Journaling and Authenticity

Liz Muir completes her stint as a guest at BCC! Earlier posts here and here.

If you’ve found your way over to my blog, you may have noted that I’m embarking on a study abroad trip to England in less than a month. One of the main purposes of this trip is to develop a collection of personal essays–a glorified journal, basically. As a result, we’ve been discussing the elements that go into writing a journal. We’ve basically come down to two opposing forces of journal writing, both in terms of style and content.

First, my professor, John Bennion, believes that journal writing should be wildly experimental and uninhibited. He wants us using unlined journals, venturing into sketching and doodling, writing experimental things that we’d never let anyone see (either because they contradict the face we present to the world or because they are possibly heretical to The System). His journals from past trips are voluminous, unpolished, and–as a result–unreadable.

Opposing that we have his wife’s journals, which would make any blue-blooded Relief Society scrapbooker proud. They have neatly trimmed pictures and ticket stubs pasted in, with trim prose wrapping squarely around the edges. It’s not just a “we did this, then this” laundry-list type of journal. She does record her feelings about her experiences, but the way in which she does so differs from John’s as much as the form of their journals. Her journals are meant to be read by friends and family: they are a vicarious experience of what she did on the trip.

I’ve been feeling this same dilemma–experimental versus historical journal writing–ever since the Wilford Woodruff lesson on journal writing last year. The chapter talks a lot about our journals as an official record, that we ought to record blessings and other official Church acts. Our journals are a history–something benefitting “ourselves, our posterity, and the Church.” Wilford Woodruff’s journals, the chapter quotes B.H. Roberts as saying, were a valuable source in reconstructing the events of the lives of other prominent members and the Church history of the time period.

But this seems to contrast with one of the main reasons I keep a journal, which is on a more experimental level: I keep a journal to cope with life. I try to write down events, but most of my journal writing is spent determining how I actually feel and what I ought to do. Journaling helps me to sort out what’s wrong and what’s right, and create action plans, which don’t always work. Can I do this freely if I feel the pressure of future generations reading over my shoulder? Can I admit to them I doubt, I fear, I am imperfect? (Well, they probably know that last one.) In this way, journaling for historical reasons seems to limit authenticity.

Now, unlike my professor, I’m not going to make a judgment on which is better or worse. And of course I haven’t personally read Wilford Woodruff’s journal, so perhaps he does feel free to be experimental and admit doubts and fears. Maybe this historical pressure is all in my head. But I think not. We’ve been commanded to keep a journal, but what exactly do you write? How much is censored or falsified by historical pressure? And how much historical detail ought we to include?

I ought to mention that I feel oddly hypocritical writing about this issue on a blog.


  1. When I read my missionary journal it’s easy to see that it has a certain “voice,” one that is not entirely authentic. I’ve thought about going through it and making annotations: “this is what I wrote, but this is what I was really thinking” etc.

  2. Liz,
    I went to England with John Bennion ten years ago. I kept the ticket stubs and pamphlets and stuffed them all onto fancy green paper with notes here and there. But the best journals to read from that semester in my life were the e-mails I wrote late at night when no one else was around. Letters let the author be honest and personable. They are also a good vehicle for self-examination.I find that my best journal writing is from correspondence.

    Enjoy your trip! I am jealous…

  3. I’ve kept two journals. One journal is the usual expanded journal where I write my thoughts, uninhibited. This journal is haphazardly kept; for example, I haven’t written in it since my daughter was born. However, I haven’t kept anything back, warts and all.

    The other journal I keep is a one-line-a-day journal, which I’ve kept faithfully for 16 years. I wrote about it on my family blog showing the beauty of such a journal. I can look back and see easily what I did on a particular day. Both journals are an authentic look at my life.

    I like the idea of experimenting. My first journal, which my mom bought for me when I was 13 is quite experimental. It was this experimentation that led me to my one-line-a-day journal, and the faithful keeping of my journal.

  4. When I go on trips I take a notebook and write in it every day. Even though several of these notebooks are several years old, I can open them up and all the feelings come back. The same with my mish journal which I did write in daily. I’ve done experimental journals, and I’ve done page a day journals (the notebook was about 3″ by 5″ where i just jot down whatever from that down.

    The bottom line is–experiment until you find what works for you.

  5. …or because they are possibly heretical to The System.

    Now you are sounding Orwellian. :)

    I think there are different avenus of writing in a journal. I use my blog for writing down my thoughts on politics, religion, and life in general. It’s a great vehicle for me to organize my thoughts in a way that I normally wouldn’t in my own journal. My personal and spiritual experiences are then put in a normal journal (albeit with much less frequency).

    I agree with Sherpa – each person should find what works for them, but the important thing is that we each preserve our memories and thoughts in some fashion.

  6. Connor: Yay for Orwell and dystopian fiction!

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I knew more than one missionary who kept two journals; the public one he would keep on the desk for snooping zone leaders to find and peruse, and the real one he would keep well hidden away from prying eyes.

    I was never that paranoid nor ambitious; I just kept one journal, which was sort of a cross between an account of what I was doing and self therapy.

    My missionary journal was very open about what I did and what I was feeling, and if Richard Dutcher made it into a movie, by Mormon standards it would have to be rated PG-13 at least.

  8. Sounds like we’ve unearthed a previously unexplored topic here: the politics of Mormon journal writing.

  9. Kevin, that’s just weird. I wrote to my then fiance everyday as my Journal, and mailed it to her once a week. I think it helped me to have someone to write to, else I wouldn’t have done it. I did also have a notebook where I keep notes about what I was studying in my scriptures, but it was notes, not a journal.

