That little book can do more for you than you think.
If you listen hard on 1 January you may hear an unfamiliar sound: thousands of pens scratching on paper as people throughout the country begin to write in their brand new diaries. A few days later, along with most good resolutions, the diaries will be abandoned - which is a pity as research in America indicates that keeping a diary can actually help you cope with life.

A diary in this context means a true record of feelings, fears and ambitions rather than a mere list of appointments, but it does not even have to be written. Many busy people now talk their dairies into a tape recorder (Tony Benn's tapes are famous). There are even more advanced methods: Nanni Moretti, the Italian director, shot his Dear Diary as a feature film, and there are plenty of volunteers willing to get to grips with a camcorder to compile their ovn video diaries for television's newest craze.

Like many other writers who work on a word processor, Graham Woodroffe, an English writer living in France, keeps his diary on computer. "It enables me to call up comparisons between similar dates over many years," he says.

In contrast with all this high-tech, the oddest material on which to write a diary must surely be that used by an Italian peasant woman, Clelia Marchi. It was a sheet - not the A4 but the linen bed variety - which she covered with long lines of tiny handwriting and edged with poems in red ink. She had been married for 40 years; her children had been born and her husband died in similar sheets and she found this the most appropriate medium on which to express her life history. A couple of years ago she was able to see the sheet displayed in the village of Pieve S Stefano, now known as the Citta del Diario, in Tuscany.

Of course, people decide to keep diaries for different reasons. Anais Nin started hers at the age of 11 as a "letter" to her father, who had abandoned the family. George Sand kept a wild diary with the intention of sending it to Alfred de Musset at the end of their affair. Frida Kahlo's sketch-book diary is made up of strange lists of words and haunting images of her body, shattered in a horrific bus accident in Mexico City. It obviously helped her to deal with the agonising pain that she suffered every day of her life. In the diary she even draws her right leg, which the doctors decided to amputate, adding the words, ''Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?''

Personal diaries like these undoubtedly make fascinating reading - few of us can resist the frisson of voyeurism they offer and with examples ranging from the 10th-century diary of the Japanese courtesan, Sei Shonagun to the recent A Child's Diary in Sarajevo, they evoke every emotion. If Joe Orton's diaries shock with their frank sexual content, Samuel Pepys's attempts to disguise the sexual element in his with a code make us smile.

Diary revelations can give unexpected insights. Could Dorothy's more famous brother William have sunk to sneaking a look at his sister's diary? Her entry for 31 July 1802 reads, ''When we were in the woods beyond Gobarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side... as we went along there were more and yet more... I never saw daffodils so beautiful... some rooted their heads... and the rest togged and reeled and danced...''

Although these diaries have now reached a wider public, in most cases their original conception was that of a secret "friend" in whom to confide. I would in fact question whether a dairy published in the writer's lifetime can be totally honest. Anais Nin wrote some 168 volumes describing her bohemian life in Paris and her numerous love affairs - but what was not revealed (and was in fact carefully concealed) was the fact that Nin had a nice husband at home who financed all her adventures.

Reading diaries, in the same way as reading biographies, can help us in the subconscious search for a pattern in life. However it appears that the best self-help comes in writing our own diaries. Since the Seventies, there has been a wave of interest in diary-writing as therapy in America. Busy career women are encouraged to work out on paper problems that might otherwise fester inside.

"Use your diary as a tool for growth," wrote Dr Tristine Rainer in her book, The New Diary. "In your journal you are free. You can exaggerate, curse, brag, write lovingly or angrily... Relationships can be explored in a non-threatening way and areas of genuine worry can be pin-pointed. Behaviour can be rehearsed on paper - and much apprehension removed."

The Jungian psychologist, Professor Ira Progoff has taken matters a step further. His diary-keeping technique involves using a loose-leaf folder and making entries in specialised sections. In his book At a Journal Workshop he claims, "Under pressure of events, our lives become hard-packed like soil; as we work in the journal we gradually break into this hardness... it becomes possible for us to move more freely within ourselves."

The easiest way to learn about Progoff's ideas is at a "journal workshop" (hence the odd name of the book), but these are infrequent in Britain. However, armed with the book it is quite possible to follow the process. Sections include "steppingstones", in which you list eight to 10 significant events in your life and then explore each more deeply; "roads not taken", where you try to salvage something positive from old regrets and neglected ambitions; "dialogue", sections where you enter into a written conversation with persons living or dead with whom you have unfinished business (often guilt feelings after a loved one has died). These exercises do throw up ideas which conscious reasoning would never expose. Lastly Progoff encourages a lot of re-reading of diaries; this is the "feedback from which the subconscious beneficial effect is derived".

All this may seem rather earnest and Californian but I can only say it did give me some valuable insights into my life. However, it's much more time-consuming than the scribbled diary writing I normally indulge in. It is this more informal system that I recommend. Recording your hopes and fears is a cheap, harmless pursuit that is enjoyable and can even become addictive. If you are lucky enough not to need therapy, do it anyway - the worst that can happen is that, like Anais Nin, you find "there is an incentive to make your life interesting so that your diary will not be dull..." In which case 1996 will be a lively year for you.

If, however, you do have problems, then keeping a diary can't do any harm (unless the wrong person finds it, of course...), it is far cheaper than going to a shrink and, who knows? As Mae West discovered, " If you keep a diary, one day it may keep you."

Further details of Ira Progoff's books and workshops can be obtained from Dialogue House, 80 East llth Street, New York NY 1003, USA

'The New Diary' by Tristine Rainer, published by Tarcher, is now out of print.