As an archivist, I take care of a lot of dead people’s diaries. I take care of their other things, too — sheet music, sex toys, board games, fake hair, real hair, posters, super-8 film — but diaries occupy our archival imaginations for a reason. They’re unique among archival items for being both public and personal, a private record of a historical moment which will eventually fuse into part of an off-kilter, minor-key chorus with many voices missing.
I work at a queer historical society, and most of our diaries were written by people with AIDS. A few of them seem aware of a posthumous audience. Lou Sullivan in particular seemed to recognize the future reader as someone to alleviate his loneliness, someone to conspire with, titillate, and top. Other diarists write more privately. Figures ghost in and out of the entries with no explanation of their identity. Movies are described. Some writers’ entries are repetitive, detailing meals and prayers, and you get the sense that the purpose of this writing is mostly to stake out the borderlines of each day. All of the diaries are fascinating, but often the reason for this is mostly in the visible purpose behind the text: posterity, sanity, self-care, self-harm, self-memorialization, self-understanding, self-protection, or the protection of others from one’s own anxiety and fear.
A diary is instrumental writing. It is a tool. And it is a different kind of tool in the hand of each person who takes up the project. Which is why, when I encourage you to keep a diary during this frightening moment, I’m not asking because I imagine that future historians will draw on your work. It might happen, but you don’t owe the future anything. I’m asking because I’ve read more diaries than the average person, and I’ve seen how powerful and versatile they are. A diary can be an arc welder or a can opener or a firework or a compass. You can use them to explore, or to drain things away from yourself, or to learn what you want, or to fantasize.
In sum, I like diaries very much, despite the fact that my own journaling is intermittent — mostly about gender and OCD stuff, with frequent repetitions and without any special coherence. My diary is a shrinking-and-growing device for thoughts. It exists to equalize them, to shrink down what’s been blown up, and to call attention to what I’ve insisted on storing as a microdot. You ought to journal just to learn what kind of tool it is for you. Your witch’s familiar, your signature move.