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Scott Jordan Harris: keeping a diary keeps me sane

Guest Guest | 11:01 UK time, Thursday, 12 January 2012

Writer and editor, 29-year-old, Scott Jordan Harris, spends the majority of his time in bed due to severe ME and other illnesses. Here, he writes about how his favourite pass time has also proven to be the best medicine.

On Christmas Eve, I restarted a hobby I'd neglected for too long: keeping a diary. I didn't do this because I had more free time, or a sudden slew of happy events to record, but quite the opposite. I had been struggling with my health, and feeling like my life was beginning to dribble away, and I knew from previous experience that writing a diary would help.

This doesn't mean that I use my diary to moan to myself about lost opportunities and unpleasant symptoms: again, quite the opposite.

It was the doctor charged with helping me overcome the debilitating depression inflicted by the effects of my physical illnesses who first insisted I keep a diary, making a record of the positive events in my life, however small they seemed. I owe her a debt I cannot repay.

My depression told me my existence was filthy and barren. Each day seemed empty, and indistinguishable from the one before it. I felt I had no reason to go to sleep at night and no reason to wake up in the morning. For all I achieved, I thought, I might as well not be alive at all.

After a few months of storing up the previously unrecorded richness of my life, my diary simply disproved that. I knew from re-reading the pages I'd written that I was doing interesting things - and I began to ensure I kept doing them simply to have something to write about.

The diary was better than therapy; it pushed me forward through mental pain that had been holding me back.

Doctors unaware of the realities of the lives of the chronically ill often suggest we waste what little energy we have noting down exactly how unwell we feel each day, how much we sleep and how little we do, so that they may study the results. These doctors are to be smiled at, and nodded to, and instantly ignored.

To use a diary to record the worst effects of your disability, unmitigated by all the delights of life, would be to make a monument to your own misery - and would (quite literally in my case) become what Enoch Powell wrongly said writing any diary is like: "returning to one's own vomit".

Diaries can seem outdated in the age of blogs and social media. But, while announcing what you ate for breakfast will quickly bore those who follow you on Twitter, and writing a status update detailing just how you felt about that friend or family member who annoyed you yesterday afternoon may cause them to un-friend you on Facebook, a diary makes no judgements. It allows you to be entirely honest.

I spend a large portion of my time as an editor finding pleasant ways to tell unsuccessful writers that not everyone can write publishable articles or books, any more than everyone can be a professional sprinter, opera singer or thoracic surgeon. But everyone can write a diary. And, what's more, everyone should.

My diary is founded on one basic conviction: something worth recording happens to everyone, everyday.

Because of the constraints imposed by my illnesses - the inability to get out of bed; to interact with others; to perform the tiniest task without exhaustion - my life has sometimes fallen to depths of boredom the Birdman of Alcatraz would find intolerable. But even I find something to write about each day, assuming I am well enough to type. It could be an idea I had, a news story that interested me, or simply the basic events of the last 24 hours and the emotions they inspired.

The great diarist James Lees-Milne said every writer should keep a diary, for practice. The not-so-great diarist Scott Jordan Harris says everyone with a disability should keep a diary, to remind ourselves of just how much we achieve each day, and how proud we should be of it. A diary faces backwards but it pushes you forwards; the simple act of keeping a record of your immediate past can propel you into a future you never expected to have.

Scott Jordan Harris is editor of The Spectator's arts blog and the book World Film Locations: New York. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottFilmCritic.

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