The Diary Habit by Arnold Bennett

One of the key pieces of advice that comes through in Bennett’s diary is to always carry a pen and paper. This way, you can keep track of all your thoughts and ideas as they happen so that you don’t forget anything important later on. If you find yourself constantly writing out your thoughts in notebooks or just not getting any work done because it seems like too much effort, this might be worth considering for some people.

Note from the editor: We’ve already discussed how and why to become a regular journaler/diary writer. (I like to refer to it as a journal, but “diary” didn’t always have the feminine overtones it has now.) I make an effort to write in my journal every night, but I am not always successful. As a result, I was delighted to come discover some amusing and honest views on the journal habit from Arnold Bennett, one of my favorite vintage authors. Bennett’s Self and Self-Management: Essays on Existing, published in 1918, is the source of the following extract. Perhaps it will encourage you to consider starting a journal in your own life.

I

Let’s start with a peculiar property of the written word.

It’s terrible enough that the spoken word is awful. Misfortunes, errors, faults, and apprehensions grow more severe when they are mentioned, even in casual chat. A lady who is privately afraid of cancer will become much more afraid after she has told another person about her worry. Her terror has become more genuine as a result of the stated word. The written word, on the other hand, is significantly more powerful than the spoken word. The uncultured and uninformed are considered to have a superstitious fear of writing. The fear isn’t based on superstition; it’s based on a fascinating and terrifying occurrence that almost everyone can test for themselves. The truth is that practically everyone is terrified of writing – genuine, honest writing. Many people despise and despise it, as if it were a powerful explosive that may suddenly go off and blast them to bits. (This is one of the reasons why realistic books seldom sell well.) However, the difference between one man’s aversion to writing and another’s aversion to writing is only a matter of degree, not type. And if anybody among you claims that the written word is unafraid just because it is written, let him undertake the following experiment.

Take some hidden and blameworthy deed or chain of ideas of your own, O remarkable person! I don’t necessarily mean murder or embezzlement; not everyone has done or even wishes to commit murder or embezzlement; I mean any matter—any matter—about which you are so humiliated or anxious that you have never told a person. We all have such things buried behind our waistcoats or corsages, even you. That information should be written out in black and white. It’s likely that you won’t; it’s also likely that you’ll find an excuse not to write it down.

You might say:

“Ah! But what if someone managed to come upon it?”

To which I’d respond:

“Write it down and secure it in your safe.”

You may respond as follows:

“Ah! However, I could misplace the safe key, which someone else may discover and use to unlock the safe. Also, I may die unexpectedly.”

 

Which, in turn, I would retort:

“If you’re dead, you don’t have to worry about being discovered.”

Which you might react to by saying:

“How do you know I wouldn’t mind being discovered if I was dead?”

So, I’ll concede that argument while still demonstrating that your aversion to the written word is not based on a fear of being discovered. The experiment will be carried out under stringent guidelines.

Save yourself by emptying your residence of all its occupants. Close both the front and rear doors. Proceed to your own room, which is located on the second floor. Close the door to your own room and lock it. Place furniture in front of the entrance so you won’t be shocked. Make a fire. Place the writing table in close proximity to the fire. Arrange it such that, at the first sign of detection, you can toss your writing into the flames with a single movement. Then start writing down what you’re embarrassed of. You are completely secure. Despite this, you will be hesitant to write. And you won’t have gotten very far into your story before you find yourself penning down something that isn’t quite as painful as the reality, or ignoring some element that should not be omitted. You’ll have a hard time compelling yourself to be completely honest on writing. You may fail to be completely honest; you will almost certainly fail; most people do. If the freshly relocated furniture creaks in front of the door after you’ve finished and have the paperwork in your hand, you’ll feel guilty. You will read the paper with a sense of dread and constriction. And you’ll throw it in the fire with a sigh of relief as you watch it burn.

