I made the comment recently that antique diaries express very little emotion.   I am curious if this has been other people’s experience and what theories they have on “emotionless” writing.

“Saw man struck by car ahead of us.” …  ” Took Don to his house.  Saw man run over.” …  “Dead cat episode.”…  “Hitler declared war on Poland.  Extra!” …  “Grandma just stopped breathing at 2:45.  Funeral Tuesday.”

These are stray sentences tucked into page-long entries in my mother’s 1939 diary.  That’s all you get, the suspended animation of what could be deeply emotional experiences.   You want to scream “Then what happened?” or “How did you feel about that?”  but there is nothing more.

The 1873, 1880, 1897, and 1934 diaries I have in my collection are similar.  “Flora died today.”  Who was Flora, what was their relationship to her, what significance was the loss?  The style of writing of that era was predominantly to record the event and nothing more.  I don’t know if either a housewife or a farmer would have been able to justify much time on such a self-focused task.   I think letter writing was far more acceptable and necessary.

Reading this first of my mother’s diaries has been an exercise in frustration.  She mentions many “episodes” or “incidents.”   There does not appear to be any intended audience for her writing except possibly her future self.  That could justify the mere mention of an “episode,”  because she obviously felt she would remember it later.  (And would she, after 71 years had passed?)  I regret that I did not read these before she died.  There are so many things I would like to ask her.

Are journals with full-bodied emotions rare because most people do not live “emotional” lives?   Or…is everyone full of feelings but think they should be kept private?    What would be the purpose of keeping a journal without using it to express some of what is unacceptable in normal social situations?

I am looking for feedback on this aspect of self-recording.    Those of you who keep a diary today – do you reveal your feelings and opinions or do you record events only?  If so, why?


4 Responses to “Emotionless”

  1. Yvonne Root Says:


    Like you, I’m a lover of old journals and diaries. And, YES, there are many which are simple recording of the facts and events of the day.

    One diary I read from the late 40s and early 50s at first surprised me with the number of times the author used words like, “Oh Gosh,” and “Golly, I’m so excited.” This young lady had interspersed her recording of daily activities with quick little bursts of excitement about the soon return of a particular man.

    Yes, her intended was expected to come marry her and take her off to another state to begin their married life.

    There are no plans mentioned at all for a wedding.

    My big surprise?

    One day the diary tells that the long awaited sweetheart will arrive the following day. The diary picks up three days later and the newlyweds are on their way to their new home.

    Another thing I found interesting was the almost instant change in voice of the diary. From starry-eyed lover to married and mature woman.

    I don’t own the diary and was only able to peruse it for one afternoon. I would like to have more time with it. Ah well.

    While I’m here I would like to add that your posts are wonderful. Your writing skill is excellent and your cause (the diary archive) is to be commended.

    What can those of us near you in heart but not geographically do to help?


    PS You asked about how our diaries are formed. Mine is filled with emotion, from great joy to angst and all things between. And, I do try to include facts, names, places, thoughts and whatever else the popcorn brain and tick tocking clock will allow.


  2. Heidi Says:

    My diary began as a way to express emotions I couldn’t speak of to my family, or anyone else. I spend a lot of time working through emotions. I started writing it at 13, and at 39 I learned I had a mood disorder, so it doesn’t surprise me that I used a lot of ink trying to make sense of my emotions; they fluctuated so drastically and caused a lot of havoc in my life.

    I have a few themes going in my journal: how I’m feeling and why; boyfriends, guys, relationships; my weight and how I thought if I weighed the right amount, my life would be just right; my goal to become an artist and writer and all the projects I’ve done; the beauty of nature; my friends; music, art, movies, cultural events; spirituality; travel; and writing for writing’s sake. Some of these I did more when I was younger.

    Because it’s helpful to stay cognizant about how I’ve been feeling in the long run, I use this website: www dot moodtracker dot com. It’s a little strange to separate this out–I still write about emotions in my journal–but it’s a good tool to keep track of my disorder.

    Good question!


  3. Kim Says:

    I remember reading once in a history on journals and diaries that the idea that this type of writing is private is a mostly 20th century concept. Writers of journals and diaries in earlier eras wouldn’t vent their emotions because it could be read by others, and in the close knit communities of earlier times, it could become socially problematic.


    • Cynthia Manuel Says:

      Kim, I think you are very right about this. I never thought about the problems it could cause in a small community. Even today we are aware of the consequences of writing a totally honest diary. I think we do it regardless, yet do not want those diaries read until the people described in them have died. This is why I would insist that every donation to a diary archive have the option of being closed to the public for many years. Cynthia Manuel


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