Dear Diary....How do we narrate our lives?
Public and private explorations of the self
Posted Mar 23, 2011
As a social psychologist I am fascinated by the ways we choose to narrate our lives. Diaries hold an attraction as a window into a sense of self, and as an underused academic research tool. If you found a diary could you defy your intrigue or voyeurism and not take a peek? Perhaps penned through narcissistic self-indulgence, these may appear secretive places for divulging concerns, passions and dreams. Places that often no other is meant to see. They also form excellent research tools into social behaviours. If participants will comply in their completion, diaries track development over time in a way that no other data collection method can, providing structured and unstructured responses to an event, and creating an unrivalled depth to the data which is comparable between participants. Few researchers use them, seeing them as too fragile and risky a data collection method, Sloboda's 2001 article on music in everyday life is an exception to the rule in music psychology research.
Last week I read an old but worthwhile chapter called ‘The Psychology of Keeping a Diary'. The authors discuss their work with 12 clients, exploring their uses of diaries as organisational and private tools to understand the self. For some, they were simply documentary resources, in the same way that I keep a small red moleskin diary for tracking my self-employment. For others they were cathartic spaces, places to contain, control, and explore emotions. Some accounts reminded me of diaries I kept as a teenager which have long been consigned to the bin with embarrassment at my awkward transitional self. What interested me most were the ideas that are perhaps taken for granted by the diary keepers: that they were both author and audience of these books; that writing softened boundaries between experienced and considered emotions enabling reflection and consideration of future possibilities; that it was both the process of writing, the product, and the reflection that enabled development of the self; and finally, that for some diaries were true and accurate reflections of life, yet for others they were dark and negative explorations of emotions, or joyful and positive dreams of the future.