What is the source of all these weird sensations? You couldn’t possibly have been caught red-handed. Furthermore, there was nothing in the document that you were unaware of or had not completely comprehended. Nobody can write down what he does not understand and know. For weeks, months, or even years, you may have been completely acquainted with the situation, a commonplace of your mind. You had probably remembered every aspect of it hundreds of times before, and it had never given you any major problem. However, as soon as it is written down, it becomes profoundly, intolerably upsetting—to the point that you are unable to sleep until the written word is obliterated. You are the same guy you were before you started writing; nothing has changed; you have done no new crime. However, you now have a new source of embarrassment. Why, again, do I ask? The only instant response is that the truthful written word has a strange and scary force. This ability is linked to the sense of sight. You’ve noticed something. You don’t see your actions or thoughts as clearly as you could on a movie screen—thankfully!—but you do see something in relation to the situation.

II

The preceding thoughts are addressed at the large class of individuals who declare to themselves every year, “I will maintain a journal and it will be totally truthful.” You can maintain a journal, but it will almost certainly not be completely accurate. If it isn’t full of lies, you’ll be fortunate, or you must be really skilled. You defend yourself by claiming that you have a well-deserved reputation for honesty. I have no doubts about that. When I say “untruths,” I don’t mean that if the weather was perfect, you’d write in your journal, “A very rainy day to-day; went for a stroll and got completely drenched.” I am certain that you are above such perversions of lying. But I’m also confident that if a husband and wife, both as truthful and scrupulous as yourselves, had a disagreement and both kept a private journal about it, the two narratives would not correspond in the least, and neither would include the complete truth. Some individuals begin a journal with the same zeal as they begin golf, stamp collecting, or a new stomach remedy. Starting a journal, on the other hand, should be a serious and significant act, undertaken with full awareness of the challenges it would entail. The entire core of a journal is truth—a notebook full of lies would be useless—and attaining truth is the most difficult thing on the planet. It’s not simple to achieve partial truth, and even avoiding deception is a challenge.

 

III

I’d want to encourage now that I’ve discouraged. Many people who want to maintain journals and should keep diaries don’t because they are too self-conscious. “My life isn’t intriguing enough,” they remark. “Interesting to whom?” I inquire. To the rest of the world or just to themselves?” It is only required for a life to be fascinating to the person who lives it. If you want to maintain a journal, it means you find your own life fascinating. Otherwise, there’s no way you’d want to keep a record of it. The lives of the greatest diarists were not very tumultuous. Ninety-five percent of Pepys’ Diary is devoted to little everyday events that we all experience. Pepys must have found his entries tiresome if he re-read them the day after he wrote them. He had no idea he was creating one of the most important works of English literature.

However, diaries are the polar opposite of novels in that their interest grows as time passes. Every line in a diary blooms into interest after a decent amount of time, and the diarist cannot be dull—any more than a superb wit like Sidney Smith could be unfunny. Because it was irresistibly humorous, if Sidney Smith requested Helen to hand him the salt, the whole table erupted in laughter. “I asked Helen to hand me the salt,” the diarist records in his journal, he will find the statement curiously intriguing to himself in three years. In thirty years, his descendants will be perplexed to learn that he requested Helen to hand him the salt on a certain day. In three hundred years, a whole country will be reading with incomprehensible and intense curiosity that he begged Helen to hand him the salt centuries before, and critics will embroider ideas on both Helen and the salt, earning a career by publishing fresh annotated copies of Helen and the salt. And if the diary is discovered after three thousand years, the entire world will hum with the inexplicable thrilling fact that he asked Helen to pass him the salt; this fact will be cabled around the globe as breaking news; and immediately afterwards, expert scholars of all nationalities will be cabled around the globe to discuss whether Helen did indeed pass him the salt when he asked her to. This fantastic idea should be remembered by hesitant aspiring diarists in need of support.

You are going to say:

“However, who cares about posterity?” For the sake of posterity, I would not maintain a journal.”

