Record Your Own History: take up the art of journalling

These are significant times we are living through. Why not create your own living archive of your experiences as we socially distance and self-isolate, by keeping a journal to document how living through this pandemic is impacting on your life.

Photo by Chivalry Creative on Unsplash

Why is a journal important?

In these days of lock-down, our daily routines may seem mundane and unimportant. However, a journal can capture our thoughts and feelings in the moment and offer new perspectives on our lives. Journalling has recognised therapeutic benefits: it offers a private space for reflection, helps us to organise our thoughts, see growth and development and bring a fresh insight into our lives. A journal can document national and international events and how these impact on social and cultural change at a local level. A journal can be ripe with emotion and a sensual detail that brings events to life. It can be the starting point for a memoir or shared with other people through storytelling. A journal can even become a reminiscence tool in the years to come.

The terms diary and journal can be interchangeable, but generally, a diary documents daily records, upcoming appointments and so on; a journal can be a more in-depth record of news and events of a more personal nature.

Historical diaries

Diaries have historically captured important historic events from personal perspectives. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) kept a detailed private diary between 1660 and 1669. Pepys, an English Member of Parliament and naval administrator, lived through and recorded eye-witness accounts of the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), the Second Dutch War (1665-1667) and the Great Fire of London (1666). His diary records everyday subjects, such as his personal finances, the time he got out of bed each day, the weather and his meals. It was later published in the 19th century and became an important primary source of life in the 17th century.

John Hayls / Public domain

Sunday 2nd September 1666: So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michell’s house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way, and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Steeleyard, while I was there. Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

An account of the Great Fire of London from Samuel Pepys Diary

Anne Frank (1929-1945) began writing a diary on her thirteenth birthday, shortly before she and her family went into hiding in Nazi occupied Holland during World War Two. During her two years hidden away in a secret annex within an Amsterdam townhouse, Anne wrote about daily events and reflected on her feelings and thoughts. The Frank family were found, arrested and sent to concentration camps in 1944, but the diary was preserved. Anne, her sister and her mother perished in the camps. Remarkable, her father Otto survived and published the diary in 1947. It went on to be published in 60 languages.

November 19th 1942: “Mr. Dussel has told us much about the outside world we’ve missed for so long. He had sad news. Countless friends and acquaintances have been taken off to a dreadful fate. Night after night, green and grey military vehicles cruise the streets. They knock on every door, asking whether any Jews live there. If so, the whole family is immediately taken away. If not, they proceed to the next house. It’s impossible to escape their clutches unless you go into hiding. They often go around with lists, knocking only on those doors where they know there’s a big haul to be made. They frequently offer a bounty, so much per head. It’s like the slave hunts of the olden days… I feel wicked sleeping in a warm bed, while somewhere out there my dearest friends are dropping from exhaustion or being knocked to the ground. I get frightened myself when I think of close friends who are now at the mercy of the cruellest monsters ever to stalk the earth. And all because they’re Jews.”

Extract from Anne Frank’s Diary

Other published diaries worthy of mention include those of Nella Last (1889-1968), a housewife from Barrow-in-Furness who kept a diary for the Mass Observation project from 1939-1966. Mass Observation was a social research organisation founded in 1937 by a group who aimed to create what they called an ‘anthropology our ourselves’. They recruited a National Panel of Diarists, made up of people from all over Britain who either kept diaries or replied to regular open-ended questionnaires about their lives as ordinary people in Britain. Mass Observation continued throughout the Second World War and into the early 1950s. The project was revived in 1981 and continues today, with its archive based at the University of Sussex Special Collections.

Monday 25 September 1939I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. Even the fact – which often used to stifle me – that my husband never went anywhere alone or let me go anywhere without him, has settled into a feeling of content.

Extract from Nella Last’s Diaries

Nella Last’s diaries record life for ordinary people during World War Two, reports on the bombing of Barrow, including her own home, and reflections on a range of issues of the time. Her diaries were later published in a number of volumes: Nella Last’s War: A Mother’s Diary, 1939-1945 (1981), republished as Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife 49 (2006); Nella Last’s Peace: The Post-War Diaries of Housewife 49 (2008) and Nella Last in the 1950s (2010). Her wartime diaries were also dramatised for television as Housewife 49 in 2006.

Voice journals

You could create a voice journal. All you need is your voice and something to record it on. You can do this at home using simple technology. If you don’t have a voice recorder, such as a Zoom or Tascam, you can record on a PC or laptop using easy to use and free to download sound editing software such as Audacity, or on your mobile phone. There are also voice diary apps available.

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

The wellbeing benefits of voice journals are also recognised. Writer Laura Gulbranson suggests that when you create an audio journal ‘you hear yourself think with every sigh, incidental language, and natural pause. You are able to step outside of yourself in third person and listen to what you have to say as an outsider looking in’ (1).

You are able to step outside of yourself in third person and listen to what you have to say as an outsider looking in.

Laura Gulbranson

Audio journals are a methodology used by social scientists, who recognise its positive benefits for wellbeing. Studies of stress where participants used audio diaries conclude that ‘audio diaries do not just provide a tool for the documentation of stress and coping, but also actively encourage coping to take place’ (2).

There are no rules

There are no rules to keeping an audio journal. It may be a recording made just for you. You may wish to use it as a personal archive and it can again become a reminiscence tool or a wonderful rich source to pass down to future generations, a contribution to your own family history.

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