Dear Diary …

February 23rd marks the birthday of English diarist Samuel Pepys. Born in 1633, Pepys is probably the most famous and widely read diarist in the English language. A detailed account of London life in the 1660s, the collection of Samuel Pepys’ journal entries are interesting not only for their sheer volume and the historical scope they represent, but most often for the seemingly mundane everyday happenings that he chooses to chronicle in great detail. Pepys would often comment about the political and social climate of the day, historical events (such as the Great Fire of 1666), new trends and fashion as well as the people he met and interacted with on a daily basis. Unlike most Englishmen of the day, Pepys went beyond the simple listing of daily events in dry record and incorporated humor, observation and his personal opinions and feelings in each entry. He also included many comments on more intimate details of his life, as well as of others’:

Sunday 28 April 1661: After supper my father told me of an odd passage the other night in bed between my mother and him, and she would not let him come to bed to her out of jealousy of him and an ugly wench that lived there lately, the most ill-favoured slut that ever I saw in my life, which I was ashamed to hear that my mother should be become such a fool, and my father bid me to take notice of it to my mother, and to make peace between him and her. All which do trouble me very much. So to bed to my wife.

Throughout the diary, there are times we might identify a little too much with Pepys. The following excerpt illustrates how, in many ways, life in 2005 doesn’t differ too much from life in 1661:

Wednesday 3 April 1661: Up among my workmen, my head akeing all day from last night’s debauch …

Aside from their historical value, do you find diaries interesting as literature? Do you enjoy reading them? Why or why not?

It could be said that Samuel Pepys is the patron saint of modern day bloggers, considering the amount of personal detail he chose to include and the fact that he was the person who eventually bound his journals and handed them over to a college in Cambridge. Do you keep a diary, journal or weblog? If so, do you find it motivates you to write more than you would otherwise? Are blogs another form of modern literature? To come full circle, the diary of Samuel “The Bloggfather” Pepys has been serialized as a blog. You can check it out here and find out what he was up to all those years ago.

29 Responses

  1. Diary,Actually the only blog

    Actually the only blog I even remotely maintain is an anonymous one. I’ve found that truth hurts many people. This sounds like just a statement, but it’s actually a judgment. So I prefer to keep some things private.

    It’s easier than I thought it would be to keep something like that private. I always had this idea of myself that I enjoyed attention. But I have discovered that attention from 99% of the population is really just a wasteful exercise. It pleases me enough to simply see the thing in somewhat static form. An organized notebook.

    Most of my first novel is actually comprised of daily scratches in my notebook, unrelated to one another except by a common voice. Eventually I found a way to use many of them within a story.

    I think it’s important for writers to often write aimlessly, and the most immediate way to facilitate this is to write a diary or a journal. I think it’s worth it to spend thousands of words as an investment to realize one perfect phrase or idea. Most great things that are written are simply a moment in time, a snippet from a timeline within a lot of necessary filler. The only way to get there, very often, is to just have at it, just keep writing even though you know it’s filler, which is what most diaries are.

    The problem with going about “maintaining a diary” is that you’re setting yourself up for failure, because it takes a rare person to be able to commit to writing mundane details of one’s life each day, every day. That’s a big commitment, and doesnt take into account writers’ block, hangovers, intoxication, errands, lovemaking, actual writing, surfing for porn, flipping through reality shows, reading, or working, all things that I’m pretty sure are already going to happen in a given day. Writing a diary, keeping a diary, that is, seems like a job, one which I’m not getting paid for. I prefer to write aimlessly in the form of a diary when I damn well feel like it.

    I don’t have much interest in reading raw diaries, even my own, except for curiousity. But who has the time to be curious these days? I read of course “A Moveable Feast,” which was fantastic, and one of my favorite books as a younger person was called “Growing Up,” which was the diary of a journalist from, I believe, Chicago, about being a teenager in the early 60s. I’ve really enjoyed some of Kafka’s shorts, which amount to blog entries, and are full of the perfect details that, as I mentioned above, can be culled into something of more substance. Even so, I know enough about being a writer (I think) to know (think) that even the most raw-looking journals published by better writers have been hacked into by said writers before they were declared publishable. I’m comfortable with a very gray line between fact and fiction. And even when I’m reading a “raw” diary, the most interesting parts are the ones where the writer was focusing not on what happened to him that day, but rather on a detail or a person that became, instead of a simple experience, a muse or a character.

    I’ve never heard of Samuel Pepys before today.

  2. Pepys ShowPepys’s diary also
    Pepys Show

    Pepys’s diary also included risque material like a log of his own autoerotic habits, including a scene at a public theater. One could argue, along with French theorist of sexuality and power, Michel Foucault, that the recording itself of such things marks the subject into discourse and therefore subjects him to power.

