The Man Who Recorded Literally Everything In His Diary

By Debra Kelly on Monday, July 7, 2014
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“Tuesday, December 19, 1995.
9:25-9:35 I prepared 10 ounces of condensed Campbell tomato soup.
9:35-9:40 I pissed again. I emptied and rinsed out the chartreuse plastic urinal.” —Entry from the diary of Robert Shields

In A Nutshell

Lots of people keep diaries and journals, whether it’s online or on paper. But Robert Shields took journaling to a whole new level, chronicling literally every moment of his life for 25 years. The result—a 37.5-million-word diary—has only been released to the public in bits and pieces, as he only recently passed away in 2007. Fifty years after his death, anyone who’s interested will be able to read the whole thing.

The Whole Bushel

People have long kept diaries and journals, whether it’s as a way to express one’s innermost thoughts to a comforting ear that absolutely won’t talk back, or a way to sort through and make sense of the day. Most people who write about their lives do so when something important or out of the ordinary happens, or during times of crisis.

Robert Shields was quite different from the norm, however, and his diary kept track of every moment of every day of his life . . . for 25 years.

Starting in 1972, Shields was hit by the urge to document every moment of his life in his diary. It was estimated that he spent about four hours every day typing, relaying the day’s most major events alongside the most brutally minute details while sitting on his back porch in his underwear.

He described what he had for every meal, what kind of heartburn he had (along with what he took for it and how long it lasted), who stopped by to visit him, and what he fed the cat. He was particularly precise about his bowel movements, documenting when they happened and every detail about what came out of him. (He even had a number of different ways for cataloging urination.)

He detailed his sleep, and according to relatives he didn’t sleep for more than an hour and a half to two hours at a time, so that he might remember and successfully document his dreams.

His obsessive diary-keeping lasted for two and a half decades, until he suffered a stroke in 1997 and lost his ability to type. Over the course of his years of meticulous record-keeping, he wrote a staggering 37.5 million words. The nearly endless sheets of paper on which he typed filled more than 80 cardboard boxes, and were donated to the Manuscript Archive of Washington State University.

Shields was even thoughtful enough to add a clipping of his nose hair, just in case future researchers wanted to test his DNA to see just what was wrong with him.

It’s thought that Shields suffered from hypergraphia, the scientific word for the overwhelming urge to write. After his death in 2007 at the age of 89, relatives stated that Shields didn’t think anything had really, truly happened unless he wrote it down. What that meant was that in busy years, he’d be writing upward of 3 million words documenting trips to the post office and exactly what groceries he bought. (Sometimes he would carefully paste in the price labels so he would know exactly what he paid for each item.)

Hypergraphia is one of the strange conditions labeled as abnormal, but most people who have it feel blessed to have the desire—and the ability—to write constantly. Some people journal, and others, like Edgar Allan Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, turn it into a prolific career.

Parts of Shields’s journal can be found online, although, in accordance with his wishes that accompanied the donation of his journal to the university, 50 years must pass before any major parts of it are released to the public or published in full. A minister and teacher, Shields has a somewhat strange hereditary connection to his prolific writing; his father was a speed-typing champion who could type the Gettysburg Address at 222 words per minute.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89
Psychology Today: Quirky Minds: Hypergraphia: A River of Words
Cabinet Magazine: One Damn Page after Another (with two reproduced pages of the diary)