The benefits of exploring identity through diary writing practice

The benefits of exploring identity through diary writing practice

The benefits of exploring identity through diary writing practice

I am like a dinosaur when it comes to diary writing. I have kept a diary since childhood. I’m now 72.  The diary is part of me. Why?

Early this week I was conversing with daughter Amanda, 46, about my diary collection, wondering out loud who might take care of it when “I’m gone”. Amanda said rather firmly that she would not want the diaries. “I don’t want to read about what you were thinking and feeling about this and that when you are no longer here,” she said. “I have my own memories, and this is enough for me. I want to remember you as I know you now, as my mum.”

When Amanda departed for home, I looked at the bookcase full of diaries in my writing room, and the three diaries that I am keeping this year and began to ponder why the diary means so much to me. Why do I want to release thoughts and feelings onto the page?

I was given a diary as a Christmas gift at age 11, in the same year I developed anorexia nervosa. I did not know anybody else who kept a diary (I didn’t know anyone else who had anorexia, either), but that little diary and I quickly became best friends. An enduring friendship was forged from day one.

Over the years, the diary has been a survival tool, a coping tool, a recovery tool, and a maintenance tool. Today it is largely a reflective tool. Always, the diary has been a help in piecing together threads of my identity and working out who I am. It has been a constant companion through each season of the life cycle.

The diary can be a universal healer, informer and research tool

Not until I was in my sixties and was encouraged to undertake a PhD, exploring the use of diary-writing as a therapy for eating disorders, did I become aware of the untapped potential of diaries outside my small, private world. I suddenly realised that the diary had many roles, including  those as a universal healer, informer and research tool.

I discovered other writers who, while not specifically focused on eating disorders, have explored questions of identity and identity formation in their diary writing practices. These writers include Anäis Nin (ref), Marion Milner (ref), Virginia Woolf (ref), Vera Brittain (ref), Susan Sontag (ref), and Tristine Rainer (refs). Each of these writers has used the diary as a tool to document and seek resolution to and of personal struggles encountered in the process of creating and writing, and has drawn on private work recorded in that way to produce creative texts for the public. For instance, Sontag (1933-2004) used her diary to study and analyze the deepest threads of self, such as doubts and dreams, and process them. The bid to blend the inner and outer self, the dreams with the realities, to create an “identity just out of reach in the future” (Maunsell, 2011, p. 13), was for Sontag a fulfilling journey and process as long as life itself.

Diary-keeping, primarily a private pastime, has been shown to be helpful in developing many parts of the mind including memory, imagination, feelings, dream imagery and intuition (Rainer 1978, p. xii). To focus on only one element, Rainer cautions, however, would be like trying to play a musical instrument knowing only one chord (The New Diary, 2004 page vii).

An intervention tool for trauma and abuse

The diary’s many uses include being an intervention tool for trauma, abuse and increasing understanding of other clinical ailments (Pennebaker, 1997). Examples include as a rehabilitative intervention to aid psychological recovery in intensive care patients; acknowledging, measuring and providing insights into the experience of patients; and healing of emotional wounds. Pennebaker’s narrative work in the field of trauma (1997, 1999, 2007) draws on the reflective characteristics of diary writing in coping with painful emotion. For example, the process of writing as a method of releasing and externalizing suppressed traumatic experience, and progressively reading it back and reflecting on this, can lead over time to the conscious placement and management of the traumatic experience in the context of overall life experience, thus facilitating healing. Furthermore, writing about positive thoughts, feelings and events, as well as disclosing those that are negative, has been shown to be beneficial in achieving improved wellbeing.

Proponents of “gratitude journals” (2004, p vii), including Breathnach (2011), suggest that the diary helps one to see that life is not all bad, and this kind of use also assists in connecting with the “authentic self”.

The diary has ability to connect all parts of self

For someone who defines themselves by their eating disorder, a shift in identity toward a more authentic and complex sense of self is crucial to their recovery and ability to re-enter mainstream life. In my PhD, I aimed to explore how the diary could assist in the construction of such an authentic identity, which would involve the writer in re-scripting and developing a more realistic and deeper understanding of themselves and their emotional and physical needs. Progoff (1977) was a pioneer in revealing the diary as a tool for cultivating personal growth, in and by which the diarist could strive to harmonize the rhythms of the inner and outer parts of their life (Rainer, p9). In this way, Progoff’s view of the diary’s ability to connect all parts of self, reflects that of Lejeune (p. 179).

