Diaries intrigue us because by looking inside one, we cross a threshold into private space, with a sense that maybe it was written solely for the writer to read.
In the middle of an entry, we might even see the writer pause to envision an older self who opens the book and reads it. At the age of 36, Virginia Woolf imagined this scene, and defined her future self as “Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books [the diaries]” Contemplating that moment, she added, “How I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better. Already my 37th birthday next Saturday is robbed of some of its terrors by the thought” (Diary I, 234).
As Barbara Lounsberry notes in Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path, at this moment “a new persona enters the diary, an appreciative future reader and working writer” (20). This overseeing persona lends a new sense of purpose to the diary for the next several years, as Woolf writes:
Partly for [the] benefit of this elderly lady (no subterfuge will then be possible: 50 is elderly, though, I agree, not old) partly to give the year a solid foundation I intend to spend the evenings of this week of captivity in making out an account of my friendships & their present condition, with some account of my friends characters; & to add an estimate of their work, & a forecast of their future works. The lady of fifty will be able to say how near to the truth I come” (Diary I, 325).
From her vantage point across the years, old Virginia or elderly Virginia (as Woolf calls her) encourages the diarist to keep on writing: “I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 2020 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; & take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; & here’s the bricks for a fine one” (Diary 2: 24).
As Lounsberry explains, Woolf envisions a future self who “will not only relish but also use Woolf’s diary prose. In that, this projected older self spurs the diarist on” (Lounsberry, 35).
The concept of addressing the diary to your future self comes recommended by many journal-keeping guides. Christina Baldwin, author of One to One, acknowledges that “most of the time, I write to the self that is just ahead of me in evolution—the person I am becoming” (51). Baldwin advises calling upon this “internal [projected] self” as a “friend,” “mentor,” and “guide.”
The author of The New Diary, Tristine Rainer, agrees: “In most cases, the best audience is your future self. If you think of your reader as the person you will be in five, ten, or even fifty years, it will encourage you to write concretely and to include details that make the experience interesting to reread. In ten years you won’t remember the situation unless you capture all its sensual vitality now” (24).
While some diary-keepers claim that they never look back at old entries, others frequently reread their diaries or plan to do so. Frances Burney insisted to a friend in a letter that she needed him to return the diaries he had borrowed, which she wanted back because “to you they can only furnish entertainment . . . but to me, who know all the people & things mentioned, they may possibly give some pleasure, by rubbing up my memory, when I am a very Tabby, before when I shall not think of looking into them” (The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, 58).
For those preparing to revisit their own diaries, authors of journal guides suggest numerous ways to “harvest” past volumes. Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace lists ten patterns to map as you go back through a set of journals. Johnson also gives examples of how writers use their diaries as sources for published work. Ron Klug, in the revised edition of How to Keep a Spiritual Journal (2012), discusses methods for indexing, “gleaning,” creating end-of-year summaries, and “bringing things forward”: “When you find some especially interesting insight while rereading a journal, copy it in your present journal and add some thoughts, showing how your thinking has been reinforced or changed” (125).
Most guides to journal harvesting describe the diary as holding scraps of insight, image, and memory that gain significance as they accrete and form thematic patterns. But the value of addressing a diary to one’s older self also connects with the special time-axis of a diary. The future reader will inevitably know more than the present writer about how current issues and situations will play out.
“Elderly Virginia,” then, will possess not just the general wisdom of experience that Woolf could just as well seek from her older friends and acquaintances, but also very specific answers about Woolf’s life, based on her later position in time and its retrospective capacity.
In 1924 Woolf described her diary as a place to “practise writing; do my scales” for her work as a novelist. She imagined that “[I] shall invent my next book here; for here I write merely in the spirit—great fun it is too, & old V. of 1940 will see something in it too. She will be a woman who can see, old V.: everything—more than I can I think” (Diary 2, 319-20).
The diary’s perpetual existence in the present that can’t see ahead helps to explain why one’s future self, “who can see,” represents an ideal reader. Cutting through a fog of uncertainty about the future, a diary writer can invoke the clarifying spirit of this reader as a balancing presence, one that hovers lightly over the page with yet-unseen wisdom—who offers (or at least will accrue) a more mature perspective.
Someday, this presiding presence implicitly assures us, more will be known about the future that preoccupies the diarist, clarifying and settling everything that matters to them.