February 15, 2006
A Journal Worth Keeping (Whether the Angels Quote from It Or Not)
Frankengirl posted an entry about diaries and whether or not they are meant to be kept or burned. This is a topic that gets ME burning. In the December 2004 issue of Sunstone, I published an essay detailing my attitude about keeping a journal. It seems relevant, so I'm posting it here.
Although I am no longer a believing or active Mormon, I still live a lot like one. OK, I drink an occasional beer, though I have never been able to cultivate any interest in substance abuse. I don't worry about the ratings of the movies I watch, though I have enough sense to avoid films that are obviously crap. I don't go to church on Sunday, though I have tried to find a congregation where I feel at home, but I can't help noticing other meetings' short-comings when compared to a Mormon service: I hate having to stand, then sit, then kneel, then stand again; or I hate that other worshipers sing tacky devotional pop songs accompanied by guitars or recordings, like it's some group karaoke thing; or I hate that people show up in t-shirts and shorts, like it's the grocery store.
But I still write down goals. I still strive to be scrupulously honest in my business dealings and to give a good portion of my earnings to charity. I still buy groceries in bulk. I still can't throw away anything, from a scrap of fabric to a cardboard box, without asking myself, "Is there some possible use left in this thing?" I still keep a journal.
For many years I kept a journal for the same reason I flossed, made good grades and exercised: because somebody told me that when I was seventy, I'd be glad I'd done such things in my youth. In general, the journal has given me more pleasure than the flossing. I was 11 when President Kimball issued his encouragement to
Get a notebook...a journal that will last through all time, and maybe the angels will quote from it for eternity. Begin today and write in it your goings and comings, your deepest thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies. (4)
I'm now on volume 14, and I still look at old volumes from time to time. For instance, volume five, my mission journal, is almost 100,000 words long and quite hefty. I wrote in it my goings and comings, my deepest thoughts, and things like this, from June 14, 1986: "I have decided that the angels will not even flip the pages of this journal, though imperfect beings might find something of interest here."
Many people consider a journal the most private and intimate of texts. In certain ways my journal is intensely intimate, in that it contains personal details and deep yearnings and struggles. Nonetheless, I was affected very early and very thoroughly by the Mormon view that journals are documents providing personal accounts of shared experiences--an example being the diaries or journals kept by those who crossed the plains--and are in some ways intended to be shared, just like the experiences they record. I took to heart the admonition that someday, when I am dead, someone, somewhere, might come upon my journals and use them--as faith-promoting stories, as cautionary tales, or simply as historical documents. Thus I have long been acutely aware of audience--it's a concept I understood instantly when teachers tried to explain it in composition courses. And even though I began to suspect early on that the angels would not quote from my journal, filled as it was with doubt and dissent, still, I couldn't help wanting, at the very least, to entertain and edify those other potential readers, the human ones--to give them an occasional good laugh, or pose from time to time a difficult question worth pondering.
In short, I wanted to give them reasons to keep reading, and give myself reasons to keep writing. I felt an obligation to make the record of my life relevant and compelling, both for myself and for that future audience, and I don't think that sense of obligation hurt either my journal in particular or my writing in general--or my cognitive skills, for that matter. I've learned that to be a good journaler, one must develop an eye for what is interesting and meaningful in one's daily life, as well as some skill and insight into analyzing one's own behaviors, utterances, and relationships. I believe that a journal should accurately capture not merely what happened, but the mood it left you in, the effect. Anyone who has kept a journal for very long knows that a journal that does nothing but record events makes for singularly dull reading--and yes, I have resorted to that minimalist strategy from time to time when I'm feeling lazy or overwhelmed; I do it primarily to maintain my habit, not because I imagine that such entries are particularly valuable in and of themselves.
I no longer attend much to a future audience (if someone really wants to read through all those thousands of pages once I'm gone, s/he is welcome to, but I'm not planning on it); these days I write my journal mainly for myself, but I haven't lost my sense that my journal needs to be, on the whole, worth not only writing in the first place, but reading again later--even if I'm the only one ever to read it. Which raises the question: what does make my journal, for me, worth the writing and reading of it? I won't deny that I find keeping a journal a pleasant and entertaining use of my time, and that I do it in part simply because I enjoy it. But I believe that a journal can indeed perform a spiritual function, and I find that aspect extremely valuable. A journal can be written with a specifically spiritual bent, as an inventory of our efforts to live morally and behave appropriately, what Catholics call "an examination of conscience." It can be a meditation upon issues that interest us, topics that trouble us. It can be a way to pose important questions and seek answers for them--as well as a place to record those answers when they come, so that years later, we can look back and be amazed by a youthful wisdom we somehow managed to forget.