    What are we to make of the current proliferation of diary keeping? Even the word journal has become a verb, denoting the habit of daily writing practice of various kinds, often therapeutic. Have we become a self-involved culture? or are our journals more outwardly directed, as older ones seem to be? Anne Frank is the most famous example. In a certain way, Kerouac’s novels are a kind of journal writing. So there are classics in the genre.

    Journals were used in the days of letter writing so the combination can produce the outlines and textures of a life. I am finding that in the correspondences and life of Carl Jung. Sometimes the material is surprising, even scandalous.

    My own journal writing is mundane; an hour a day of simple reflections. Then another hour engaged in writing for the production of poems. I keep the two separate on purpose. There is a difference in the journal mode versus an ongoing log of a writing practice. I am curious to know if others do the same or if it is all put into one place.

  3. WonderfulWonderful piece,

    Wonderful piece, well done. Great link to a most impressive site.

    One thing intriguing is that the word “slut” is so old.

    I myself would love to keep a journal much more than I do. No time.

    I think journal writing (and now the blog as medium rather than lockable little book) has been around a long time and was very common.

    It has probably been less common of late compared to 50 years ago or more (my guess) and the internet is bringing it back — and this is tied in with e-mail bringing back letter writing.

    People used to write much more in the past, because they had to and also had more time or — quite significantly — did not have the opportunity to choose to use their time in passive entertainments, as is the norm now for so many.

    My grandma apparently kept a diary as a young woman. After she passed away we saw it. She lived in a small coal mining town and seemed to go to a dance or social event everynight.

    What is amazing is that the last diary entry was the day she met my grandfather — and she never wrote in it again.

    PS: Hi Levi. Yes, I am around and glad to see the new permutation of Literary Kicks.

  4. Jolly Well DiariesThat Pepys
    Jolly Well Diaries

    That Pepys seems to be an entertaining fellow. I enjoy none more than olden day Britons (and other writers) who seemed to have the guts to complain about government and aristocracy. I guess it’s not as commonplace to come across this these days, in England.

    Anyhow, do I keep a diary? Not much. I used to, from third grade through high school. Of course, following high school, I went through an “what does it all mean, should I carry with me the notes from the past” kind of thing. And off went the journals, to the dustbin.

    Of course as an adult, I regret it. All that’s left of my tales and travels from those days is in my head, mostly. I sometimes jot down stuff, occasional happenings or grievances, in a journal. But mostly I stick to writing short stories and poems.

    Would I publsh anything I wrote in a journal? Hell, no. Unless you want to read about me complaining about jobs, college and why people are addicted to Starbucks. Which I think noone does.

    I like to read other’s journals if, selfishly, I can relate to it. And if I ever do come across a word jot of someone complaining about either British or American govt, my eyes read it, alit with entertainment.

  5. If ever I write something in
    If ever I write something in a journal, it is never satisfying to read. I think it’s about the same as how some people say they carry around a notebook to write down things they suddenly think of, to write about. I think if I did that, I would not be inspired to turn it into a story.

  6. Jamelah’s DiaryI’ve
    Jamelah’s Diary

    I’ve intermittently kept a diary/journal/whateveryouwanttocallit since I was ten, but I started journaling seriously when I was in college and an academic requirement for my semester in Venice was keeping a travel journal. I had to turn in the journal twice during the semester and my professor would read it and offer comments on my writing and suggestions on what I should write for my final directed study project. It was weird at first, knowing that the words I wrote would be read by a teacher, but I decided after about a week that I wouldn’t let my knowledge of my audience hinder my honesty, so everything — drunken debauchery, mistakes, anger, homesickness, insecurity, fear, joy, ridiculous giddiness — went into it (though there were a few entries that I stapled heavy paper over to make them unreadable).

    Years later, I’m so glad to have that black clothbound book, because it’s such an accurate record of that part of my life. Also, it started me on the habit of honestly recording my existence. Not just the ins and outs of my daily life, but the thoughts, questions and ideas that accompany them. It helps give shape to the surface mundanity.

    Anyway, I also keep a blog, but it’s different from the handwritten journal, both in style and subject matter. I don’t think of my own personal blog as modern literature; it’s more something that amuses me (and, like, three other people). But I will say that yes, it motivates me to write. Even when I’m not doing any so-called creative writing, I try to update my site somewhat regularly, so at least I can still string sentences together into (mostly) coherent thoughts.

    And I guess that’s that.

