Delving into the Journals and Diaries of Famous Writers + Artists

Delving into the Journals and Diaries of Famous Writers + Artists

You don’t have to be a writer to keep a diary, but there is no doubt that most writers kept extensive diaries during their life times. Diary-keeping serves a number of functions, often unique to the individual. It is a way to record down the happenings of daily life, to express private feelings, to make a record of life as it unfolds. 

It is clear that writing a diary can has huge benefits - a way to de-stress, to process big emotions, to bring meaning and understanding to the complexity of life. It can also be a great way to store away memories. Opening up and reading an old diary can be transportive - taking you back years or even decades. 


Of course, keeping a diary is a habit that doesn’t come naturally to all of us. In the age of instant everything, it takes real effort to record down our thoughts - especially over a sustained amount of time. Many a diary has been cracked open at the start of a new year only to be abandoned after after a few weeks. If you diary-curious and need some inspiration, read on - our round up of writer’s who kept diaries might just motivate you to start one of your own. 


1.Anais Nin



There are writers who were quite as prolific as Anais Nin at keeping a diary. Writing a diary to her was more than just a habit or a practice, but more of a compulsion. In Volume 1, she describes it as “my drug and my vice”. Sixteen of them have been published to date.


Nin began writing her diaries at about eleven years old, and would do so for nearly six decades. Her diaries are intimate and often explicit. Her circle of friends and aquaintances was a blend of European and American authors, artists and intellectuals, including Otto Rank and Henry Miller. Her writing is a window into a world and lifestyle that at the time - and even today - is quite shocking and avant garde. Nin had a long-standing relationship with the writer Henry Miller whilst married to someone else. She later married the actor Rupert Pole whilst still married to her first husband.



Over the years, therapists and her well-meaning mother attempted to break the dependency she had over her diary, but the bond could not be broken. While her diaries are deeply confessional and frank, it appears she knew that they would appeal to readers, having tried to get them published in the 1930s. The first volume would eventually be published in 1966. They were instantly popular, and Nin became a feminist icon, as she remains today. Following her death, Pole arranged for the publication of six of her diaries in “unexpurgated” form. The volumes previously published had edited out the most explicit parts. 



2.Virginia Woolf



Across the pond in London, another writer of that time period wrote a diary. Not too dissimilar to Nin, Woolf was part of a bohemian set of writers and artists called the Bloomsbury Group. They lived communally, making art and writing and occasionally swapping partners.


Woolf wrote her diary nearly daily from age fourteen up until her death - forty-two years altogether. Twelve volumes have been published to date, making up the majority of her overall writing. Her diaries have been hailed as a “masterpiece”. They touch on every aspect of life.

 On her death, she left a note to her husband Leonard Woolf asking him to destroy her papers.

He didn’t, but rather saved a huge amount of her manuscripts, letters and diaries. This careful perseveration has continued to stoke interest in her life and work ever since. Her nephew’s wife,

Annie Olivier Bell, edited her diaries between 1977 and 1984, transcribing, correcting spelling and punctuation and adding annotations to explain the huge cast of characters and references Woolf used.

As these were her private diaries, Olivier chose to edit them without removing the more unsavoury parts of Woolf’s character - for example, her frequent snobbery and harsh judgment of certain people. The diaries offer massive insight into her inner workings at how she experienced the world around her. They can be truly called a masterpiece in their own right. 


3.Frida Kahlo




One of the 20th century’s greatest artists, Frida Khalo also kept a vibrant diary in the last decade of her life. This diary, made up of a slightly unhinged stream of consciousness writings punctuated by doodlings. While her numerous self-portraits were her means of presenting of her self to the world in different guises, this diary was were she revealed her private, unguarded self. 

Born in 1910 in a suburb of Mexico City to a German father and Spanish mother. At around age six or seven , she contracted polio, initially not recognised by her parents. Lack of support for her weakened leg caused seriously pelvis and spinal issues. She underwent further serious injury when, at age eighteen, the bus she was riding on was hit by a trolley car. The impact badly damaged her spinal cord and right leg. The physical fallout of the injuries would follow her for the rest of her life.



 Kahlo began painted in her teens, to focus of her work being hypnotic and sometimes lurid self-portraits. As well as living with extreme pain, Kahlo was married (twice) to the Mexican painter Diego Rivera. While they encouraged and celebrated each other’s artistry, they also caused each other tremendous pain and tumult, and this was frequently the subject of Kahlo’s art. 

The diary is cryptic and has taken researchers years to decode. She wrote down many dates incorrectly, and enjoyed writing in obscure references and arcane languages, such as Sanskrit or Russian. Some of the diary date’s back to when Kahlo was hospitalised in New York City while she underwent a spinal graft and was under the influence of huge amounts of morphine. Parts were made clear through the memories of Kahlo’s last living lover, a Spanish painter. Her diary was her companion and vessel for her to pour her feelings into when she was alone and separated fro Diego-a state that she hated.  

