To Diary or To Journal?
What is the Question?
Ever since the publication of Richard Burton’s diary last year, I’ve been thinking about diaries and journals, trying to differentiate between the two in an effort to determine which one is best for writers to keep.
After much reflection, I came up with a definition of diary: a document that provides a list of activities in a person’s life, often recorded daily—it could compare to plot or action in a fiction work, which is different from story, what the book is about.
A journal, on the other hand, serves as a confessional of sorts, where the writer pours out his feelings, rather than just recording what he did on a particular day. It can contain musings, poems, ideas for books and book titles, bits of dialogue, even postcards—anything the person fancies.
Often writers keep a combination of the two, their entries falling into a hybrid category. I believe such is the case with Burton’s diaries, written between 1939 and 1983. They cover his career and much publicized two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor.
Although Burton lets us know what movie he’s acting in, what premiere he’s attending, who he’s meeting with, he offers plenty of insights into the man. The picture he reveals is that of a complex human being, haunted by demons, and consumed by alcohol.
His drinking, in fact, plays a leading role in many of his entries. Six consecutive ones consist of just one word: “Booze.”
And despite his claim that he enjoyed being famous and rich, he writes, “I loathe, loathe, loathe acting,” the same vehicle that provided his wealth and fame.
For writers of memoirs, a diary can provide a helpful chronology of events, and a journal, on the other hand, insights into the theme, even the defining moment that inspired the memoir.
While working on my own memoir, I was fortunate to have inherited my mother’s’ compulsion for keeping scrapbooks, which I consider a graphic journal, containing postcards, letters, newspaper articles of the time I was writing about. What I did not inherit from her was neatness. While finding the scrapbooks came easy, getting a hold of my writings was a different story. They were in notebooks everywhere, not all of them marked “Journal,” and on napkins and scrap papers stuck inside those notebooks.
Once I came to a passage where I mentioned a trip from Miami to Pasco, Washington. I remembered the day as being long and exhausting and couldn’t figure out why a trip that today would take four to five hours at the most would feel so draining. Then I found a napkin from the plane where I had written an account of the day. On it, I recorded everything, the different planes we had taken, three of them, with name of airlines and flight numbers, the hours we waited between flights, the meals we had, and even that I got airsick at one point. Although I had more information that I needed, it was helpful to put in context the arduous feelings the day had provoked.
So, back to the question. To Diary or to Journal? For writers, there should be no such question, only a reminder to record important events in the writer’s life as well as feelings generated by those events, and ideas the person has for future works. The mind forgets. Only what is written down, like in the case of my napkin, can inspire or inform our creativity.