Keeping a Diary: A Lifelong Discipline


If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.

—Anais Nin, In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays

MY INDULGENCE on Henry Miller’s autobiographical novels has led me to Anais Nin, a free-spirited, intelligent woman whose ideas have molded and complemented with Miller’s writings. I’ve no sooner read Nin’s works than she becomes one of the few female writers I adore and venerate.

Nin, a monumental diarist and feminist in the twentieth century, writes “to taste life twice, in the moment and in introspection” and to “recreate [herself] when destroyed by living.” The lifelong and almost-daily practice of keeping a diary has built her “an inner world that can withstand destruction.”

At age 11, Nin has started the diary as a series of letters to her father who abandoned the family. She decides to become a writer. Decades later, the diary has grown into some 150 volumes. The 35,000 pages of handwritten journals are now kept as a unique, uncensored document of a woman’s “multileveled” life contending against puritanical, societal dogmatism and restraints.

Her five novels, collection of short stories, and essays on various subjects, Nin believes, are all “merely outcroppings” from her diary: what she produces outside is “a distillation, the myth, the poem.”

Here, gathered from Nin’s and Miller’s works, are a few methods of their lifelong discipline:

  1. The diary as a confessional and confidant. Begin by “eliminating the idea of the [diary] as [good writing].” Express explicitly and fearlessly. “It’s not an exercise in literature; it’s an exercise in our lives.”
  2. Automatic writing. This is devised by the surrealists to bypass consciousness. It is thought without effort and control. Write “unconsciously,” with abandon and digressiveness, as though possessed by spirits. Besides its cathartic effect, this method introduces intimacy with the cryptic workings of the mind and the “supernatural forces.”
  3. Free association and dreams (techniques in psychoanalysis). The person is given a certain word as a stimulus and is encouraged to report—quickly and without censorship—whatever image or word association that arises in his mind; this is to uncover repressed thoughts.
    When recording dreams, don’t rush to wake up; instead, with eyes still closed, remain in the twilight state (between waking and sleeping), reach inward for that last thread of dream material, and trace back the labyrinth before writing. Note down impressions of the dream. List a string of free associations stemming from the dream elements (e.g., a stab wound in the dream could be related to the fear of death or suppressed sexual arousal in real life).
  4. Various compositions. Write insights on specific subjects (e.g., relationship traumas), portraits/sketches (e.g., impressionistic reviews of places, events, and character analysis of people), letters, imagined moments, and dialogues.

Keeping a diary, as Nin said, is a necessity to everyone’s “becoming” as the daily logs put life into deliberate attention and reflection. The diary is an “instrument for living” that should be not only for writers but also for anyone from any walks of life.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: February 8, 2016)