Monday,22 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1416, (1 - 7 November 2018)
Monday,22 April, 2019
Issue 1416, (1 - 7 November 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The origins of the modern diarist

Mai Samih reads between the lines of diaries in all their changing forms

The origins of the modern diarist

“When I write my diary in a post I get fast feedback, which to me has almost the same effect as going to a psychologist who listens to you, unlike writing on a piece of paper that does not listen to you. For me, it is very important to share your most painful moments with others because this helps to kill the pain. On the other hand, the real size of achievements can be seen when people speak about them,” commented Sherine Beshr, a university professor, of her diary postings. 

Facebook posts are considered by some as the modern form of diary writing after it has gone through a process of evolution. According to reference books, a diary is a form of autobiographical writing and a regularly kept record of the diarist’s activities and reflections. 

Written primarily for the writer’s use alone, a diary has a frankness that is unlike writing done for publication. It is derived from the Latin word diarium, itself derived from the word dies (day).

It is believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to write a form of diary on papyrus, with one having been found in the form of a will by Ani, a wise man, to his son. Moreover, they used to record aspects of their daily lives on the walls of temples and tombs in both written form and in colourful images, some dating back to the Old Kingdom or even before.  

It was during the European Renaissance that diaries evolved into notebooks such as the diaries of a French priest called Journal de Bourgeois de Paris (1409 to 1449) which recorded the history of the reigns of French kings Charles the VI and Charles VII. The diaries of Samuel Pepys (1660-1669) give a stunning picture of life in London at the court and theatre, as well as in his own household and his naval office. Others who kept a diary include Jonathan Swift, Sir Walter Scott, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Leonardo da Vinci. 

Due to the fast pace of daily life today, diaries have now gone online in the form of blogs and daily or even hourly posts on Facebook in which some young people write almost every detail of their lives. 

One diarist who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly believes writing online diaries can be an invasion of privacy. “At first, I would feel relaxed after writing my thoughts in the form of posts, but when everybody would ask me what was wrong I would feel annoyed. This could give other people the chance to interfere in my private life. So, I stopped posting altogether. I even closed my account once since I could not hide my feelings and because faking happiness is worse than being sad. In the end, I decided to write my thoughts on paper, but I don’t know whether it will make me relaxed or not,” she said.

Doaa Faisal, a translator, agreed. She used to write online daily entries but has now stopped. “I now do not write posts since I think that some people misunderstand what I want to say. I don’t want to write anything at all now. I think that I should keep my thoughts to myself. I feel upset when I see a happy experience I had written about on paper, especially after a sad event,” she said.

Mona Mohamed, another diarist, believes that she can post what she wants as long as people don’t interfere. “Of course, I feel relaxed after I write a post because I let all my feelings out. I think that there is no longer time for paper diaries. I am not bothered when people read what I write; what bothers me is people asking me questions like ‘why’ or ‘who do you mean by what you wrote’ because this way there is no privacy. I sometimes have to tell people to mind their own business,” she said.

The origins of the modern diarist

Psychologist Ali Suleiman has analysed the types of personalities that openly write their thoughts on public posts. “These people are mostly young, though there are also some older people. A person who writes a diary either writes it as an educational experience that he has gone through in his life so that others can benefit from it, or he is a young person with no experience who makes up situations to attract attention. Some of the latter have a love of standing out, and the Internet is full of such cases,” Suleiman said.

“Such stories are from the imagination of the writer, just so he has something to write,” he added, calling such people “writing addicts” that are found out by psychologists through analysing what they write. 

“We may find that such a person wants to prove that he has done something, for example. If a person does not have real content to write about, he writes about trivial things like ‘I’m going to the gym’ or ‘I am drinking tea with a friend’ so people in return do not speak about the post but the person writing it who has a publishing platform to use,” he said.

“These kinds of personalities may have a will to become famous even if it means being involved in a catastrophe. Some people could take advantage of them and might involve them in crime, for example.”

Suleiman also analyses the process of writing a diary and its effects on the human mind. “Writing diaries benefits stressed people because it lets out their anger in one way or another. As for a person who is not under any stress, he just wants people to see him so he takes a picture of himself and writes anything on a post. If someone has a real problem, he could be so stressed that he can’t write anything,” he said.

“In psychological treatment, to help someone stressed to write we give him time to do it and more than one opportunity and try to stimulate him to talk. It takes time for him to get everything out,” Suleiman said, adding that this procedure involves looking at a written experience to learn from it and see what could have been done differently, thus transforming a bad experience into an educational one.

There are other forms of online diaries in which the diarists try to give advice to others through their posts. Others talk about daily problems like the crowded metro. Such posts may make others curious to know more about such people, Suleiman said, adding that diaries today have many forms as well as many contents and uses.

“Real diaries are written and hidden from others like paper ones. Most people who write real diaries write them before the end of their lives in order to tell others their life experience. They are usually not written in the early stage of life,” Suleiman commented, adding that some people use the Internet to send messages on the social or even the political levels. 

He has some tips for those who write diaries whether online or in paper form. “The question that I should ask myself before writing a diary is ‘is the topic important or not?’ I should ask ‘what do I aim to get from it?’ People should use the Internet for the benefit of others, like posting a summary of a book or the real experience of a person to teach others,” he said, adding that readers should always also filter Internet content according to its benefits.

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