    My Journal writing is pretty bad now. I like to think of it as writing my prayers down, but I just don’t pray very well in this way, it seems…

  10. I am a huge believer in journals for reasons too complex to cover here. Right now my life is too jampacked for fiction or poetry writing, so my journals are my literary outlet. I keep four journals, more or less.

    The first is just a daily record: very briefly what happened and how I felt. I carry it with me and jot in it on the bus, at lunch, etc. The point is to keep everything preserved as I fall behind on my main journal(s)and need to catch up…but it’s interesting in its own right because it has little reflection, mostly gut reaction.

    The second is the Book of Me, a name I cribbed from my sister when I started it at age 8. It is inspiring, heartbreaking, shocking and ridiculous. Some years have only six entries and there are runs of months where I do an entry every day or two. I have read pieces to my wife and will read pieces to my kids, but they are locked away generally.

    The third is the Book of the Sublime. I started doing this a few winters ago when I was slipping into depression. It is a (nearly) daily record of what I find that I should be thankful for, or what I find beautiful or even just nice. Yes, that was an element of my Me journal, but it needed drawing out, and now its a great thing to have. It is an open book for my wife, usually indcuing tears.

    The fourth is a half-hearted attempt at blogging. I don’t really have time for it, but I need a space to put stuff that I bring up in my classes that kids find funny and interesting, then I can never remember again. Of course, I haven’t really done that yet, but we’ll see…

    Good luck with the trip. Are you staying at the BYU house in London? I lived a few blocks away and can give a few tips.

  11. 10:

    Actually, we’re doing a sort of “walking and writing” in England thing, so we start up in Scotland and walk all over literary related places, finally ending up in London for the last few weeks.

  12. Liz, I am insanely jealous, but also excited for you.
    So, Nehpi did the whole two journals thing. One set of plates for the spiritual and another for the historic. So, maybe we ougth to have two journals– as many people have said they do. I have a scrapbook– which I actually haven’t finished– I’m still working on the high school pages. And my written journal contains a little of both. So, I could be better at writing in my journal, but I think blogging partially fills that requirement. even though I contain some historical details– like writing about september 11th when it happened– I would be mortified if anyone every read my journals. I probably should have a historical journal “for my posterity,” but I would probably write in that less than I do the journal I have now, so what’s the point? Then I would just be killing a tree.

    So, good luck with your journal-keeping endeavors. You’re going to have such an awesome time!

  13. 12:

    I probably should have a historical journal “for my posterity,” but I would probably write in that less than I do the journal I have now, so what’s the point?

    That’s another problem. I can’t motivate myself to write enough detail that they would actually understand what’s going on. Too much work.

  14. Elouise says:

    Oh, my! I feel a bit as I did years ago when my eight-year old nephew asked, “Did you ever read anything by C.S. Lewis?” I knew that in my enthusiasm for the subject, I was in danger of swamping him. But yours is a fascinating subect, Liz: I’ll do my best to keep my response short. . .uh, shortish.

    Whenever I have led workshops on journal-writing, especially in church settings, women have always said, “How can I really write what I feel in my journal? I don’t want my grandchildren to know that I did X or felt Y.”

    I had two favorite answers: first, if we’re realistic, we know that our posterity will MAYBE thumb through our journals for an hour some rainy Sunday years hence. That hour (and our standing with said posterity) might actually be considerably enlivened if the journals offer a few sentences about our struggle with X or Y.

    The other answer included a true story about a mother in eastern Utah whose 16-year old daughter was dating a boy the family seriously opposed. Much anguish, lots of wailing and admonition, and slammed doors were involved. Tension, resentment, threats, the full catastrophe.

    One day, Daughter happened to be looking for something in her mother’s attic closet, and came upon a journal Mom had written when she was sixteen. Daughter, angry to begin with, defiantly read some of the journal (which she ordinarily wouldn’t have done without permission). And lo and behold–guess who had been dating a very disreputable boy, much against the parental wishes, all those years ago?

    Daughter went downstairs with the open journal in her hand. “Mother? MOTHER!” What followed was embarrassment, some stammering, then a little laughter, then a lot of laughter, followed by the most open conversation the two had ever had.

    The history of journal-keeping is marvelously rich, and makes wonderful reading. In the past 30 years or so, a strong current of highly personal, highly exploratory journaling has grown in force, and that was the focus of most of the classes I taught on the subject. A branch of that is journaling as an impetus or source for creative writing, which I would wager is what my esteemed colleague John Bennion promotes.

    A separate current would be the important tradition of journal-writing as personal history and testimony. This current has its own protocols, outstanding examples, and patterns. Most of all, it has a different purpose.

    Folklore scholarand retired BYU professor Bert Wilson (William A.) kept a faithful journal all through his mission, decades ago. He also wrote a weekly letter to his mother. The comparison of the two records, he tells us, is revealing. Most of us could guess which is the more interesting and readable. But of course each is valuable.

    Best wishes as you resolve this matter, Liz!

  15. Mike Knutt says:

    I’m interested in some kind of online journaling tool. I find my paper journals go largely unused.
    A friend of mine sent me a link a couple days ago to I’ve been using it and it seems pretty cool – but as I say, I’m new to it. I’m in email like 24/7 so I love being able to just send an email to add to my private journal.
    I’d love to hear impressions from other people of this or other online journal tools or services.