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Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rewriting attitudes towards journaling and male mental health?

 “First off let me get something straight: this is a journal not a diary. I know what it says on the cover, but when Mom went out to buy this thing I specifically told her to get one that didn’t say “diary” on it”

It would terrify Greg Heffley if he knew that his first “private” diary had been read by over 150 million young adults, according to the Independent in 2015. Though perhaps he might find some comfort in realising that his story – the Diary of a Wimpy Kid – has changed how a generation views an activity which, though trivial, has great benefits for mental health.

Epistolary writing is nothing new to the literary scene, being a form of storytelling through a series of documents, it has evolved over a long period of time. It is common in many of the world’s most famous novels from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Stephen King’s Carrie. Both of these use diaries as a way of telling the story. Over time, diaries have become more prominent in fiction, proving to be a different and interesting way of presenting a narrative and so these kinds of epistolary novels have become very popular, as was seen by one of the earliest of it’s kind, “Diary of a Nobody” written in 1892 by the Grossmith brothers.

Weedon (left) and George (right) Grossmith, pictured in 1897

Despite this early novel having a male protagonist and it being written by two men, the diary, over the course of the 20th century, became more synonymous with femininity. Likely a knock-on effectt from the success of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and, later, the publication of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, the appeal of journaling seemed to dissipate in the male view. This had a knock-on effect on the fictional journaling genre also, as a simple Google search for books about fictional diaries reveals. The picks Google turns up first are Diary, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Go Ask Alice which are all good books, but linked In having female protagonists, with suggestions containing men being far less common.

The view that diaries are purely a girly activity might be changed with the recent emergence of more modern epistolary novels, featuring fictional male diary writers. One of the most famous is Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. While there is no evidence suggesting a relationship between the success of the series and a rise in diary writing in young males, the outstanding success of the books could pave the road for greater appreciation of the pastime in males. Greg Heffley has the potential to be a titan in the fight to improve men’s mental health. His stories, so full of humour and childish innocence, are appealing to the young male audience, and perhaps they might be influencing more to take up the pen and record their emotions.

The basis of this theory stems from what we see in the books themselves. Greg is undoubtedly flawed; when picturing his character, the words selfish, jealous and conceited come to mind, however, he encapsulates well many of emotions that modern tweenage and teenage boys deal with daily. While each book continuously puts him in more humorous and ludicrous scenarios, they are all grounded in some relatability. Fundamentally, if boys reading these books see themselves in Greg, then they might not be so reluctant to write down their experiences and recognise the importance of allowing their own emotions to flourish. In fact, there is  evidence that journaling can be linked to positive effects –  the prominent mental health website Psych Central wrote in their article The Health Benefits of Journaling:

“Writing removes mental blocks and allows you to use all your brain power to better understand yourself, others and the world around you.”

This idea is supported by the research of James Pennebaker, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Texas, whom they mention in their article. He believes that regular journaling can strengthen immune cells called T-lymphocytes as well as generally reducing stress, as writing about them can help come to terms with their problems, and so reduce the impact of stress on the individual. Pennebaker is not isolated in his views; other researchers Karen Baikie and Kay Wilhelm concluded that physical and psychological health can be vastly improved by writing about stressful, traumatic or emotional events for as little as 15 minutes on three separate occasions. There is then, no doubt that journaling has some positive effects, and yet it seems that the activity is still almost exclusively enjoyed by women when it could be highly beneficial to male mental health.

With the number of recorded suicide rates in 2016 exceeding 5000, 75% of which were men, mental health is an issue which we must be wary of,

especially in men who have been encouraged for too long to be steadfast in all situations. Journaling is a good place to start for tackling mental health issues, and Jeff Kinney’s book has not only entertained many readers worldwide but also inspired many more books with protagonists like Greg. The Private Blog of Joe Cowley by Ben Davis and Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson are some prominent ones in a similar style. They have all branched off into series of their own, and have paved the way for a more unisex outlook on journaling to return after it has been dominated by female writers for so long.