Keeping a Journal or Diary

A Life of One’s Own: Part Five
I’ve been writing a series of essays based on Marion Milner’s book A Life of One’s Own1. Milner was a British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, Milner published her findings. 

This post focuses on keeping a diary or a journal. Milner found keeping a diary central to discovering what made her happy and in “finding and setting up a standard of values that is truly one’s own and not a borrowed mass-produced ideal.” I’m using the word journal and dairy interchangeably. (Some may see differences between a diary and a journal, but some of these differences may be invented.)2

There is not one perfect way to keep a journal or diary. In fact, I encourage an expansive view of journaling verses limiting ourselves to one notebook with daily entries. I use a combination of Moleskine notebooks, legal pads, Evernote (electronic), and sometimes I use early drafts of my blog posts to record thoughts and ideas. More polished versions of my ideas make it to publication. I’ve also done formal day-by-day journaling, but find this challenging (although much of what I write could simply be added to a daily journal or diary). But, I tend to be more scattered in my thinking — so I have notes everywhere!

Journaling or writing helps us process our thoughts and feelings as well as interpret or capture the world around us. Anything from writing on a scrap of paper to be dropped in the shredder to small entries in a notebook to more involved journaling like Julia Cameron’s “morning pages”3 or the impressive John Quincy Adams Diaries (which I’ve written about in this blog – click here) can be valuable to our ability to process life. Writing can move ideas that may be collecting dust in our heads to the paper and then to meaningful outcomes. It can also help us overcome some of the rumination and mental clutter that robs of our joy.

The important thing I want to convey is writing can be a helpful exercise – even if you only write a couple lines at a time. In fact, Milner points out she had stretches of time where she had limited or no writing. That’s normal. I encourage you to write or record something today, even on a scrap of paper. Don’t try to evaluate — just record what happened. There is a lot of insight and internal power that flows just from observing and then writing down your observations. We can then strive to write and record more frequently. And then, we may quit writing. And then, start writing again. In this process, you may discover a little more about you, what makes you happy, and find A Life of One’s Own.

A Quick Summary of Writing Tips in Keeping a Journal or Diary

  1. Just write. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
  2. Write what you want to write. Don’t write for an audience.
  3. Allow your goals to change and develop as you continue to write.
  4. Add detail verses generalizations.
  5. Describe verses evaluate experiences.

For those of you looking for the main point of this blog post, I encourage you to exit now.

For those of you interested in diving deeper into journaling and the details of how Milner developed her writing, feel free to continue. (One of the benefits of continuing will be insight into Milner’s remarkable wisdom as you read the quotes form her diary/book.)

The Details
Marion Milner writes a helpful chapter on keeping a diary and it’s value to having A Life of One’s Own and finding happiness. For Milner, writing plays an essential part of these discoveries. In her book, she provides many excerpts of her diary including the very beginning stages of recording parts of her life. I find her starting points and development helpful in trying to figure out what to write about for myself. I’ve included many excerpts from Milner’s book in this post in order to share the process, benefits, and challenges of recording parts of our lives. I have reorganized some of these entries and given them headings to make them easier to follow in a blog post.

What to Write About
Milner had a plan for her diary, but found her purpose changed along the way. Initially, she said: “When I set out to keep a diary of what I wanted and of what made me happy I had the idea that it would be a kind of preliminary account-keeping. It was in December, 1926, and I expected that after a few weeks or months I would be able to say: ‘These are the facts of my life, now I’m going to take it in hand for myself and do something about it.'”

“By the end of the day all I could find to say in my diary was: ‘Rather oppressed with the number of things to be done.”

“I seem to have been so discouraged by the first week’s results that I wrote nothing for eight days, except . . . ”

“Here was a week gone and there did not seem to be very much which was important in my life, or if there were important things I was not seeing them.”

Milner ultimately shifted her focus on what to write about. She said she began to live her experiences and record what happened instead evaluating the experience. I found this particularly helpful in writing and in life.

“About this time I came upon many new experiences. Up to now I had been determined to examine my experience in order to find out where and why it was inadequate. Now, when new things were beginning to happen to me, I seem to have felt, for a time at least, that the experience was enough in itsef and that it was better simply to live it, since looking at it too deliberately might spoil it. So, although the diary continues, somewhat intermittently, it becomes more a simple record of external happenings than a deliberate attempt to evaluate and understand them.”

Stopping and Starting
It’s helpful to avoid putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to write everyday, especially at the beginning of a writing process. Notice Milner’s gaps in recording.

“Too tired to write all this week.”

“There are hardly any more notes until May 16th of the following year . . .”

“I feel this morning that my deepest reflexions aren’t worth committing to paper!”

