Why we keep Diaries

Your future self is watching you right now through your memories.’

Aubrey De Grey

Why do we keep diaries? Who do we write our memoirs for exactly, even to the point of editing parts of our daily life out? Is it for our own enjoyment and benefit, so that in our dotage we might sit one day and reminisce on what a marvellous time we had in our heyday? Or is it that by editing ourselves in secret, we do so in the hope that one day someone will discover our words and learn about us and see us in a more favourable light? In that case, is it legitimate to edit out the bits we really don’t want people to know? Or should we leave in just enough salaciousness and debauchery to cause intrigue?

Maybe it is more simplistic than that and we keep diaries to finally say the things we couldn’t when we were alive?

Roger Casement, a diplomat and Irish Nationalist, hanged in 1916 for his part in the Easter uprising, kept two diaries. One, known as his white diary, in which he documented his dealings for the British Foreign Office as a diplomat, notably in the Congo and Peru, and a second, more personal account which included his soliciting of young men seemingly at every opportunity, and in every port and town he ventured to. These are known as the Black Diaries, and there is still some speculation as to whether they were concocted by the British Government to undermine Casement and bring shame on him at the time of his trial. However, the homo-explicit language, and obsession with size Casement clearly had, together with eyewitness statements confirming that the diaries were written in Casement’s hand, suggests that they are probably genuine.

Perhaps what lies at the heart of all diary writing is that it validates our lives with some meaning and purpose, and by revealing our hidden selves, the true self we most value and yet at the same time struggle to understand, as Casement did in his Black Diaries, we reconcile ourselves to that ‘other’ life. Writing it down gives us something real we can look at, and when later we read our forgotten stories we find our personal history whispering back to us.

You too may have a hoard of treasured diaries you have kept from your formative years and want to use as a basis for telling your LGBTQ+ story.

But where on earth do you start? I asked Ian Elmslie, a cabaret artist and author of A Marvellous Party, an autobiographical account of his life and the stars he’s met. ‘Good question; how do you deconstruct a diary? Initial thoughts are to remove the everyday: ‘I had a coffee, I went for a walk’, and to pick out the adventures. Always bear in mind your intended target audience, who they are, and what you want them to learn from this. Find the theme, define what your book is about. In my book the common denominator was my show business heroes. You need to find the through-line: what is the journey, what do I want, and how am I going to get there, what are the obstacles?’

Personal diaries inevitably reveal a treasure-trove of information about us and the times they were written. It can be very emotional, even scary to face ‘the truth’ again, but diaries are well worth revisiting to give that first-hand experience and information: how you felt back then; how the times meant you couldn’t say anything; who the people in your life were; how they influenced things for you. Look for your younger self’s thought processes between the lines. Was there something that you thought could never be resolved? How did that affect your life? How is your life now? What would you say to your younger self?

Extract from How To Tell Your LGBTQ+ Story by David Ledain.

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