When I was at primary school there was a fad for worry dolls. These tiny knitted figures in Guatemalan costumes lived in a bag under the pillow. You confided your worries – one to each doll – pulled the drawstring tight and slept soundly knowing the dolls were doing the worrying for you.
I admired friends’ dolls at sleepovers. But I used to, well… worry, that six dolls weren’t enough for all my frets. What did you do with leftover ones?
Later, at university, still a worrier, I followed the advice in a magazine to write a list of worries each night before bed. I could easily fill two sides of A4. After a while I gave it up because those long columns of worries large and small – ‘the financial crisis’, ‘failing finals’, ‘not enough milk for breakfast’ – seemed to multiply, rather than diminish the worries.
Now, I keep a diary and that has proved the surest method for banishing last-thing-at-night anxieties and niggles. The diary is my mindfulness meditation, my Headspace app, my yoga, my glass of wine, nerve-steadying cigarette and therapist. At 65p a notebook it’s cheaper than an hour with a life coach, counsellor or nodding, sympathetic hairdresser.
So I urge you not to fret about keeping any of those resolutions you made on New Year’s Day; the promises to eat clean, lose weight, or give up coffee for beetroot juice. Pledge only to keep a diary.
No “Dear Diary” nonsense. No “Dearest, darlingest Diary, you’re the only one I can confide in.” It isn’t a substitute for friends or family. But when you come home seething about that broken umbrella, that cancelled Southern Rail service, that email (“if you have a moment, could you…”), that bill, that hour on hold, spit it all out, put it in the diary in the order it happened. Don’t bother about best handwriting, never mind spelling, style, semicolons. Just scribble. There is nothing like it for clearing your head, venting your spleen, putting things in perspective, passing on gossip (without getting in trouble for it), restoring calm, than a dashed-off page at the end of the day.
I’m addicted. If two nights pass and busyness, tiredness, travel have kept me from writing, then I start to fidget. The symptoms are the same as going without coffee and cigarettes. I am snappish and irritable. But the minute I have put pen to paper, I am myself again. I’m sceptical about some ‘on the couch’ therapies, but a great believer in ‘on the page’ ones.
I wasn’t always a diary writer. There were short stints in my teens – pages and pages about coursework, hair-straighteners, Ugg boots, boys – then not a word until three years ago. I was 26, working long hours in an office and sleeping badly. One day staggered into the next and I had a sick premonition that I would look back on my twenties and not be able to pick out one day, week, month, year from the rest. So I bought the smallest notebook in the stationers’ – A6 size – thinking that anyone can fill a scant page a night before bed, no matter how tired and office-fogged. One page became two, became three, became four. Now, I can’t do without it.
The reason the old lists of worries failed and the diary works is that you have to reach for the right words. When I started, I often used to write: “Felt very low.” But I couldn’t put my finger on this lowness. Over time, it became: I feel cooped, thwarted, frustrated, lonely, stuck-in-the-mud. Writing the diary made me realise that what I wanted was to be freelance, loosed from office duties and routine.
The reason many diaries start and then stutter, the reason most resolutions fail, is that we expect too much. We want every page done in best calligraphy. We are given Smythson diaries for Christmas and buy special fountain pens.
There was a vogue last year for ‘Bullet Journals’: hardcover notebooks from the German stationers Leuchtturm 1917 (the company celebrate their centenary this year, so brace yourself for a barrage of Bullets) annotated with coded bullet points, coloured Sharpie pens, and strips of Washi tape. Think Filofax: but without the pincering clips. Lovely as they look on Instagram and Pinterest, who has the time, energy or will to write up each day in ten different Staedtler fine-liner pens?