Hitting the highlights

Journal, apple, tea mugWhen you read a diary, not all the entries spark interest to the same degree. So what quality makes a diary entry jump right off the page? How can you bring your diary to life, both for yourself when you look at it again, and for readers who may not even know you?

As I spend hours in the library basement slowly deciphering a young man’s Civil War-era diary, I come across moments that stay long afterwards in my mind:  his enjoyment of ice cream as a rare treat, how he’s swept away by the eloquence of a guest preacher at his church, the day he was snubbed by a doctor who decided not to hire him as an assistant.

And when I re-read my own diary, what draws my eye? For one thing, I love it when my former self looks ahead and tries to guess at the future. At age 25 I wrote a few tentative notes about someday becoming a parent; though it would be five years before it happened, here I can identify the earliest stages of imagining parenthood.

Students in my diary class enjoy those entries where diarists question or push back against social conventions of their time. When young Frances Burney, in 1775, successfully resists a marriage proposal that her father and all her friends put her under great pressure to accept, we follow the drama and watch her practice how to explain to people who care about her, and want the best for her, why she doesn’t want to take the obvious and expected path. Burney emerges in the pages of her diary as an individual with her own ideas and feelings, most visibly when these conflict with social expectations.

We also get drawn in by firsthand testimony or even sideline comments that record events of historical significance. I have a friend of a friend who treasures the family diary with an entry that responds to receiving news of President Lincoln’s assassination. Samuel Pepys’ personal account of living through London’s Great Fire in 1666—right down to details like burying a cheese in his garden to protect it from the fire, or watching the urban pigeons singe their wings as they try to escape the heat of a city going up in flames—numbers among the top most-read passages in the entire literary tradition of diaries.

As readers, we perk up when diarists let us in on their thoughts about what they hope to accomplish with their diary. Such passages often pop up near the beginning. When the diarist states an intention, that allows us to examine later entries with an eye to whether they’ve kept their resolution. If family and friends read their diary and offer opinions—perhaps aiming to discourage them from the habit, as we saw with several well-known 18th-century diaries—these accounts lend further interest, reminding us of the writer’s self-awareness and formation of identity.

Reader interest may surge when the diarist offers an account of a “big day”—the day when they learned something, or a whole new phase of life began, or any event that they find especially significant or influential. Among the accounts of mundane and repetitive days, these moments stand out.

But quiet moments, vividly described through the senses, also capture attention. Such moments help us see into the mind and feelings of the person writing. Brief scenes of interacting with a quirky or randomly encountered person (or animal), quoted snippets from conversations, notes on the arrival of a new season or fashion trend, an object that means a lot to the diarist even if unremarkable to others—all these bring the diarist and their world to life.

Conversely, the last thing most of us want to see is another summary of the day’s weather or list of routine tasks. And maybe it’s just me, but I once decided against transcribing an otherwise intriguing handwritten diary, simply to avoid being subjected to daily news about the writer’s digestive system! (Great time, by the way, for the writer to employ a personal code—I’ll write more about using codes in a future post.)

What draws your eye, or increases your heart rate, when you read a diary? Next time you pick up your diary, think about how you’ll make it lively and interesting to those who may someday read it—including your future self.

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