This post is written by Murray McLean, a SGSAH-funded third-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Murray’s research concerns the law and culture of weddings in Scotland since the 1930s, and he can be found on Twitter @McLeanMurray.
The journalist Christopher Silver recently tweeted that keeping a diary was the best form of self-care he’d ever undertaken. If you’re anything like me, self-care has become yet another neglected sub-section of your to-do list, quietly gnawing away at your poor, tired nerves. But I’ve been keeping a diary for over a year now and, seeing that tweet, it occurred to me that it really is a form of self-care that I’d been doing without realising it. Now, I know what you’re thinking: the last thing you need is something else to write, on top of conference abstracts, funding and job applications, articles, book reviews, blog posts… oh, and that small matter of the literally book-length thesis that’s supposedly the actual point of this whole endeavour. All that being said, let me try and convince you that there might be something to be gained from taking a bit of time to recap your day in written form. The arguments in favour are many, but I’ve boiled it down to six:
- It will show you just how productive you already are. One of the major stresses of research is the lack of structure, and it can be easy to lapse into unhealthy comparisons with friends and family who are out putting in a more conventionally respectable 9 to 5. Combine that with a growing cult of overwork and you have the perfect recipe for guilt and exhaustion. However, if you attempt to be remotely comprehensive in keeping a diary, you’ll quickly realise that even what felt like a lazy non-starter of a day was in fact crammed with an unspeakable multitude of thoughts and actions and experiences. You begin to appreciate the sheer quantity of labour that goes into just being alive. In that context, whatever ‘proper’ work you managed to do will begin to seem a remarkable achievement.
- It might actually be good for your research. One of the first pieces of advice given to me by a supervisor was to keep a dedicated research diary – as an ‘intellectual foil’, as he put it. As with much good advice, I basically ignored this (I’m aware of the irony), but I have found that writing about my research in a general diary has led to a few epiphanies, much in the way that some people claim to have their best ideas in the shower. Beyond these ‘aha’ moments, however, the simple fact of situating your research within the mundanities of everyday life has the quietly radical effect of reminding you that academic writing doesn’t drop fully formed from the heavens, but is the product of actual work by actual humans.
- It’s the perfect bedtime ritual. If you’re constantly promising yourself you’ll stop looking at screens before bed, writing your diary is the perfect alternative. Not only is it the sort of charmingly analogue activity that will make you feel smugly virtuous as your friends scroll through Twitter into the early hours; it also forces you to reflect on and unwind from the events of the day. Think of it as exorcising the thoughts that would otherwise become fodder for that internal monologue that seems to start up with a vengeance the minute your head hits the pillow.
- It’s a great way of beating the blank page. Writing is something PhD students are liable to agonise and procrastinate over, but it’s a skill like anything else and so becomes easier, or at least more manageable, with practice. Keeping a diary forces you to write something – anything – every day. The American author Dawn Powell kept a diary full of snippets of conversation and vignettes of everyday life she’d observed; in recording these she honed her writing style, and some of them made it into her novels and stories. It’s a principle that apples to academic writing as well. You might be surprised how well articulating the intricate humiliations of everyday life prepares you for concisely deploying even the most baroque cultural theory (Accidentally made eye-contact with the person sitting opposite you in the library and then bumped into them again in the toilets? You let it out, honey, put it in the book).
- It’s literally history you’re writing. To be honest, my main motivation for starting to keep a diary was the fact that I love using them so much in my research as a historian. Specifically, it was reading the inimitable Naomi Mitchison’s WWII diary that compelled me to start my own. Mitchison was a particularly astute observer of people and of current events, but I firmly believe that the experience of every human being is of inherent historical interest. And even if no historian ever gets their hands on it, you’ll be surprised how useful it is to have a chronicle of your own recent history (though apparently using it to settle minor disputes about housework is ‘weirdly sinister’ and ‘one of the reasons I’m leaving you, Murray’).
- It’s a chance to vent. If the above makes it seem like my own diary must be a pious record of research and self-reflection, I feel I should stress that it’s based on the ideal rather than the reality. For every constructive observation there are about thirty self-pitying treatises on the state of my research/waistline/commitment to socialism, which both I and the historical record could probably do without. But who knows where they’d end up if not in the diary? If nothing else, then, a diary can serve as a useful pressure valve. And if it ends up full of only those thoughts you can’t respectably commit to a public forum, you’ll at least have the romantic and cathartic option of burning it eventually, like some nineteenth-century poet agonising away in a garret. And if that’s not self-care, I don’t know what is.
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