Perhaps not, but some others might. Some individuals would start journals tomorrow and keep them until they died, if they believed their diaries would be read three hundred years from now, or even a hundred years from now. Of sure, some folks are odd. And I must say that I agree with you. The prospect of posterity makes me shiver.

 

There is only one good justification for starting a diary—that is, that you like starting it; and there is only one valid reason for maintaining a diary—that is, that you enjoy continuing it. It’s possible that you’ll benefit from it, but that’s not the objective—though it is a point. You will most likely enjoy reading it over a lengthy period of time, but that is not the major point—though it is an essential one. The act of writing a journal should be sufficient explanation. Let the journal stay unwritten for all time if the act of writing is not its own reward.

IV

But watch out for the term “writing.” Some people are frightened about picking up a pen, just as they are worried about entering a drawing room (or even a restaurant!). As I’ve attempted to demonstrate, everyone is concerned about the psychological implications of the written word, but some people—indeed, many people—are also concerned about the act of writing the word. They begin to pine for a mystical ideal known as “perfect style” with amazement. They believe that writing is fundamentally different from talking—a secret trade process!—and they are unaware that he who says or thinks interesting things can also write interesting things, and that he who can make himself understood in speech can also make himself understood in writing—if he follows the right path to work!

I’ve seen folks, particularly the young, who could talk about themselves for hours and yet couldn’t come up with enough content for a brief letter. “I can’t think of anything to say,” they’d lament. It was correct. And, of course, they couldn’t think of anything to say since they were trying to think of anything to write instead, erroneously supposing that writing isn’t the same as talking! Writing is different from speaking, but it doesn’t have to be, and it shouldn’t be for the diarist. Above all, it should not be dissimilar on the surface. When using ink, the inexperienced have the pernicious assumption that what they are saying must be translated or transmogrified into writing. They get a concept in their heads and then question themselves, unconsciously or consciously, “I should express it like that—but how should I write it?” They change the way they say things. They are concerned with grammar, sentence structure, and even spelling. In terms of grammar and spelling, neither topic was understood throughout the Golden Age of English literature, and no writer could be trusted with either spelling or grammar. To this day, only a few great authors can be trusted with their spelling and punctuation. When it comes to phrase creation, the phrase that naturally comes to mind is more likely to be effectively crafted than the word that you force into existence at the tip of your pen. If you know enough grammar to converse fluently, you know enough grammar to write fluently, and you don’t need to worry about anything else; in fact, you shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t. In a journal, formality is a mistake. It may be granted to you to make literature if you write how you think and say. However, if you recall that there is such a thing as literature while writing, you will almost certainly never write literature.

 

This does not imply that you have the right to write anything you want, without thinking or effort. Not in the least. This is not how good diaries are made. Although you may and should dismiss the preoccupations of what I’ll term “literary composition” ironically, you must always have the goal of efficiently putting your thoughts on paper in mind. You would articulate your thinking successfully sooner or later, but putting it down requires some effort to anticipate what the possibly unstudied spoken words would be. In addition, to remember the scene or event recounted, the memory must be completely and honestly exercised. You run the danger of “leaving out the intriguing bit” if you’re not careful. Consciousness ensures that the greatest amount of interest is obtained.

Finally, the human aversion to any kind of hard labor must be overcome. It is not a contradiction to say that man frequently hates the task he enjoys. I, for one, despise starting work every day. You may conclude your day knowing that you experienced experiences worthy of recording in your journal, and that those events will linger in your memory indefinitely. Even still, you despise opening the journal, and once you’ve done so, you despise getting back into the business of writing. You’re inclined to write without thought, in a haphazard manner, and in a hurry. It takes ongoing work to fight the urge to be sloppy, careless, and second-rate. Diary-keeping should be a hobby, but like many other hobbies, it is also a chore when done effectively. I’ve maintained a journal for almost twenty-one years and have some knowledge of it. I’m familiar with the guilt — alas, fruitless! — that follows neglect. Negligence in diary-keeping cannot be remedied. That which has vanished is irreversibly lost.