Maybe you don’t keep a daily diary, and even take pride in how your journal cultivates an elastic sense of time: an open-ended approach that lets you focus on the immediate moment of writing, venture back to reflect on significant incidents in the past, or list the current ongoing circumstances in your life. Yet despite its marvelous flexibility to travel across minutes, weeks, or years, any journal or diary, at the very root of its name, retains a privileged connection to one well-defined span of time: the day.
You can honor the form’s tradition of dailiness by choosing to dedicate the occasional entry to a detailed sketch or portrait of your day. Tristine Rainer, in The New Diary (Updated for the 21st Century) makes the point that you gain the greatest benefit from this type of entry “if you have time to expand it as fully as possible, to push beyond an outline of the day’s activities” in order to dwell on the nuances, sensory textures, and highlights of insight or emotion that defined the shape of this 24-hour period.
Rainer acknowledges that a full chronicle of every day “could become exhausting and dull.” But if practiced “occasionally,” she asserts that “a complete record of the day will give you a sense of the complex, detailed fabric of your life” (27).
To enhance the challenge, instead of spelling out or labeling your emotional state(s), you could try allowing your feelings to seep through the vocabulary and phrasing that describe the day. The tone of selected words, the entry’s pace and rhythm, explanations of context, commentary, which aspects of the day you choose to focus on and how you arrange them—all these elements of apparently objective description will reveal your mood and interior life.
Equally accomplished as novelist and diarist, Virginia Woolf understood how thoroughly perception shapes experience. As she wrote in her 1919 essay, “Modern Fiction,”
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.
In this passage Woolf implies that we can use our “ordinary” minds to view every “ordinary” day as not just unique but extraordinary—as offering a treasury of sensations, ideas, perceptions, reactions, interactions, and feelings that may strike you as momentary or entrenched. Unless the day is extraordinarily bad—perhaps muffled in unbearable strain or grief that places caring for yourself above working in the journal—you can practice uncovering the day’s richness in all that it presents.
Followed through from dawn to dusk, from the shrill of a morning alarm to the ritual of settling in at bedtime, whether the day marks itself in hours, in scheduled and unscheduled events, encounters with other people, mealtimes, pastimes, or outings—the full description of its turning-points, its ebb and flow of energies, will do more than illuminate just that one day. Looking back at the entry will tell you more than reviewing a page in an old calendar. You’ll perceive again what life felt like, and survey all that you received and responded to during this time.
Samuel Pepys typically began his diary entries with the phrase “Up betimes” and ended with, “and so to bed.” This formula of daily rising and retiring would predict a chronicle of an ordinary person’s activities over many thousands of mostly ordinary days. But if you can write about your days with the vitality and enthusiasm that Pepys brought to the task, maybe people will be reading your diary almost four centuries from now.
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