While flipping through a diary from 2010, Sophie Spruce found a ticket stub between the pages. The English senior could barely make out the faded writing, which read How to Train Your Dragon. Scrawled in pencil underneath is a dated diary entry of when she saw it with friends.
This diary is one of almost a dozen Spruce keeps in a box beneath her bed.
Spruce has kept a diary since she was five years old.
“I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve always liked writing things down. So, the earlier ones are lots of like sketches and drawings — you know, just a kid, like, goofing off,” she said. “As I got older, it became more things that I’m doing, people I’m going out with, or sometimes it would be, you know, how I’m feeling about certain situations and a way to help me process through my feelings.”
For Spruce, keeping a diary is about self-reflection — a form of expression where she doesn’t have to worry about what others think because nobody else will read it.
“It’s a good way to vent things. It’s a good way to help, I guess, stay emotionally balanced,” she said. “I can express feelings that I might not be able to express to everybody.”
Diary writing is a tool for self-insight, said William Ickes, distinguished professor of psychology.
“There are not only cognitive benefits but emotional and health benefits as well,” he said. “Keeping a diary or journaling helps you understand yourself better and achieve greater clarity about your strengths and weaknesses, your abilities and interests, and your goals and values.”
He said it also helps people process traumatic events.
In Ickes’ lab, he has conducted studies that compare people with a weak and a strong sense of self. Although his lab hasn’t studied diary keeping, blogging or journaling, he said he predicts that those activities should help strengthen self-identity.
Adolescents with borderline personality disorder, for example, might be helped through diary-keeping and related activities to achieve a stronger and more confident sense of self that they can use to guide their decisions and actions, he said.
“It is a form of therapy that you can go off and do on your own,” he said. “It may actually enhance the course of traditional psychotherapy.”
Every diary is an account of highly individual life experience, said Desiree Henderson, associate professor of English and author of How to Read a Diary. Those records help flesh out the past and become a place where that account survives.
The single most taught diary in the world is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Henderson said.
The story is compelling and powerful; it’s short and helpful to read, she said. The narrative voice gives people a sense of identification with Frank.
In one of her history classes, Spruce said her professor emphasized that people can’t look at history with the hindsight of knowing what’s going to happen.
“You have to look at it as people did in the time,” Spruce said. “And people didn’t know how things were going to turn out, historically, in their present day.”
People today engage in autobiographical writing all the time because of social media, Henderson said. They also consume autobiographical forms related to the diary.
Ickes said diary writing should differ from the online diary, such as Twitter or Facebook posts, because those are written for a larger potential audience. The blogger, in most cases, tries to create a somewhat larger than life on-screen persona to entertain rather than self-reflect.
However, he said he does think the personal written diary may be written for others as well, only for a more intimate audience.
“There may be some truth in the idea that, maybe even most of the time, when people go to the trouble to create a diary or some other written record like it, that they have in mind that somebody else is going to read it eventually,” he said.
For Spruce, a diary is sloppy, expressive and colorful. When she was younger, hers were plastered in “puppy dog stickers” with half-written entries and sloppy sketches. Her recent diaries display floral patterns, she said, with ticket stubs, photos and postcards taped inside.
“It’s fun to be able to look back and remember all those things, specifically, from my point of view and not anybody else’s,” Spruce said.
Spruce said she uses her diary consistently, almost two or three times a week, if not more.
“I’ll probably do it for the rest of my life,” she said.