Thirty years ago today, April 6, Isaac Asimov died. More than any other writer, it was Asimov who influenced my own writing, and much more. He taught me nearly everything I know about science; he taught me the power of the essay; he taught me how to be a writer; he taught me the importance of broad knowledge; he influenced my becoming a generalist. He did all of this through his books, especially his 3-volume memoir, which I have read more than a dozen times, and his science essays in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
He taught me one other thing, as well: he taught me to keep a diary. “With the new year of 1938,” Asimov wrote in In Memory Yet Green, “a turning point came in my personal life that might have seemed of the most trivial. I started a diary.” He goes on to write:
[The diaries] are a series of reference books for me, a way of finding out when something happened and in exactly what order things happen. Why should this matter? Well, I’m an orderly person and it is my experience in life that people who describe events of which I had personal knowledge almost invariably get the story wrong in almost every detail, sometimes missing or inventing important portions of the story.
One of my motives in starting a diary was, in fact, to be able to have some documentary evidence to help out in the numerous arguments that started when I said, “That’s not the way it happened. It was after you did this that I did that…”
This argument resontated with me. After my third reading of I. Asimov, which I finished on April 6, 19961, I started a diary of my own.
No one I knew growing up kept a diary–at least, I was not aware of it. None of my friends kept diaries, or at least never spoke of doing so. Keeping a diary was never something covered in any of my classes in school. But the idea of doing so really took with me. I, too, liked the idea of having a history of event that happened in my life that I could refer to. Indeed, for many years, I, like Asimov, never committed anything to my diary that I wouldn’t want someone else to read or know. It was a reference book, plain and simple.
That first volume, which I began 26 years ago today, was written in a thin, National Brand Record Book. The first words I wrote, after noting the date, were: “I finished I. Asimov this afternoon at about 4PM, precisely as I had hoped to do.” And as I planned, I noted the things that happened that day. I watched the film, Babe and later began reading Double Star by Robert Heinlein2. I wrote a letter to my grandparents and, coincidentally, received a package from them. The last thing I noted on that first diary entry was that it was time to spring forward. Daylight saving time was about to begin.
For the next 5 years, I didn’t miss a day. Then, as life got busier and busier, I’d sometimes skip a day here and there. When I started this blog, in 2005, it sort of took over from the diary, but every now and then I’d return to it, until, in 2017, I started up in earnest again, and have been writing in it almost daily ever since. My diary is not as exhaustive as, say John Quincy Adams’ diaries, but it frequently serves its purpose of being a reference book. Recently, in fact, as we were planning a visit to Hershey Park later this spring with my sister and her family, Kelly asked, “Where did we stay the last time we went?”
I knew that the last time we’d gone was on the long Thanksgiving weekend of 2017, so I pulled out my diary volume for that period, and within a few minutes, had the name of the hotel we stayed in, as well as when I we arrived, and a summary of our visit.
These days, I have been keeping my diary in Obsidian in plain text files. I something think it would be useful to go through all of the paper volumes I have and convert them to digital, plaintext format, but the effort in that seems daunting. It is far less time-consuming for me to pull a volume off the shelf and flip through it to find what I am looking for.
I have tried to pay-it-forward, as well, encouraging my kids to keep a diary. Grace has taken to this, and while she doesn’t write in hers everyday, she has already filled several notebooks. I’m delighted by this, and more than a little envious. I wish I had been encouraged to keep a diary when I was much younger. I already loved to write and this would have been a great outlet for writing, to say nothing of a fascinating resource of juvenillia.
Written on March 26, 2022.
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- Not really a coincidence. I read the book the first time as a senior in college in the spring of 1994. The second time, in 1995, I decided to start it on April 1 so as to try to finish it on April 6, the anniversary of Asimov’s death. This became an annual tradition for me. ↩
- Probably my favorite Heinlein book. ↩