and physical). Self-mentoring can include wearable sensors and computers and is known as life-logging. The aim of QS is to get to know ourselves better and improve the quality of our life through self-tracking. The process consists of two elements: collection and analysis of data.

The only issue here is that while people can be quite meticulous about recording data, they are often casual about analysing them. At Quantified Self meet-up groups I go to, I often come across people whose goal is to find or invent apps that will do the analysing for them. While that is a reasonable quest when one is tracking insulin and cortisol levels, the subjective type of data (mood, efficiency, even sleep – for there is no objective value of optimal sleep for everyone) most certainly requires manual analysis and reflection.

All the different types of modern diaries: written, visual and data-based all serve different purposes. Perhaps that’s why I recognised the need to keep them all. But everyone is different and has their own approach to recording life moments, thoughts, feelings, and facts. Notebooks, blogs, Tumblr and Instagram pages, Excel spreadsheets, smartphone apps are only tools that can be shaped into our needs. It is worth remembering though, that if we care about the ability to understand past notes, photos, and experiences, it might not be enough to just take a snapshot or write a generic one-line status. Without a more personal description and analysis, we might end up with enigmatic records such as the one from a diary at the V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition, where under 27th May 1950, a girl wrote “My unluckiest day.” Why? That we will never find out.

Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition
Photo of a diary from The Great Diary Project exhibition