Artful Advice

No Rules, Only Rewards: Tips for Diary Writing from the Wise & Famous

Lessons to be learned about the positive effects of keeping a daily journal.


Louise Long


Alec Doherty

“Start the new year with a clear head, perfect sleep cycle and boosted creativity,” they all chirp. Hurrumph we retort. Sure, if only there was a magic tonic, we’d be knocking it back with our morning kefir and Vitamin D supplements…

But, hey! What’s this lovely thing, wallowing under piles of wrapping paper? No more than a humble notebook, but no less than a loyal, papery companion. Since the beginning of time (or diary records, at least), we humans have poured our deepest and darkest musings, our most fanciful and tortuous desires, angst-ridden frustrations, mindless chatterings and love-struck imaginings into the pages of journals. And for many, there is no better daily ritual for keeping worries at bay, de-fogging the mind, and leaving insomnia out in the cold.

But how to find your way with a diary? Garnering insights from myriad diarists over the years, The Fold uncovers tips on putting pen to paper, and the life-enhancing, mentally restorative benefits on offer along the way…

1. Social media may fool us into thinking we are committed diarists, but it doesn't hold a light to pen and paper.
There is no underestimating the value of a private notebook for externalising our inner selves. As Susan Sontag noted, “the journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent”. Fewer journals are more tinglingly personal than Eva Hesse’s, penned in her twenties as a rising star on New York’s male-dominated 60s art scene, and in the years before her tragic death from a brain tumour aged 34. Although a crucial outlet for anxieties, nightmares and feelings of abandonment, Hesse’s diaries also housed lists of appointments, chores and sketches. Find your own solace or sense of purpose in the company of a diary and, like Eva, use it to capture the best of “the laughs and good times”.

2. A diary is timeless, and never a waste of time.
Pausing to make note of that exceptionally oozy slice of marmalade toast, or a friendly bus driver on a grey Monday, gives mental focus and added buoyancy. As diarist Michael Palin recommends: “Write every day. Diaries are all about habit. They should become a regular part of your day, like cleaning your teeth or going to the lavatory.” And best of all, there are no boundaries – so let loose! “A diary may break every rule of politeness,” marvels journalist Kate Kellaway. Journals are not only about the art of writing but the art of solitude. “A dear companion,” said Katherine Mansfield, of her treasured diary.

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3. As the saying goes, if it works for Marilyn, it works for us.
Out of the spotlight, Marilyn Monroe’s journals reveal a philosopher and poet rarely glimpsed on screen. “Writing has made my hands tremble, but I just want to keep pouring it out until that great pot in the mind is, though not emptied, relieved,” she wrote as a teenager in the early 1940s. We shall note: the catharsis of a diary is a miracle cure for a chattering mind. And if like us your new year’s resolutions are as fleeting as the January sunshine, give yourself an outside chance and write them down. Marilyn’s 1955 resolutions commence: “enjoying myself as fully as I wish or want to” and, “being as sensitive as I am, without being ashamed of it.” Bravo, Marilyn.

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4. Not mad keen to relive the drudgery of the day?
A diary needn’t be confined to (oft tedious) comings and goings. Jotting down achievements and setting goals is a tried and tested life hack. Track your progress over time – anything from fruit and veg count, inches to touching your toes, Instagram-free half hours, or even new words learnt – à la musician Nick Cave, who keeps a handwritten dictionary-diary of his favourite words. You could even take the more severe approach of Benjamin Franklin whose self-improvement diary comprised marking a dot against a table of 13 virtues. But we prefer the waspish style of Joan Wyndham, bohemian of wartime Fitzrovia, whose joyful diaries (entitled Love Lessons and Love is Blue) served to chronicle her sparkling love affairs with the likes of Dylan Thomas and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Now that’s what we call personal growth.

5. Bedtime journal writing is so last year.
2019 is all about Morning Pages. Purge those toxic vendettas, distracting To Do lists, or grey hair-inducing calendar struggles before you’ve even got out of bed. Simply: wake, write, write some more, write in stream of consciousness for three whole pages and then float, unencumbered through your day. Invented by creativity guru Julia Cameron, Morning Pages are widely praised for alleviating anxieties, sharpening the mind and fostering creativity. The diary equivalent of Bikram Yoga. With less odour. You’re welcome!

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6. A journal is just as much about preserving memories, as it is keeping a piece of home in your pocket.
On your next trip, take a leaf out of the likes of Charles Darwin, who filled 15 books on a voyage along the South American coast. Or Mark Twain, who invented many of his signature witticisms in leather-bound journals, custom-designed with a handy tear-off tab on each page. Albert Einstein – a surprising addition to the familiar tune of diarists – wrote a series of down-to-earth travel journals; his USA edition featuring a reassuringly inept drawing of a shark… We all have our talents! You will reap the rewards of a travel diary in years to come too: there’s nothing better than flicking back to tales of mosquito-infested hostel dorms from the comfort of your own bed. In this vein, writer Sarah Brown organises diary reading pub events for the very reason that "re-reading an old diary is a good way to remember that if you're having a hard time, you've had hard times before and got through them."

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7. Stuck for words? Then do without.
Among the countless visual diarists include Leonardo da Vinci, Frida Kahlo, Joseph Cornell and most charming of all, May Morris. Daughter to the Arts & Craft icon William Morris, May was an embroidery designer, feminist pioneer and hardy traveller. Her vivid journals from visits to Iceland in the 1920s include pencil sketches and colour notes of the landscape. Liberate your own creativity in the judgement-free pages of journal. Blank notebook and HB rubber-tipped pencil recommended; pencil chewing encouraged.

If you're feeling inspired to start keeping a diary of your daily doings, thoughts and feelings, then personalise one of our notebooks. You'll be able to choose between hard and soft covers, plain and lined paper – so you can journal in a way that works for you.