Writer in Residence

Written and On-Screen Selves: On Diaries and Social Media

By Sennah Yee

Do you remember your first diary?

Mine was a baby blue hardcover with a cute little rhyme on it that I still remember to this day:

People, places, faces. My life in words and phrases. All I've thought and all I've known, treasured dreams I call my own. All I love and all I fear, kept safe inside these pages here.

The diary came with a lock. I kept the key in my music box with fairies on it. It held all kinds of oddities: seashells, red lucky money envelopes, and my baby teeth. My diary entries were simple - they had to be; the diary was formatted into small sectioned paragraphs before moving onto the next date. I found this limitation helpful - it made things, my life, simple and succinct.

My next three diaries were those classic composition notebooks like Harriet the Spy and the Amelia's Notebook book series, which I loved. With no more pre-formatted sections, I went wild with writing. It was hard to tell when or where my thoughts or feelings began or ended, which I feel is only normal for a preteen. I wrote lots of meandering lists - top crushes, things my preteen self observed that make people attractive, favourite celebs, and so on. I also obsessively documented how often I would chew my nails as a way of trying to break the habit, until I triumphantly reported one day that I had succeeded.

Next were two smaller spiral Dollarama notebooks that I wrote in from grade 7 to early high school with an aggressively bright red pen that only further amplified all my teenage emotions. Towards the end of high school, I reread what I wrote about my first love. I felt so embarrassed that I cut out pieces of paper and taped them over those pages to cover them up. I could have just ripped them out, but part of me has always been very obsessed with keeping everything, no matter what!

Moving into undergrad, I moved on to very “grown-up” black Moleskine journals. I began scribbling down imagery ideas for poems, but never wrote more than a few lines before giving up. For some reason I felt embarrassed writing these poems only for myself, even though the classic answer to the question “who do you write for?” is usually always yourself.

Do you remember your first blog?

I had two LiveJournals (RIP) and tumblr (RIP). This was my first foray into making the personal public, and the public personal. I went by a nickname, and everyone online only knew me as that. I posted in-depth emo concert recaps, followed celebrity gossip communities, and slowly but surely, began to post personal writing online, publicly. It was soothing to be seen, yet safely invisible with my nickname, and no trace of my face online.

I last posted in my online journals and last wrote in my diary nearly 10 years ago - I think it all waned when I started using social media as myself, rather than an anonymous nobody. I’m sad that I don’t have any written records of what I was up to this past decade, and how I felt. I remember thinking to myself, what’s the point of keeping a diary anymore? I’ll remember how I feel about so and so and such and such. I’m grown up; nothing will really change from here! Plus, I have all these pictures on my phone to remind me of anything memorable.

I was both wrong and right. Wrong in that of course I continued to change over the past 10 years, right in that my social accounts did their job in reminding me this. Instagram #tbts and Facebook flashbacks show me what I was doing, who I was being, on this day, during that year. They show, but they don't tell, which seems like a good thing - except sometimes I just want to tell and be told the truth. Partway through the pandemic, I tried writing in a diary again, but got distracted by my phone. I tried writing in a new private tumblr diary, but got distracted by Twitter. I considered tweeting about the whole process, then stopped myself.

Screens are funny things - both so social and so solitary. I miss the solitary screen as something for myself and more/semi- private. "Screen" not just as a flat electronic surface, but a verb - screen as concealment, screen as protection, screen as shelter.

Do you remember looking at yourself for the first time, through a screen?

I find that both growing up and using social media, specifically seeing yourself and your self on screen, is when you start to think in third person rather than first person. Dear diary, today I did this on-screen becomes Sennah does this. Sennah is that. I miss myself.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Sennah Yee is from Toronto, Ontario, where she writes poetry, short stories, and film criticism. Her first book, the creative nonfiction collection How Do I Look?, was published by Metatron Press in 2017. Her debut picture book, My Day with Gong Gong, was published by Annick Press in 2020.