  7. Me and DiariesWhen I was
    Me and Diaries

    When I was younger, I used to keep a diary except it was today’s sentiments and happenings described in poetry, prose, and song lyrics. I kept it up for about a year, but the book has since been long lost.

    I don’t have the discipline to start something similar up again, but have considered starting a dream journal.

    I do believe diaries have worth – most writing is autobiographical, anyway, I think. Any good writing is good writing.

  8. Captain’s Log, Stardate 5001
    Captain’s Log, Stardate 5001 . . .

    “Fascinating, Captain. They seem to have been a race threatened by some menace referred to as ‘pop-ups'”.

    FC, that Samual Pepys and his diary-writing is a cool topic!

    I’ve never been much of a diary keeper, but when I was a kid, I wanted one of those diaries with the locks on them. It took a long time to actually buy one. See, my friends, Russell and Scott, and I would go to a store called Roses’ that sold toys, model cars & airplanes, comic books, baseball cards, etc. Then there was a table that sold items for slightly older kids. It was more or less divided into boy and girl sections. On one side, pocket knives, wallets, and stopwatches; then sewing kits, purses, and Barbie watches on the other. The stationary was right in the middle. Pens of different colored ink, writing pads, pencils & pencil sharpeners, and there, whispering my name, right on the edge of the sissy stuff, those neat, small diaries with the mysterious locking strap & key.

    Oh, I liked all the boy stuff – got me a Swiss Army knife with all the blades, screwdriver, can opener, hole punch, and scissors. Russell, Scott, and I thought those knives were the greatest thing! Like many other kids, I’m sure, we each got a different knife and a different wallet to compare with each other and be different yet the same.

    The “secret compartment” flap in my wallet appeased my penchant for mystery & intrigue at first. Then I began learning how I could be different and yet the same in other ways. While my friends started buying Popular Mechanics or Sports Illustrated, I gravitated toward Famous Monsters. When I came to understand that the editor of that magazine, Forrest J Ackerman, had been a literary agent for people like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, it legitimized my interest in writing weird things and gave me the courage to buy the diary. If my friends said, “Those are for girls” I could say, “Look, I’m writing some wild sci-fi and I don’t want anyone to steal my ideas.”

    Now that I write on the internet and hope somebody will read it, I can’t believe I wanted to hide my efforts under lock & key. But the thing is, I didn’t use the diary much. Soon after I finally bought it, I had reached the age of listening at loud volume to Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, learning how to play the guitar, and expanding my mind in ways that didn’t seem compatible with a scholarly Scribner’s approach.

    Now I’ve figured out that, just as the universe is ever-expanding, so are our minds, so there is no need to rush the process. And I’ll never play guitar like Jimi Hendrix (or will I…?) and there is not much of anything I have to hide anymore, I don’t really have any desire to keep a diary. I really love to write, so the only kind of “diary” I keep are ideas that I might be able to use later in a story or article. But this little piece is sort of like a diary entry. In fact, I’ve just realized that this is what I wanted to write way back when I bought that diary as a kid.

  9. I must admit that. . .I
    I must admit that. . .

    I enjoyed Diary by Chuck Palahniuk. It was kind of a diary. The kind of diary that kicks ass.

    But I suppose that isn’t what you’re looking for.

    If a diary is a factual account of what is going on physically or emotionally, then it would be properly classified as non-fiction. If literature is, by definition, fiction, then ipso facto presto chango — diaries cannot be literature.

  10. Your definition is correct,
    Your definition is correct, as is your choice to talk about Diary by Chuck Palahniuk, because, if we’re going to discuss diaries on a literary website, it seems fitting and right to include Chuck’s book.

  11. Do I Keep A Dairy?No, not at
    Do I Keep A Dairy?

    No, not at all. I do, however, think that the dairy farmer is a much undervalued member of society. I like to extend my gratitude daily, however, through the power of purchase. Two litres of chocolate milk every day, and assorted milk chocolate bars. You’d think my teeth would be rotten by now, but no. I brush religiously.

    Hold on a second.

    Ohhhh, you said DIARY. As in Anne Frank and whatnot.

    Well, no, I don’t keep a diary either. But if I did I’d write about chocolate milk.

  12. You and that fancy boy are in
    You and that fancy boy are in love, just bloody well admit it. Christ…all this dancing around the obvious.

    And who said literature is always “fiction”? Boy oh boy – are you on drugs today or what?

  13. Nice story, Bill – you and
    Nice story, Bill – you and your mad scientist aura never fail to put a smile on my face.

  14. Nice, Bill — you make a very
    Nice, Bill — you make a very good point about the idea of diaries and the stuff that we want to put in them. I think in some cases, the idea of the diary, journal or blog gets us over that stumbling block of sometimes thinking our words and writing don’t hold enough magic. They certainly do. If you haven’t checked out more of Pepys’ diary, do so — I think you’d enjoy it very much.

