Creating the Self Anew: The Art of Journalling

“Through reflecting on the concrete reality of our immediate experience, and through giving voice to our perceptions, intuitions, and “felt-sense” of things, we create ourselves anew”. – Marlene A. Schiwy from: Taking Things Personally: Women, Journal Writing, and Self-Creation

As the new year gets underway, I find myself wondering what to do with the collection of journals I’ve accumulated over the years. There are over two hundred notebooks of various sizes and colours dating from the early eighties when I had to make a diary over the Christmas holiday for school. I was eleven then; now I am in my late forties. What has compelled me to write almost daily about my experiences, feelings, inspirations and dreams?

I write my journal from a compulsion both to record and to understand the world, for the act of writing about events brings a deep connection to myself away from all the distractions vying for my attention.

Dipping into early journals from my teenage years, I am struck by my sense of frustration and negativity. But I can see I am already developing strategies to escape, even if they are only in my imagination. I am desperately hungry for life outside the prison of home, a life beyond my parents’ fears and limitations.

It is comforting to know that I am in good company: there is a rich tradition of women documenting their lives, locating themselves on the page and bearing witness to their experiences when historically their achievements were often disregarded by the dominant society. Though originally written to be strictly for the authors’ eyes only, it is none the less fortunate that some of these have filtered down to us and are accessible today as they are a valuable window into the creative and psychological struggles of artists and writers, and deeply inspiring.

As Virginia Woolf writes about the act of keeping a diary in relation to her more formal writing:

“…it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull’s eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.”


From A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf

Anais Nin also began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals that chronicle her rich interior life.

“It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments. Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

For Nin, writing was the strongest element in her divided and chaotic self: “No matter what disintegrating influence I was experiencing, the writing was an act of wholeness.

For my new series of work, I photograph random pages from my journals through all the decades and layer it with an image of a famous woman diarist in history. The third layer is a drawing from my Personal Learning Journal, a required element of my training to become a qualified psychotherapist.

If you are tempted to throw your diaries away, or don’t know what to do with them, you might consider donating them here:

3 thoughts on “Creating the Self Anew: The Art of Journalling

  1. Fantastic Sarah. I’m looking forward to seeing this work. I’ve kept a journal in some form or other since I was given a five year diary on my 11th birthday in the ’70s. I have boxes of them dotted around the place. Some are really intense writing periods. Others quick entries. In the last 20 years or so I haven’t kept a journal as such, but I have had notebooks which I put in my ‘to do’ lists, bits of languages I am trying to learn, useful websites and tickets of events I have attended. They are a journal of sorts and they speak to my life as much as my earlier efforts. Sadly tickets are increasingly rare as mementos now because everything gets sent to the dreaded smartphone 😦

    1. Thank you Jenny. I love hearing about other people’s diary-writing and how it has evolved. Mine also contain lists and cut-out bits from here and there, doodles and tickets from exhibitions etc, as well as reflections, observations, concerns. Sometimes, I just write about what is directly around me where ever I am, like snatches of overheard conversation on a train or a cafe, for example. I feel lost if I haven’t got my journal with me!
      You’re right about how much is lost now everything is digital (I feel old saying that!). But definitely a lot of originality and authenticity that you get from seeing variations in someone’s handwriting, or a stain or tear on a page or ticket that provokes a memory or association.
      Have you come across this: ? They are rescuing and archiving people’s diaries to save them from being thrown away and ‘silenced’. It’s such a great resource, and a possible sanctuary for our journals if we can’t keep them logistically, or are tempted to throw them away.

  2. You don’t have to be that old to remember life before digitisation do you?! It’s incredible the rate of change, and important, I feel, to hang on to the non digital world. Boy, as I write those words I realise we could talk for hours about what that means. Meanwhile, thanks for the link. It’s a brilliant project.

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