The modernist poet Gertrude Stein wrote “A Diary” and published it in her book Alphabets and Birthdays (1927). Consistent with her style, Stein filled the diary with enigmatic pronouncements. At the end, she rejects the traditional idea of writing every day: “There will not be a daily diary.” In an earlier passage she declares that “a diary is not a line a day book.”
Throughout, Stein composes playful variations on expected diary themes—cooking details, gossip, habits, domestic tasks, manners, visits by friends, repeated days of the week—which I’ll write more about in a future post. For now, let’s consider the “daily diary.” Where does it come from?
When people question the distinction between a diary and journal, they’re often encouraged to use the words interchangeably, since both terms derive from “day” (dīes in Latin and jour in French). An early definition of diary, from the 18th-century dictionary of Dr. Johnson, is “an account of the transactions, accidents, and observations of every day; a journal.” Some blank books sold as diaries reinforce this idea of dailiness with a format that provides equal space for writing on each date of the year.
Like years with their seasons, the turn of a day marks out a basic cycle to which life responds. 24-hour circadian codes operate at the cellular level, delicately adjusted by cues from the outside world. Despite the recent pervasiveness of artificial lighting and temperature control, these cycles still function in human bodies. As detailed in Satchin Panda’s Circadian Code, our sleeping, eating, and activity schedules can either align with or disrupt the natural rhythms. The pages of a diary map the writer’s experience of a life that still plays out in circadian ways.
John Cheever’s diary “seeks to give each day some form of shapeliness”; after noting details and images from the day, capturing a sense of the “contingencies of domestic life” he would close each entry with an interpretive flourish that gave it a personal touch (Anna Jackson’s Diary Poetics, 31-33).
Anaïs Nin agrees: “This was my principle when I wrote the diary—to write the thing I felt most strongly about that day . . . I chose the event of the day that I felt most strongly about, the most vivid one, the warmest one, the nearest one, the strongest one” (cited on p. 50 of Marlene Schiwy’s Voice of her Own).
Still, a diary that begins with the intention of daily writing may find itself cast aside when that rule becomes burdensome or impractical. Some of the most highly renowned diarists stopped writing daily. They continued their diaries by writing in spurts, even if the published entries look like a steady, daily stream. Frances Burney and Samuel Pepys both jotted down brief notes and at times procrastinated on expanding their notes into a full journal entry: “Pepys often wrote up as many as fourteen days at one time” (Elizabeth Podnieks, Daily Modernism). Virginia Woolf returns to her diary after spending some time away, and comments on the relief and pleasure of taking up her “old book” once more.
A more recent definition of the diary than Dr. Johnson’s, proposed by Steven Kagle in American Diary Literature (1979), is “a record of events or thoughts written as dated periodic entries.” Periodic can indicate something other than daily. The key point resides in how writers build the diary one entry at a time, spooling out an evolving perspective as later events offer a fresh view of what came before, and allowing the reader to re-live that process.
Clearly, the strict imperative to write every day—or even more rigidly, as the printed format of some diaries demands, to confine every entry to the same length—can feel impractical and restrictive; many of the greatest diary writers have ignored it.
A diary is not a line-a-day book. As Alexandra Johnson explains in her book, Leaving a Trace, “a diary or journal isn’t necessarily something that should be done daily, so much as it is a clue to how to see the daily world around oneself differently.”
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