  15. You wanna know who says that
    You wanna know who says that literature is not non-fiction? How about Barnes & Noble. Or Borders. Or I don’t know if you people get those types of establishments up there, but if you did you would see that literature is separate from non-fiction. Of course, if you’re so inclined, you could check out one of the on-line dictionaries and they will tell you the same.

    What? Ever since they cancelled the hockey season you don’t have anything better to do than to mess with us serious students of the written word? Word.

  16. Apparently all work and no
    Apparently all work and no hockey makes Damian a funny boy. Hey, I know you’re upset about Alanis Morissette “defecting” to the US, but your attempt at comedy is udderly ridiculous.

  17. OK, listen-up smart guy…you
    OK, listen-up smart guy…you can HAVE that squawking harpy for all I care. And as far as hockey goes, you’d be wise to just shaddup and keep your mind on baseball or whatever your national “sport” is.

  18. Mental Health, Ideas, and
    Mental Health, Ideas, and Practice

    Your correspondent doesn’t keep a diary but writes weekly and sometimes daily for weeks but occasionally needs a vacation even though writing is his sole raison d’etre and is ashamed at his lack of achievement!

    Because of a lack of proficiency in Chinese characters, keeping a diary in Chinese has been tabled for the next few months.

    1. A university prof, whose name’s forgotten, postulated that before our mass-media era, the diaries performed the function as a confidant and contributed to an individual’s good mental health. This is most true for passive-aggressives and last-word freaks, i.e., those who can’t get off a dead horse, who can’t let sleeping dogs lie and must have the last word in any and all agruments.
    2. Often, this poster wishes for a different path taken through academia but the chosen path provided good solid writing practice and the realization that finding content was the critical issue for a good essay, short story, or novel. As stated in other posts here, the diary’s good for that, i.e., data collection and idea creation.

    3. Finally, a journal/diary provides the practice for a writer.
    Those who want to do verbal diarrhea on the page can commit that sin in a diary and learn to be concise for the reader. Your correspondent used to write letters to any and all willing to receive but gave that up to concentrate on real writing.
    Keeping a diary can create the discipline needed to achieve good writing but there is a danger in becoming a narcissistic navel-gazer.

  19. The world is waiting for the
    The world is waiting for the release of the Jamelah Diary. I’m sure the discussion of movie rights have been bandied about.

  20. malt, you gotta understand,
    malt, you gotta understand, up where vinny lives, all they get is the occasional Sears & Roebuck catalog. And they mainly look at the pictures.

  21. Yes, that makes sense, that
    Yes, that makes sense, that before mass communication people felt more compelled to record their thoughts and actions. Not only for reasons of “talking to someone” (themselves), but also to have a record of their existence. Now, there are all kinds of records of our existence: phone bills, electric bills, drivers’ lisences, saved emails, etc.

    One time, I could tell I needed to stop contemplating my navel and get to work on writing something, because my navel began to move, open & closed, and it said to me, “What are you looking at?”

  22. Mis apuntesI keep a kind of
    Mis apuntes

    I keep a kind of diary although I have it a bit forgotten. It started as a kind of therapeutic exercise — to practice writing with the right hand(I was left-handed)– but soon developed into a literary act. I enjoyed telling things of my chilhood and of the daily life sometimes with a bit of humour — yes I know, it’s the British spelling — that if you don

  23. Diary?I had one when I was

    I had one when I was fourteen that I cut into pieces when I was nineteen.

    Now I have something like a dialogic diary of online writing. I like the diary format in literature.

  24. …so glad you dug my story.
    …so glad you dug my story. I read your little paragraph. I enjoyed too.

  25. the unsurpassed therapistI
    the unsurpassed therapist

    I have forgotten to say two or more things. I need a therapist because I had a brain accident — I recover my knowledge of reality (that sounds ugly!!!) but muscular issues take a much longer time — about three years ago, so, I can use my left hand only for a few bunch of things like use a carve, take hold of something, and touch the girls’ knees!! I also walk with certain difficulty and with the help of a cane. The name of my current therapist is Eleonora but my original therapist and who suggest the very idea of a diary is Analia, so I think that she really is who launch me again in the adventure of literature. Later, a friend of mine kept on encouraging me to do things about writing, and she’s so fine…!

  26. … when my diary cease to be
    … when my diary cease to be “an accurate record of (my) daily life, I tear up the pages instead of add heavy paper. I enjoy your idea of a diary, and now I tried it to be the most honest with the events of my life. but almost never I can’t!!!

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!