How to make my diary not suck?
November 19, 2009 4:28 AM   Subscribe

How to write diary entries I actually want to read?

Life's interesting. But when I try to do a diary I never want to read it later. It's either I ate blah blah or I think blah blah. Got any tips for making the recording as interesting as the original?
posted by mono blanco to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
You could challenge yourself to answer certain questions everyday, questions that you design to elicit interesting answers. Not just "when did I wake up today and who did I talk to?" But stuff like "What challenge did I overcome today?" or "Today would have been easier if I were this person in history and why:" or "three adjectives that begin with the same letter that describe my lunch are:" or "A tagline for a company based on my afternoon would be:"

You know, fun, weird eclectic crap that gets you thinking a little differently about your experiences.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 4:33 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd work on the premise that most things that you don't enjoy at the time make good stories afterwards and vice versa.

For instance, if I break down in the middle of Scotland as it's getting dark and have to walk eight miles in the rain and mud to a pub where I stay overnight in room that looks like a suitable venue for extraordinary rendition, then the next day have to beg a lift 10 miles to the nearest garage and then forget where I've left the car, well, that's a good story that people want to listen to.

If I just go for a beautiful drive and stay in a lovely B&B, well, so what?
posted by rhymer at 4:48 AM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Write about other people you meet, talk to, or think about. Talk about their states of mind, feelings, and milestones in their lives. Their stories do affect your own, and it might be compelling reading later.

Here's a less-likely idea: try to guess the future, how you'll feel, what you'll be doing on a given day. That should be interesting to look at when the time comes.
posted by amtho at 5:00 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Find a few good travel writers and read some of their work. Consider how the events, places and people they write about would appear if you had written about them in your diary style. And then consider what those writers might have done to make events in your diary come alive.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:03 AM on November 19, 2009

In your situation, it seems like there's really a disconnect between what you're writing and what you're experiencing. That is, if your experiences are interesting, then the content of your diary should reflect that, unless what you've written is inaccurate.

I guess that's the eternal problem though.

You could consider the layers of the world, and write about them. I mean, every experience has a nearly infinite number of qualities. Think about your emotions, your physical responses, the people you see, effects of social structures on interactions, symmetries, the effects of time, maybe the beauty of some object, etc.

If you read, well, you've really got some great things to put in a diary. Apply what you've read to things that have happened. If you read a wonderful quote, put it in, even if you can't write about what it means to you.

rhymer suggests that a more mundane experience may be less interesting than an adventure, which is true, but damn, every day there's gotta be at least one thing that strikes you (for me, it's that which is of beauty and decay) that you'll remember at least a little while, and want to hold in your mind another day.
posted by past at 5:21 AM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding amtho.

One thing that always bothers me when reading my old journals is that I didn't write more about the people around me. The other thing is that I clearly wasn't completely honest (with myself). I wish I hadn't edited things out.
posted by marimeko at 5:25 AM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think rhymer is absolutely right. I once tried to write a diary entry about the most amazing meal I ever had, in this really fancy restaurant, on a wonderful vacation... reading over it again, it's the most boring thing I've ever written.

When I kept a diary, my reason for doing so was the cathartic, satisfying experience of writing down my thoughts and feelings as a way of processing them. I wrote in blank books, in pen, and often found that my "composition" was atrocious because I didn't really plan what I was going to write before setting pen to paper. I think that the process of creating these emotionally satisfying diary entries was, for me, a different kind of writing than something anyone would want to read later on. Perhaps you could write your diary more like a personal blog, planning entries to reflect the information you want to record in a way that will be interesting or entertaining to your reader (future-you). You could keep two parallel diaries--one with notes on things you'd like to remember, the other with well-composed entries based on those notes.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:55 AM on November 19, 2009

I tried journaling for years but never wanted to re-read my anxious, dated brain dumps because they were embarrassing/uninteresting with no real substance. I realized that the thing that worked for me was to keep a diary -- a relatively straight-forward account of what I did, who I saw and where I went. Another essential component for me is that I use a very small day planner with only a few lines provided for each day (a 3 x 3 inch box, tops.) It works like a charm.

For the first time I've had complete success keeping up with it everyday because there is no pressure to say anything profound or earthshattering. The little boxes are great because when I have no motivation to write before bed, I just think "well, I only need to write a few lines to fill in the day." Very low pressure and it keeps me in the habit. I usually begin each day with "woke up, ate XYZ for breakfast, was late to work...etc."

I make little observations or expressions of my feelings now and then, but it's not a prerequisite. I also very much enjoy looking back and seeing (literally) everything I've done each day for years. If I'm having trouble remembering details about something that happened a long time ago, these books are TREMENDOUSLY helpful. They've also helped me with dieting to keep track of my eating habits.

It's fun to look back on the day when you met person X (who at the the time you found irritating but who you now love like a sister), and to be able to read/chart the progression of your friendship and the chronology of the events that brought you closer. These trips down memory lane often help me to put the present in context and realize how much I've seen and done and experienced. My diaries are invaluable to me and I hope that my children and grandchildren treasure being able to read about my life after I'm gone.
posted by RingerChopChop at 8:03 AM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings. Think less about proper diary form and just write it. I find that making lists helps in writing nearly anything. Something as simple as "Things I Learned Today." Your list may start out about one thing but reveal something else entirely. Something you may not have noticed.
posted by thebellafonte at 8:12 AM on November 19, 2009

My husband keeps a diary, one line a day that describes what he accomplished. He uses this primarily for work but he also keeps track of some life events this way (vacation, sick, so-and-so came to visit, etc). He keeps this information, along with phone numbers, sketches, and notes in a black notebook he keeps in his back pocket. Given the length of the diary entries, one notebook lasts a year. He has many years of notebooks saved. He refers to them often to measure progress on a job, figure out how long it took to do a task, remember the sequencing of events, etc.

tl;dr - Tips for a non-sucky diary: short entries, daily entries, portable format.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:18 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

You’ve got to remember that you’re writing this for yourself and have fun with it. Infuse humour into each entry; mine are full of cheesy expressions and dumb inside jokes I have with myself. Absolutely do not censor your thoughts – this is not a reporting assignment and nobody is going to judge you for it. If somebody else were to read my journal, I would probably appear to be an incoherent lunatic, but everything I write makes perfect sense to me and it gives me a chuckle to go through old entries. Use colourful language, make up words, write in teen girl-speak, be flippant. I also like doodling in the margins of my journal and adding over the top titles to my entries.

