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Diarists say writing private entries offers unique form of expression, comfort

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After reading the famed diary of Englishman Samuel Pepys, Andrew Burke was inspired to put pen to paper to record his own private thoughts.

"He wrote about just his day-to-day stuff," Burke said of the entries written by the 17th century naval administrator and MP. "He went to the office, he hung out with friends, he saw shows, he did work, he did all of these things. And I realized it was a way of doing diaries that I could actually connect with.

"My life was pretty chaotic at the time," he recalled. "I was travelling a lot and I had several different homes I was kind of living in at the same time, so I found that writing a diary was a good way of finding some stability. And once I got started, I couldn't really stop."

Yet Burke found on his busiest days, he'd have the least amount of time to write. It's part of what prompted the Halifax-based software developer to fuse his passion for the private craft with his day job in creating Remembary.

The personal diary app for iOS allows users to capture and collect information such as calendar events, photos and social media activity, which are organized by day to help simplify the process of creating entries. There are themes allowing users to recreate antique volumes with aged pages and even a font where entries can be recorded in the handwriting style of Jane Austen.

Holocaust victim Anne Frank and literary giant Virginia Woolf each wrote private diaries that were published after their deaths and have become widely read. Meanwhile, in the fictional realm, the booze-fuelled, cigarette-counting entries in "Bridget Jones's Diary" offered plenty of comedic fodder both in print and on film.

But in the prime of the digital era where sharing — and sometimes oversharing — private thoughts and images online has become commonplace, those who still keep personal diaries say the age-old practice offers benefits modern tools can't replace.

Burke said he still has his older handwritten diaries but has been in the process of transcribing seven years worth of entries into his app. At 43, he wishes he had been in the habit of keeping a diary for even longer.

"I think it's important to have that in your life. You have a separate space where you are able to write your own thoughts and think about things."

At age 24, Maria Legault has kept diary for half of her life and said her mother acted as a motivator in helping initiative the handwritten habit.

"She was always reading to me, and words were an important way not only to express myself but to write stories and think about the world," recalled Legault who recently completed her masters in the tourism policy and planning program at the University of Waterloo.

The Kitchener, Ont., resident has taken on blogging but still feels keeping a private diary is important to "vent my frustrations." Legault keeps older volumes stowed away under her bed in her parents' home, recalling how earlier diaries were filled with "large chunks" of paper stuck inside as add-in entries when she had been struck by the urgent need to write something down.

"I find that just sitting down and letting it all out without worrying what people are going to think about me is a release, as well as a way for me to explore my own emotions," said Legault. "It's a way of letting myself evaluate and analyze situations and how I respond to situations and hopefully improve or change over time."

Legault said re-reading certain thoughts she had as a child tends to evoke nostalgic memories of a simpler time — and also make her think of memories yet to be written and how future entries will evolve.

"I certainly don't expect that my diaries will have any meaning to anyone but myself. But it is like a time capsule of myself at certain chunks of my lifetime."

Priscila Uppal, a professor in the English department at York University in Toronto, teaches a lot of creative writing and said she encourages her students to consider keeping various kinds of journals: those recording their travels, dreams, or even volumes dedicated to looking back at the past 12 months, such as an end of school year or birthday journal.

"I think that we've lost a lot of the opportunity and the space for deep reflection and that's something that you need as a writer," Uppal said.

"Most people actually can't become a very good writer simply by writing out to a public every day their thoughts on things. I think they also need to have a lot of time where they're reflecting without being conscious of an audience, and to try to get at some of those inner truths that are sometimes too embarrassing or too raw or too elusive to make themselves known yet."

Uppal said one way to start the practice is by initially imposing a schedule to get into the habit of writing. For those struggling to get started, she recommends simply documenting the day's events in point form.

"Once you actually lay out the groundwork for that day, you might ask yourself: 'What is something about today that I'd like to remember?' That's part of the reason a journal can be really important because it helps to solidify some of your memory. It actually helps you remember them."

— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

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