I’ve never been a regular diary or journal-keeper. I would periodically try; there are partial fits and starts in various notebooks on my shelf. But after a few months or so, I’d find myself giving up. The whole exercise was too self-conscious to me; I didn’t like pouring out my emotions on the page. It ended up making my life seem maudlin, cheap, sentimental. And anyway, I’m confident it’s the emotions that we’ll remember anyway.
What I do miss about journal-keeping, however, is the record of what you actually did — the events, the meals, the places, the observations you made about what something looked like or smelled like. Those are the things that end up being a vital part of your mental record as a writer, and the things that end up becoming fodder for fiction. So recently I’ve started the old journal up again, but I’m focusing on a different tone for what I’m writing; rather than gushing about my emotions, which I will ultimately flinch away from doing, I’m staying factual, or taking down the things I really care about, which is the details. I’m writing down what I ate or how the trees looked or where I went. That’s the stuff that I’ll be interested to look back at later in my life, anyway; and they are the things that I’m more in danger of forgetting.
Anyway, keeping a journal can be a great way of training your memory to think in a more writerly mode. If all of your life and experiences might end up getting written down, then it might make you look harder, notice more deeply, and remember more. It also provides inspiration for your writing; it allows you to look back on a wealth of observations and details that could make a bit of description feel more real in a future piece.
Are you a diary or journal-keeper? Do you write on paper or use the computer? I’m making life more convenient for myself by using some software; since I’m not a natural diarist, I figure this will be easier to incorporate into my routine. We’ll see how it goes.