Do you always journal in the same spot? Describe your surroundings. Try taking your diary outside with you and writing from unusual places. Sitting on the grass in the park, waiting in an airport terminal, looking out over the city from a high vantage point. Write about your crazy ideas and crazy dreams. Record funny dialogue and powerful quotes. Celebrate silly little events in your life, like half-birthdays and compliments.

Finally, this is a lovely list of suggestions on writing more interesting, reflective journal entries. Good luck and enjoy!
posted by mossicle at 9:59 AM on November 19, 2009

A lot of letters and diaries of famous writers have been published - try digging up some of these and see what writers were writing about their own lives. It's really fascinating and can help you figure out how to apply your own "voice" to your life.

Also: stream of consciousness, if you're up for entries that you'll read later and go "Whoa. That was... something." It can also help you think things through if your thinking has become muddled. They may be weird as hell five years from now, but probably won't be *boring* to look back on.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:46 AM on November 19, 2009

If it helps at all, I kept a travel diary for a year in 03/03 (self link) Starts here Index here. Of course compliments should come from other people, but I was told it kept my friends amused and in the end it stretched to about 100,000 words. And even now, it provides me with a nice record of a cool year.

Obviously it is rather easier to write amusing interesting stuff if you are exposed to new things every day.
posted by rhymer at 11:08 AM on November 19, 2009

Best answer: I was going to suggest something that bears a resemblance to RingerChopChop's advice.

The Canadian poet and anarchist George Woodcock wrote something that always resonated with me: looking back at his diaries from his 20s, he wishes he hadn't left out/erased all of the details of his life which, at that time, struck him as trivial. Instead, he kept all the loftier pontifications that he wrote. Later, he wished he could just read about the conversations he'd had with friends, the walks he had gone on.

One point to take from this is that what strikes you as good reading shortly after you write an entry, may not be what you'll want to read several years from now. Writing "walked with J." may seem pointless right now, but later, as the personal context that rendered such activities unremarkable gradually changes, that entry might serve as the way into memories you had forgotten.
posted by Beardman at 12:27 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

A picture's worth 1000 boring words - if your diary is electronic, how about putting a pic of the day in there? (It could be as simple as emailing a pic from your cameraphone to yourself / your diary).
posted by Terheyden at 2:43 PM on November 19, 2009

Write conversationally. You're having a conversation. You're talking with someone about it all, whatever your 'all' is that day. Capture the salient of your day, whatever it is that your life pivots around, get that as clearly as you can, you might have to circle around it some to get it to come clear but get that down, get it onto the page/screen/whatever. Myself, I use a keyboard, as I cannot keep up with the flow of thoughts with a pen no matter how I try. I can't keep up with a keyboard, either, but it's closer.

So sit down with your keyboard and write the conversation you want to have, even if it's just with the air. Okay, say you're a boring conversationalist -- write about THAT, and how annoying it is to be you, that your hair sucks, you're always afraid your breath smells like garlic, tell us that you've got gas, or your dog has gas, or your cat, or your wife, whatever. Write about how you hate writing about this, how empty your life is, how nice it would be if you were ________ or _________ and/or what it'd be like to fuck and/or suck ________ ________, and how your fingers would feel sliding your hands down his/her thigh, how your soul would sing, etc and etc.

For the most part, writers write. Write your way out of it. And cut the words to the fucking bone, hack out everything that doesn't belong and/or doesn't take you to the heart of the matter, though editing might not be right for a journal. Well now, start writing your journal on -- I guarantee that if you can capture the salient of your day in 100 words, you're an interesting writer. And the only way to do that is to edit edit edit, cut cut cut, hack hack hack, cut out all the shit, all the drivel, all the crap.

IN ANY CASE, the salient of your day -- if you can accurately capture that, you'll be able to go back to that day and step into it and you'll enjoy doing so. Or I do, anyways.

Have fun!
posted by dancestoblue at 3:38 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My old diary entries (10+years ago) have this problem. Bleh! My newer ones... I find that I love reading them. I might go back to check a date when X happened, and accidentally find myself reading and reading and reading... utterly entranced. It's great.

The difference between my old and new entries is simple: The new ones were written for other people. I had moved far away from friends and family, and so I used a blog as a way to let people keep up with the things happening in my life. So I was writing in ways that would make the subjects interesting for my audience, and ten years later, that audience includes me.

The blog has various privacy levels, so I could write more private things that could viewed by only select people, or by me alone. In this way, it is still a private / secret diary, and it's addictive to read. New friends tell me the same thing - they intend to just take a quick look, and then find that they just keep reading...

So IMO, the trick to writing for yourself, is to stop writing for yourself. ;-)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:00 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all very helpful to me and I particularly appreciate the insight of writing less for myself and more as if I were writing for others. Also the recommendations that I should toss in the daily trivia.

I find I enjoy reading my sent mail, which I think of as ephemera, more than my diary, which is supposed to be permanent. That says something!
posted by mono blanco at 4:41 AM on November 21, 2009

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