As noted by Lejeune, (2009, p 178) the diary represents freedom in the recording of thoughts, yet is regimented, defined by the clock and calendar. As such, it also represents a genre of exploration, providing a method for internal reflection and observation, and external analysis. In reviewing dates and entries, patterns can be traced and recognized, allowing consideration of private diary excerpts in a more universal context of experience and life.

The diary is worthy of respect in its own right, as a genre

Sontag (1933–2004), whose diaries comprised almost 100 notebooks (Maunsell, 2011), was among several writers (e.g. Brittain, Nin, Woolf) leading up to and during the rise of Feminism in the 1960s, who raised the profile of the diary (which had been seen as a subsidiary to other literary works) as a document worthy of respect in its own right, as a genre.

The work of Sontag on the illness experience has also been influential, for she continually strove to both gain deeper insight and care of herself through her diary writing, as well as hone her literary skills (Maunsell). (For more discussion on interest in women’s diaries by feminist and women’s studies scholars, and on women’s history, see Alexander, Brien et al.).

While Lejeune put forward a succinct definition for the process of creating a diary, (Paperno, 2004) observed “it is a common opinion that scholars do not know what to do with diaries” (Paperno, 2004, p. 565). Private diaries, Paperno posits, with their blend of personal observations, reflections and facts, elude defined structure both as a genre and cultural phenomenon. Alaszewski (2006) contends diaries are much more than mere records of events, feelings and a witness to suffering; they also are imaginative, creative works, and a foundation for new works. Fictional writer Kafka, for instance, writes of the need to self-examine in his diary (Kafka (1976), 7 November 1921):

The inescapable duty to observe oneself: if someone else is observing me, naturally I have to observe myself too; if none observes me, I have to observe myself all the closer.

More recently, the diary, due to developments on the Internet since the 1990s, has entered an ambiguous area between public and private (McNeill, 2003). The diary’s functions in this context have been explored, interpreted, and applied in numerous ways (McNeill). Today the diary genre continues to reflect its pre-modern understanding, where diary writing was considered a deeply private and personal activity, shared with close others if at all, but also embraces the online forms of diary writing, where entries may be shared publicly, and readers may be unknown (Lejeune 2009; McNeill 2003).

Whether the diary comprises a traditional private pen and paper volume, or online format, it can be considered as a means for thinking “through the seam between the private and the public self”, allowing the self to emerge through the writing process rather than necessarily as a reflection of the diarist’s real experience (Serfaty, 2004, p. 462).

My diary is primarily for me – it helps me know who I am

Reading academic works about the diary, more than 50 years after I became a diarist, was a revelation. To learn that other writers felt the same as me about the written word was both exciting and comforting. I have no doubt that besides helping me to survive and understand who I am, the practice of diary writing has led to the added benefits of finely-tuned observational skills, ability to attend to detail, and ability to express thoughts and feelings in writing (if not verbally).

I am grateful for my daughter’s honesty in sharing her perspective. My diaries may not be of interest to her, or her brothers, or my grandchildren, or other descendants after my last diary entry is made, but that does not matter. Primarily the diary is for me. The diary helps me to know who I am.

If my diaries happen to be helpful for others in understanding who they are, and in working out their identity, then that will be a bonus.

Three diary formats for 2023

This year, my diaries comprise:

  • An online format that I call my “Family Diary”. In this open diary I record and narrate what family members are doing throughout the year. This diary format, which is synchronised across computer and cell phone, offers the opportunity for creativity and the inclusion of things like text conversations, photographs, snapshots of handwritten messages, concert and sport event tickets, and maps. At the end of each year, a hard copy printout is added to the family of diaries in the bookcase. In 2022, the Family Diary tallied 632 pages.
  • The next diary is a traditional, private, one-day-to-a-page, pen-and-paper diary in which I can explore deeper thoughts and feelings (writing a personal diary is like having a conversation between you and yourself; if writing with the thought that “someone will read this” this will impact the effectiveness and benefit of diary writing; private diary writing requires one to be totally open and honest with oneself).
  • The third diary I’m keeping this year is pocket-sized and is for the recording of appointments and events.
Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – PhD details

More details about the benefits of diary-writing can be found here:

Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders


Alaszewski, A. (2006). Diaries as a source of suffering narratives: A critical commentary. Health, Risk & Society, 8(1), 43-58.

