Keeping a diary is an activity cherished by many authors. It has helped them express their feelings as well as exercise their writing memory by recalling experiences.
Developing a good writing memory—that is, an ability to remember events and experiences from a storytelling perspective—is essential for authors. It allows them to be productive and effective in expressing thoughts, feelings, and opinions, which is the cornerstone of good writing.
As a practice, keeping a diary became very popular in the Victorian era, and it continued to be so for many decades, right until the Digital Revolution. Things then changed dramatically.
Nowadays, keeping a diary is not what it used to be. The notepad and pen have been replaced by a mobile phone that is rarely used to systematically note down thoughts and feelings. Rather, it is mostly used to take photos and share them with friends on social media.
On a superficial level, it might feel like a somewhat similar activity, and perhaps in some ways it is. After all, taking pictures and documenting your life visually feels a bit like keeping a diary, right? And yet, there is something missing.
From a writer’s perspective, taking photos lacks the complexity and subtleness of writing; sharing them with others certainly lacks the mystique and secretive nature of keeping a diary. But most crucially, by taking and sharing photos instead of keeping a diary, an author’s writing memory lacks a useful training tool.
Writing is not about “coming up with things,” as if from thin air. Before an author writes about anything at all, they need to experience the world around them. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, a good writing memory is imperative for good writing.
Exercising your writing memory means recalling details of facts or experiences in a manner similar to reading (and writing) a narrative: You learn to organize your thoughts in a coherent manner—at the same time expanding your vocabulary—since you learn to be analytical and accurate in your reminiscence.
In this post, I’ll show you how to improve your writing memory with three special diaries. I’ve used all three of them, and I can confirm, it really works! It’s easy, fun, and effective.
Some people keep a dream diary on the advice of their therapist, as it purportedly helps one understand their subconscious. I’m not qualified to say whether it works for that purpose, but I can tell you this: It’s an excellent way to improve your writing memory, in ways you probably don’t even realize.
The nature of dreams is usually nonsensical from a narrative point of view. Dreams can begin in the middle of a scene, so to speak, and often we wake up before a conclusion. Everything occurs “here and now” and often in a staccato kind of way, with events and people rapidly following one another. On top of everything, feelings are often accentuated in dreams.
Furthermore, have you ever tried to tell your dream to someone? The words elude you; you probably find it hard to express what happened. Even if you manage, the reality of what you express with words seems somehow lacking compared to the dream.
What I have realized is that these reasons make keeping a dream diary an excellent writing exercise.
If you’re a fiction writer, keeping a dream diary is a magnificent way to understand how to express feelings, as dreams mostly lack reason and coherence, at least compared to waking consciousness.
Similarly for nonfiction writers, a dream diary teaches you great habits about remembering events and connections between them. A dream’s incoherent nature can teach you how to focus on the memorable aspects of an event, bypassing less important, distracting details.
And whether you write fiction or nonfiction, keeping a dream diary really forces you to learn how to express difficult concepts in sense-making narrative threads. A dream diary not only helps you remember your experiences, but it also trains your mind to find the right words to express them. Win-win!
This is something I tried when I realized I could still remember most of my schoolmates from elementary school. More still, I could remember random details such as their wristwatch, or a funny joke they once told me.
So, I created a list, which I named “All the people I have ever met,” organized according to the different areas of my life. There was a section for elementary school, another for university, and so on.
I added as many details as I could recall. For instance, I wrote a person’s name, a description of them, and a memorable experience we shared.
The diary perhaps seems difficult at first, when you have to fill in the details of so many people, but it quickly gets easier, as you catch up with the present day.
Keeping a diary like this not only helped me recall an incredible amount of experiences, but it also taught me how to express these memories in a short, descriptive manner. It’s an excellent way to learn how to infuse your narratives with the maximum meaning in the shortest span of text.
Keeping such a diary would be very helpful to fiction and nonfiction writers alike, depending on what they’d like to focus on. If you’re a fiction writer, you might want to assign greater importance on listing memorable experiences and their associated emotions.
I quickly realized I preferred to write fewer descriptive details and more emotive ones. I often wrote not so much about what I did or where I went with a specific person, but how doing this or that thing with them made me feel.
If you’re a nonfiction writer, you could instead focus on descriptions and interpersonal connections. Did person A know person B? Was person C aware of something person B was not?
Keeping a diary with these kinds of details can be a great tool for the nonfiction writer’s memory, as it allows them to train their ability to discover connections, recall patterns, and understand an often ignored or forgotten bigger picture.
This is my most recent discovery. I was inspired to try a diary like this after a large chunk of snow fell off the roof of a building only a few feet away from me. I began thinking of all the what-ifs, all the little divergence points that led me to be at that spot in that moment, and I thought it might make an intriguing writing exercise to actually express these what-ifs in written form.
I take a mundane, everyday event and concoct a what-if, alternative scenario. For example, “What if I hadn’t made it to the bus and had to wait for another 10 minutes at the bus stop?” Then I write a paragraph or two at most, coming up with an imaginary event.
This kind of what-if diary works a bit like a dream diary: It trains your writing memory by forcing you to focus on experiences that are not memorable, overcoming limitations in the way we perceive things.
Our brains filter out what they perceive as unnecessary details in order to help us recall what might be more important. By purposefully focusing on such non-memorable experiences, you learn to become more cognizant of your environment. This helps you better remember the little details that can make a difference in fiction and nonfiction writing alike.
At the same time, keeping a what-if diary trains your ability to see and create cause-and-effect patterns—a great asset for a writer.
As I explained in my post about sensory exercises for writers, understanding cause-and-effect patterns is important because it allows a writer to have a sense of how one idea is connected with and causes another. In other words, experimenting with cause-and-effect patterns greatly improves the cohesion of your texts.
In a way, you can think of a what-if diary as a lucid dream diary of sorts: It’s still imaginary, but you can control where the narrative is going.
And, just like the dream diary, the what-if diary can be extremely useful to fiction and nonfiction writers alike. After all, a cohesive text is a must whether you write short stories, academic essays, or blog posts about marketing.
Keep entries in your what-if diary short. There’s nothing wrong with expanding one of the entries and turning it into a short story, but the key here is continuity. If you feel obliged to write more than a couple of short paragraphs at a time, it might start to feel too difficult, and you might give up on the diary.
Overall, as a common piece of advice for all three diaries, remember this: It’s supposed to be fun! Keep it short, simple, and interesting. Keeping a diary (let alone three) doesn’t mean you have to write every day in it. It’s more important that it’s consistent.
Once a week on a regular basis is better than five days in a row and then four weeks without a single entry.
Few of us remember what we had for dinner two Sundays ago, if it wasn’t some special occasion. And yet, a majority of us probably remember things like the first day of school or our first kiss.
This at first might seem like a paradox. Our mind has real trouble remembering an event that took place two weeks ago, and yet it effortlessly remembers even vivid details about something that could be decades old.
Of course, the explanation is that one event is memorable and the other is not. As I mentioned, unless the dinner was something special—in other words, memorable—it is filtered out. Conversely, an experience that affects us, such as a major life event, is placed in a special little box in our mind and treasured for a long time, perhaps forever.
Keeping diaries such as these has the purpose of training your writing memory, helping you better understand this little box in your mind. In a way, keeping a diary is not unlike an extension of our thinking, only in written form, more coherent, and easier to understand.
Isn’t that what writing should be about?
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.