The diary supports the evidence for what occurred in her final months, including that she probably died by suicide (despite what Diego had recorded on her death certificate). You can buy a published facsimile of her diary, and some images are available to view online. For true fans of Kahlo, it gives a rich glimpse into the mind of this tortured yet brilliant artist.


4.Franz Kafka 



The Czech author Kafka started keeping a diary at age twenty-six. He was struggling to write and thought it might stoke his creativity. He would continue to write a diary for the next thirteen years.

Scholars and those who enjoy his work will find they bring further insight to who he was - depressed, isolated and often sickly man. Written in the time period in which all his major works were published, they can be read in conjunction, offering further context and background to his strange and otherworldly stories. While his themes could be dark, his stories were frequently very funny and humorous.  The diaries are not that - they are intensely melancholic and detail his anxieties and depression.



Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883. He worked in insurance by day and spent his free time writing. While he wrote prodigiously, he was crippled with self-doubt and destroyed much of what he wrote. He died at the age of forty of tuberculosis, relatively unknown. He had instructed his friend and executor Max Brod to destroy his work after his death, which Brod thankfully didn’t. He published several novels and collected stories a few years later, and did so for the next ten years. His work would rapidly gain recognition following the second world war. Brod fled to Palestine at the start of the war, taking with him many of Kafka’s papers, some of which remain unpublished to this day. 

The published editions are complete and uncensored, a unique thing in light of most famous authors’ diaries, which are often edited to expunge the unsavoury or indelicate aspects of a writer’s behaviour or character. They include letters, records of his dreams and unrevised drafts of his stories. 



 4. C.S. Lewis



While his published diairies might be slim view of his long life, they come with an interesting and touching backstory. Lewis served in the First World War alongside his good friend, Edward “Paddy” Moore. They made a pact that if the other died, the surviving one would care for the other’s family. Lewis did survive the war, while Edward did not. He struck up a friendship with Edward’s mother, Janie King Moore, and she would visit him during is convalescence in hospital. They remained close friends for the rest of her life. He even moved into the Moore household following the war. He was bitter, lost and a staunch atheist. When he eventually returned to Oxford, age twenty-three, he was struggling to adapt to post-war life. Jane Moore encouraged him to keep a diary chronicling his daily life. He would do so for the next five years. They are now published in a volume called All Roads Before Me. They show the burgeoning spiritual and intellectual growth of the young man who would become one of Britain’s most beloved writers.



The diaries would most appeal to a true Lewis enthusiast, who has a certain understanding of his writings and the themes he would go on to write about. Among the insights are mundane details about normal life - struggles with money, his relationships, the books he was reading, his dreams and his conversations with his friends and associates. Since most portrayals of Lewis are as an older man, well established in his writing and scholarly career, it is interesting to see is inauspicious beginnings, when he was just an uncertain and inexperienced young man.



5.Lewis Carroll



Like a lot of writers, the writer of Alice in Wonderland found that keep a personal diary was invaluable to his writing process, and did so for the majority of his life. Nine volumes of those diaries are in existence today, while four other volumes remain missing. Some of the existing diaries also have pages removed, and it is not know by whom. Some biographers have presumed it was family members who wished to preserve his reputation. Carroll enjoyed close friendships with several unmarried women, which would not have been appropriate in society at the time. There were rumours circulating that Carroll had a relationship with the Liddell sisters’ governess, as well as possible the older Liddell sister. A page which might shed light on this was cut out of his diary, and there is still much supposition and theorising surrounding it. In his earlier years, Carroll had experienced a period of depression and spiritual struggle. His diaries from this time period have much missing.



Carroll was born in Daresbury, Cheshire in 1832, where his father was the cleric of the Anglican Church. Lewis reportedly started keeping a diary at age 10. He later studied at Oxford, where he became a teacher of mathematics and an Anglican deacon. He struggled with stammering and experienced severe migraines and probable epilepsy. The Liddell family moved to Oxford in 1855, where Henry Liddell became the dean of Christchurch college. Carroll became a de-facto uncle to their three children, Henry, Lorina and Alice, taking them on boating trips and picnics on the Thames River and writing stories for them. Alice, of course, served as the inspiration for the Alice in Wonderland stories. There publication was a huge success, making him a renowned author within several short years. He was also a keen amateur photographer, with over 3,000 photographs still in existence. They are mostly portraits, both of his friends as well as well-known artists, writers, actors and other acquaintances.

 The surviving volumes have been published, with a thoroughly researched annotations. This is a treasure trove of detail that bring further insight into the mind of this complex and sometimes mysterious author.

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