Milner had many profound insights as you will see in the quotations below. As we continue to write, we will also likely discover valuable insights and most likely things about ourselves we would like to change.

“Perhaps that’s why the holidays are sometimes unhappy: you hunt happiness directly, so lose it.”

“I used to trouble what life was for — now being alive seems sufficient reason.”

“I want a chance to play, to do things I choose just for the joy of doing, for no purpose of advancement.”

“Is all this love for the primitive but a result of stunting my own instinctive life?”

“I would like the relationship to give the greatest possible freedom to both of our personalities.”

“I have realized this morning for the first time a new sense of power, power to enfold and protect with a wide calmness – a sea of life in me.”

[I want] “To simplify my environment so that a vacillating will is kept in the ways that I love. Instead of pulled this way and that in response to the suggestion of the crowd and the line of least resistance.”

“Sudden burst of laughs together make me happy”

“What ever you do, do it like Hell.”

“I want — to be carried in the stream because the stream is bigger than I am.”

“I was still trying to find out what I wanted by thinking, and had not yet discovered that only when I stopped thinking would I really know what I wanted.”

“It’s weak and despicable to go on wanting things and not trying to get them.”

“I thought what an awful thing is idealism when reality is so marvelous.”

“But I think happiness is like effect on an audience (when acting), if you think of it all the time you will not get it, you must get lost in the part, lost in your purposes and let the effect be the criterion of you success.”

“I liked the smooth roundness of my body in my bath and would like some else to like it”

“Then I remembered feeling jealous . . . and all my other jealousies and how I won’t own up to myself about unpleasant feelings so I think I’m colourless, emotionless.”

“Last night I was sick of mental things and self-observation.”

“I realized how completely untrustworthy I am in personal relationships, how I take one attitude when with one person and an opposite one with the next person, always agreeing with the person present.”

“I don’t know what I want. I’m a cork bobbing on the tide.”

“One day I’ll make a list of points of conflict with the herd. One is – ‘They’ assume that what happens is what matters, where you go, what you do, things that happen, the good time you have. But often I believe it’s none of these things, it’s the times between, the long days when nothing happens, the odd moments, perhaps when you open a letter, or sit alone in a restaurant, or exchange the time of day with a stranger . . . “

Details Matter When Writing (or Speaking)
“I think particular is safer than general guessing where a particular women bought her hat and writing down a particular daydream is more useful than the above attempted logical analysis.”

“I walked on a dark country road with glimmers of sunset under a hail-storm sky, and wind and Orion clear in a light patch of sky, and laughed till the tears came just at being alive.”

“Exulted in my body and clothes and red skirt and freedom to do as I chose on Sunday morning. After lunch headache and sleep. Evening delight in Chapter I of Ulyssess.”

We Learn as We Go
“I don’t think this diary is much good if it only records feelings. It should be a motive for experiment as well as observation.”

“In reading through my diary I can now see what I did not notice at the time, that the effort of recording my experiences was having an influence on their nature. I was beginning to take notice of and seek way of expressing occurrences which had before been lost in vagueness.”

While Milner began with certain purposes, she allowed herself room to refine her goals and discover what to write in her diary.

“I think pains and hatreds should go in this diary too.”

“Writing down my experiences then seemed to be a creative act which continually lit up new possibilities in what I had seen.”

“Instead I felt an urge to go on and on writing, with my interest gradually shifting from what to do with my life to how to look at it.”

“I have given selections from my diary, trying to make them as representative as possible, in order to give an idea of the raw material from which my enterprise began. I have said that the results of keeping this record were not what I had intended. I had not found that it enabled me to balance up the facts of my life and decide what to do about it; it had only enabled me to see more facts and given me the sense that the more I wrote the more I should see. I think I must have had a dim knowledge that the act of seeing was more important to me than what I saw since In never read through what I had written and never opened my note-book again for a year after.”


A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley.

2 From the American Heritage Dictionary:
Diary: 1a.“A usually daily written record of personal experiences and observations; a journal.”
Journal: 1a. “A personal record of occurrences, experiences, and reflections kept on a regular basis; a diary.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fifth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boston. New York.

3Julia Cameron. The Artist Way. A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. TarcherParigee. New York. 1992.

Jesus Follower, Blogger, Public Speaker.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized
2 comments on “Keeping a Journal or Diary
  1. Resa says:

    Excellent post, Dave!
    I’ve been writing for no one my entire life. I’ve thrown much away, but have also kept much. This post has inspired me to gather up my jotted notes, paragraphs and random letters never sent.
    I can’t turn my place upside down, so from now on, instead of musing over something when I bump into it, then leave it, I will put it in a special box. I have the perfect one.
    Thank you, and stay safe!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: