by Emer O’Toole  

Underneath my childhood bed in my parents’ house, there’s a box of stuff. A miscellaneous mishmash of objects which – thanks to my predisposition to sentimentality – will remain there forever, or until my mum follows through on her threats to toss the whole dusty lot into a skip.

Buried beneath Beanie Babies and VHS tapes awaiting their hipster renaissance are diaries. Once pristine in their plastic Paperchase bags, their covers have gone dog-eared. The spines have cracked. They’re swollen with ticket stubs, photos, and screenshotted MSN conversations. They’ve fallen apart under the weight of my life.

I’ve been keeping journals for almost two decades. Each notebook serves as a thumbnail sketch of me at given moments; they’re time capsules that are bizarrely insightful in their mundaneness.

As an infant, I’d painstakingly record absolutely everything, from what I’d had for breakfast to which library books I’d borrowed.

Thirteen-year-old me equated ‘being a proper writer’ with ‘prioritising style over substance’, and typed up her thoughts before gluing them into an ornate hardback log.

A few years later, I read that Stevie Nicks sprayed her diaries with perfume so that, down the line, her goddaughters could smell the lingering gardenia as they perused her memories. The idea enchanted me, and I spent a good six months solemnly dousing the pages of my own pad with Impulse or Charlie Red. I doubt it had quite the same effect.

Even now – five, ten, fifteen years later – there are sections of each tome that I physically can’t bring myself to read. Like the nine pages containing every last excruciating detail about my first kiss; awful poetry; and even, God help us, song lyrics. Maybe the skip is an appropriate place for that particular volume after all.

“Having a private, no-holds-barred record of fears, tears and tantrums lets us go through our past with a fine-tooth comb.”

I’m by no means a regular diarist. Sometimes I’ll write five times in as many days; sometimes I’ll go MIA for weeks on end. But in a self-important kind of way, I find the interludes fascinating. Blank pages all appear identical, but looking back on the ones that are bare from a five-month hiatus at seventeen, when I got my hands on a fake ID and red lipstick, stirs up different emotions than scanning the ones that went untouched during my first semester of university, when I was too ashamed of my loneliness to acknowledge it in writing.

Some people argue that diaries are redundant: if you’re after a blast from the past, today’s #TBT culture of ’90s-kid nostalgia offers countless other methods of reminiscing. I love laughing at Instagrammed baby photos, and I love replaying the ’90s pop and ’00s punk that provided the score to my journeys to school, from the back seat of my mum’s car to the back row of the bus. But everyone else who was there in 2006 could feel the basslines booming through their chests. Everyone else witnessed my side-fringe and purple eyeliner (sorry).

Diaries go deeper. They let us reflect on things that even the inevitable iPhone 25X will never be able to capture. As much as the Internet facilitates self-expression, our pictures, thoughts and even our #fail self-flagellations lose their edge the second we tailor them for an audience. However, having a private, no-holds-barred record of fears, tears and tantrums lets us go through our past with a fine tooth comb.

It can take hindsight to recognise the importance of a 3am conversation on the stairs of a student house, or to pinpoint the moment the flickering flame of a relationship was finally extinguished. Call it psychological analysis or call it narcissism, but when it comes to unleashing your inner anthropologist and figuring out what’s made you ‘you’, diaries are a goldmine.

And let’s be honest – the best part of rereading journals is cringing at our teenage histrionics. The self-fulfilling prophecies (‘I’m going to fail my driving test tomorrow. Wait ’til you see. I’ll fail’, 2012), the miraculously unfounded fears (‘Nobody will EVER want to kiss me. I’ll die without finding out what it’s like’, 2008), and the still-unresolved ones (‘What if I die alone?’, 2014). There’s something sadistically enjoyable about wallowing in your younger self’s scared, self-pitying scribbles. Journals let us take comfort in pulling skeletons from our closets and realising that they’ve donned a fake moustache and a funny hat since we left them there.

That’s why, paradoxical as it seems, revisiting a document charting the past is a wonderful way to arm yourself for the future. Diaries remind us that our present-day trials and tribulations will, someday, seem laughably insignificant. They remind us how time transforms gaping wounds into paper cuts, and that yesterday’s traumas are tomorrow’s happy-hour anecdotes. They remind us that we made it through break-ups, bereavements and betrayals that we swore we wouldn’t survive when we were sixteen – and that we can do it again.


Emer O’Toole | @_emerotoole

Emer is a 22-year-old Modern Languages student from Belfast. She enjoys writing, reading, art, learning languages, travelling, list-making, and any activity that combines all of these things.

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