What are we looking for when we open up the blank pages of a diary (or a new document on a laptop) to write about our lives?
A way to process emotions that don’t make sense? A record of our days for future reference? Or secret messages for an imaginary reader who may never crack our code?
I was prompted to reflect on this last week when listening to a radio interview with Ben Brooks-Dutton, whose wife Desreen was hit by a car and killed in November 2012 while walking home from a friend’s house with her husband and their two-year-old son.
Ben was talking to Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about his decision to write a blog, Life As A Widower, to describe his grief and loss after this shocking bereavement.
He spoke about his need to ‘fix’ those feelings, saying: ‘Human beings’ capacity to forget pain is enormous, and in many ways that is a good and necessary thing. Morbid as it may sound, though, it filled me with dread to imagine that I ever might forget the agony of my loss.’
Humans have long shared an impulse to capture our emotions in this way. The difference is that Ben Brooks-Dutton chose to share his insights and self-expressions with thousands of others by writing it as a blog.
‘I could have written it all down in a diary,’ he admitted. ‘But that wouldn’t have achieved anything.’
Ben’s intention in starting his blog was as much about the process of sharing as it was about the process of writing.
Having struggled to connect with anyone in a similar situation, he hoped to make links with other men who’d lost their partners and were bringing up children as single dads. He also intended to encourage people who’d been bereaved to open up about their own feelings and achieve a healing connection with each other.
The response to Ben’s blog has been enormous, with more than 13,000 followers – many of whom offer comments on their own bereavements as well as encouragement to the young widower, who is still feeling his way as a single dad.
Ben has now written a book about his experiences, ‘It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy’. A return to a more traditional medium, perhaps – but he plans to continue with the blog nonetheless, valuing daily interaction with his followers, who have now become a nebulous support network.
It’s all a sharp contrast to the secret diaries on display at a new exhibition in the V&A’s Museum of Childhood, which opened last week and showcases some of the 1,500 private journals from the Great Diary Project Archive.
The oldest journal on display dates back 200 years to 1814, unveiling such shocking truths from 14-year-old boarding school pupil Raleigh Trevelyan as: ‘Heard from Mama. Had my neck washed. Did not get to sleep until 4am on account of the fleas.’
I was a committed diary-keeper from the age of 11 until about 21. In that time my preoccupations changed enormously, from entries focused entirely on school lunches and TV (‘had fish fingers at dinnertime. Couldn’t stop thinking...who did shoot JR?’) to X-rated fantasy crushes on boys with nose piercings and Nirvana T-shirts. Whether dull or salacious, the thought that I might have enshrined this angsty outpouring in a blog fills me with horror.
After leaving university, I went travelling for a year. There, I met my diarising match in a willowy Aussie whose journal-keeping was even more avid than mine. After several weeks of backpacking together, I succumbed to temptation and took a peek at his diary. To my dismay, he’d written: ‘Travelling with an English girl. She’ll do for now but she’s no Cindy Crawford.’
Before we parted ways, I found a photo of the Nineties supermodel and stuck it into his journal with a speech bubble saying: ‘I’ll do for now, but I’m no Sally Hall’.
He never said anything about it, and neither did I.
I guess some of our writing is meant to be shared – and some should be kept secret forever.