As a writing teacher, I also believe that spiritual discipline can be built into the endeavor of writing well: although my students don't always believe me, I remain convinced that good writing is carefully crafted and coherent, and makes use of things like 1) transitions, 2) support for ideas in the form of specific and apt examples, 3) musical, rhythmic prose, and 4) syntax that is lively and varied. Any account of your life will, of necessity, be molded and shaped, whether poorly or well, and the transitions you use, the examples you select, even the vocabulary you employ, can help you see a pattern to your life you might otherwise miss. I can't imagine how I would make sense of my life without the profound and useful insights that come upon me as I wrestle to bring inchoate sensations and unconnected experiences, ranging from the devastating to the delightful, under the greater order of organized prose. Sometimes these insights arrive years after I've written a journal entry, when I'm thinking about a new situation that bears some similarity to an old experience. I'll haul out an old volume, read through it, and some mental flash will suddenly illuminate both situations in remarkable and useful ways--an event I often then record in the new volume, also quoting the old passage that sparked the insight.
In her essay, "On Keeping a Notebook," Joan Didion writes, "The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing and thinking." Instead, she says the point is to remember
How it felt to be me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook....I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
While I agree with Didion that it's wise to remain familiar with the people we used to be, I am, unlike her, interested in having "an accurate factual record of what I have been doing and thinking"–as the descendent of Mormon pioneers and geneaologers, how could I be otherwise? In Faithful Transgressions in the American West: Six Twentieth-Century Mormon Women's Autobiographical Acts, Laura L. Bush points out that
Mormon autobiographers pay close attention to ‘truth' and to ‘accurate' history. They often begin their narratives with recitals of their precise ancestry and exact place of birth, carefully researching and marking the progression of the story of their lives until ending the story with a formal testament of faith in God.... Mormon autobiographers' meticulous attention to testifying of God and to producing accurate historical details...follows biblical and Book of Mormon writing traditions. (9)
I confess: I've written an autobiography of sorts, a memoir of my mission, and I was not the least bit surprised to discover that my book adheres to the formula Bush describes, since I was very aware at the time of following a tradition. I wanted my book to be as accurate as I could possibly make it, especially since when I wrote it, I imagined it as the defense I would muster in my behalf at the final judgment, and God would be well aware of any conscious lie I might tell. I was trying to produce a work of art, but it was also a deadly serious moral enterprise. My first act in writing my book was to transcribe every word of my mission journal--in which I had meticulously recorded entire conversations, detailed impressions, and the dates, places and times of significant events; I had even included supporting documents such as letters, zone conference programs, and those yellow planners on which we scheduled our work.
At a writing conference in June 2004, I met a woman who, like me, is a scholar and writer of literary nonfiction, and who, like me, had her heart well and truly broken by a man she was ready to marry, and who, like me, suffers from insomnia. She told me that to help herself unwind, clear her mind and prepare to sleep each night, before bed she would write in a spiral notebook, usually about how upset she was with Michael, her ex, and how devastated she was that as soon as the engagement ring was on her finger, he turned into someone else, someone she couldn't marry. She wrote pages and pages, she said, about how she hated him, loved him, resented him, could never forget him although she wanted nothing more than to erase him from her memory. I sympathized, with the difficulty in falling asleep, with the heartbreak, with the confused writing. But then she mentioned that when she got to the end of each notebook, she threw it away. "You threw it away?" I repeated, dazed.
"Yeah," she said. "It was just my ranting about Michael. It's not like the world needs any of that."
"But what if there was...an insight? Or a good line? And you threw it away?" I asked slowly, attempting to resist the horror of it all.
"There wasn't," she said. And since I was having difficulty breathing, having just heard someone be so cavalier about an action absolutely inimical to my world view, I made no reply and the conversation moved on to other topics.
I tell this story to call attention to one part of keeping a journal: the keeping part. As I mentioned, my journal does contain boring, uninspired passages; I haven't deleted them and I don't intend to. For one thing, when I'm overwrought, it's kind of nice to remember times when nothing much happened; it's also good to remind myself how flat even the most exciting events can seem later if I don't render them fully. Furthermore, preserving what you produce is built into the activity: keeping a journal means you not merely write but hang on to the journal. And that keeping is also a spiritual practice: finding the discipline to make writing a habit, to live with a growing and on-going document that demonstrates who you were, who you thought you'd become, and who you actually ended up being. If you're lucky, it might also help you figure out who you want to be next, and how to achieve it.
I'll end with Job, who, if he lived at all, lived before paper was readily available:
Oh that my words were now written! oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever! Job 19:23-24
We don't have to be so desperate. If we want something written, we can write it. We've got plenty of paper, plenty of ink, and really fast computers. All of which make keeping a journal so easy that it's something of a luxury, a way of acknowledging how blessed--and I use that word advisedly--we are.
In conclusion, I bear testimony of the power of a journal to help us live with more awareness of who we are and who we want to be. I will always be grateful that I followed President Kimball's advice to keep a journal. It has enriched my life immeasurably.
1. Kimball, Spencer W. "The Angels May Quote from It." The New Era 5, no 10 (1975): 4-5.
2. Didion, Joan. 1968. "On Keeping a Notebook." In Slouching Toward Bethlehem. New York: Noonday Press. 131-141.
3. Bush, Laura L. Faithful Transgressions in the American West: Six Twentieth-Century Mormon Women's Autobiographical Acts. Salt Lake City: U of Utah Press, 2004.
Posted by holly at February 15, 2006 8:45 AM