Alexander, J. (2011). A Girl Called Tim _ Escape from an Eating Disorder Hell. Sydney: New Holland Publishers.

Alexander, J., Brien, D. L., & McAllister, M. (2015). Diaries are ‘better than novels, more accurate than histories, and even at times more dramatic than plays’.

Alexander, J., McAllister, M., & Brien, D. L. (2016). Exploring the diary as a recovery-oriented therapeutic tool. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 25(1), 19-26 18p. doi:10.1111/inm.12179

Breathnach, C. (2016). Professional patienthood and mortality: Seán Ó Ríordáin’s diaries 1974-1977. Medical Humanities, 42(2), 92-96. doi:10.1136/medhum-2015-010828

Breathnach, S. B. (2011). Simple abundance: A daybook of comfort and joy: Hachette UK.

Brittain, V. ([1933] 1994). Testament of youth: An autobiographical study of the years 1900-1925 NewYork: Penguin.

Kafka, F. (1976). Collected writings. London: Secker, 558.

Maunsell, J. B. (2011). The writer’s diary as device: The making of Susan Sontag in “Reborn: Early diaries 1947-1963”. Journal of Modern Literature, 35, 1-20. doi:10.2979/jmodelite.35.1.1

McNeill, L. (2003). Teaching an old genre new tricks: The diary on the Internet, 24.

McNeill, L. (2010). Rethinking the diary. Canadian Literature(207), 153-154.

Milner, M. (1981 (1934)). A life of one’s own. Los Angeles: J P Tarcher.

Milner, M. (1986 (1939)). An experiment in leisure. London: Virago Press.

Milner, M. (1987b). Eternity’s sunrise: A way of keeping a diary. London: Virago Press.

Nin, A. (1978). Linotte: The early diary of Anais Nin 1914-1920 (1st ed.): Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Paperno, I. (2004). What can be done with diaries?, 561.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2007). Expressive writing, emotional upheavals, and health. In H. S. Friedman & R. C. Silver (Eds.), Foundations of health psychology (pp. 263-284). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55(10), 1243-1254.

Progoff, I. (1977). At a journal workshop: The basic text and guide for using the Intensive Journal: Dialogue House Library.

Rainer, T. (1978). The new diary: How to use a journal for self-guidance and expanded creativity.

Los Angeles: JP Tarcher Los Angeles.

Rainer, T. (2004). The new diary: How to use a journal for self-guidance and expanded creativity. New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin.

Serfaty, V. (2004). Online diaries: Towards a structural approach. Journal of American Studies, 38(3), 457-471. doi:10.1017/S0021875804008746

Sontag, S. (2008). Reborn: Journals and notebooks, 1947-1963: Macmillan.

Woolf, V., Bell, Q., & Bell, A. O. (1977). The diary of Virginia Woolf: Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1979.

June Alexander

About June Alexander

All articles by June Alexander

As founder of Life Stories Diary my prime motivation is to connect with people who want to share their story. Why? Because your story is important. My goal with this blog is to provide a platform for you to share your story with others. Building on the accomplishments of The Diary Healer the Life Stories Diary blog will continue to be a voice for people who have experienced an eating disorder, trauma or other mental health challenge, and provide inspiration through the narrative, to live a full and meaningful life.

My nine books about eating disorders focus on learning through story-sharing. Prior to writing books, which include my memoir, I had a long career in print journalism. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing), researching the usefulness of journaling and writing when recovering from an eating disorder or other traumatic experience.
Today I combine my writing expertise with life experience to help others self-heal. Clients receive mentoring in narrative techniques and guidance in memoir-writing. I also share my editing expertise with people who are writing their story and wish to prepare it to publication standard. I encourage everyone to write their story. Your story counts!
Contact me: Email and on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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