Some Reflections on Mormon Journal-Keeping

journal-2850091_640

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on journaling. Part 1 is a reflection on the changing role of journaling in Mormonism and my own experience finding my purpose and voice as a young journal-keeper. I end by asking: Do Mormons journal anymore? Part 2 will take up what it means to journal through the pandemic, with some practical suggestions and resources for starting or reinvigorating a journaling practice.

Early on during my own quarantine experience, about mid-March, I began to feel strongly that I’ll regret it if I don’t keep a record of how my life feels at this historic juncture. As difficult as it is to imagine, someday this pandemic will be behind us, a part of the past—even the distant past—and it won’t be as easy to summon the details of our thoughts and experiences as we may now assume. No matter how singular or memorable a moment feels, sooner or later it will recede with the tides of time and be difficult to retrieve without somehow preserving the memory.

This line of thinking should be familiar to most Mormons, especially people who grew up Mormon, and more especially women who grew up Mormon. Throughout my time in Achievement Days (the program for Primary-age girls at the time) and Young Women, I was strongly encouraged to keep a journal. In fact, it was nigh unto impossible to graduate from the Personal Progress program (at least its iteration in the early ‘00s) without having some semblance of a journal—a place where you could record your feelings and impressions after completing faith-promoting activities like reading your scriptures every day for a month, planting a seed and watching it grow, or performing an act of service. Home-study seminary was similar. We’d meet one evening a week at the church building, but the rest of the week we had “homework” that, to my teenage mind, required us to write reflective paragraphs—or, worse, draw pictures—far too often. From what I can tell, missionaries are also counseled to keep journals. In all of this, mileage varies person to person, season to season, but the message is the same: Write it down. Keep a record.

The missionary example goes to show that the tradition of journaling (or at least, being encouraged to journal) continues in some measure among the youth. As an adult, though, I find that I hear about it less and less at church, and it now feels more like a gentle suggestion than a commandment, which is how it was presented to me as a kid (drawing largely on the Book of Mormon account in 3 Nephi chapter 23, when Christ asks the people why they haven’t kept a complete record and commands them to write their spiritual history). This may be in part because the youth programs of the Church have way more structured activities than any of the adult classes or auxiliaries, so journaling just comes up a lot more. 

However, a quick search of the LDS General Conference Corpus reveals that general authorities have also stopped talking about journaling as much in their Conference addresses. Spencer W. Kimball, who served as President of the Church from 1973 to 1985, seems to be the primary driver of the counsel to journal; the MormonWiki page “Keeping a Journal” is mostly populated with Kimball quotations. In the decades following his presidency, it is largely women speakers or leaders addressing Young Women who bring up the importance of keeping a journal. Of the twenty-three references to the word “journal” in the General Conference talks of the 2010s, close to half of these are referencing journals of the past (kept by grandparents, pioneers, or former Church leaders) and only three of them are invitations to write in or keep a journal (two of which were addressed to the Young Women and one of which was from a talk delivered in Spanish by Elder Hugo E. Martinez of the Seventy). That said, my perception of the spiritual imperative to keep a journal is largely from memory and not recent counsel given to adults.

When I was younger, what I learned at church about the value of journaling was generally two-fold. One purpose was to track my spiritual journey, which could include writing my testimony, recording thoughts and impressions about spiritual events, reflecting after scripture study, counting my blessings, and identifying God’s presence in my life. The second purpose, which also has spiritual dimensions in the LDS faith but shares more in common with non-religious journaling practice, was to keep an account of major events and daily comings-and-goings to help future generations with family history. A third reason, certainly valid but less discussed at church, could be described as therapeutic: using your journal as a space to work through difficult emotions or calm a busy mind.

As a kid who aspired to be a good writer, I struggled with how to house all of these things under the roof of one journal. It seemed tonally uneven to have one entry talking about my fun birthday party and the next responding to a prompt about how my baptism represents my commitment to God. And while I certainly turned to my journal as an emotional outlet in moments when I felt angry or misunderstood, those quickly became the least interesting entries to re-read. This tension between the different reasons for keeping a journal led me to start several of my new blank journals with a series of questions to the tune of: Why am I doing this? Is it for myself today? Is it for myself in the future? For that matter, am I writing to the near-future or the distant-future? Should I be journaling with my potential future grandchildren in mind? What will they find interesting? 

I realized that the answer to these questions would shape what I’d choose to write about, and in what style. I didn’t want to limit myself per se, but I was also afflicted with being a perfectionist. I didn’t like the idea that my journal would be all over the place, or only filled with meta-reflections on the difficulty of writing (which happened a fair bit). And, to be honest, I felt a bit preemptively jealous and protective about my journal as something that belonged to me. Why should I have to surrender it to future generations? What about my privacy? And whenever I did consider these great-great-great-great grandchildren who might read it someday, I found myself caught between conflicting impulses, either being much more milquetoast for fear of offending my offspring or wanting to perform a kind of heroic, feisty girlhood worthy of celebrating decades later. (I mean, what if I became a famous author or Broadway star and these journals would become something of public interest, part of my bestselling biography?) There were also moments of wanting to perform the very spiritual grandmother, someone whose faith would be legendary.

So I lived and wrote with this sustained tension. It made some of my entries incredibly neurotic. Sometimes it kept me from writing anything at all. I tried a couple different methods of tapping into a more “authentic” voice, including taking a page from the great diarist Anne Frank and addressing my entries to “Kitty,” imagining that I was writing to a supportive friend rather than a messy Franken-audience comprised of all my imagined readers: older iterations of myself, as-yet unborn progeny, future biographers and historians, God himself, etc. You can see why Mormon journaling is actually quite a messy thing.

All of this even after I ultimately ended up migrating my “spiritual journaling” to separate notebooks or loose-leaf pages I’d carry to church (to say nothing of the series of branded spiral-bound notebooks I was given at Church-sponsored youth events like EFY, the very existence of which seemed to suggest I wasn’t the only one who wanted to keep things separate). To this day, I’m not terribly convinced of their value to re-read now, and many of them have since been lost or scattered about, unlike my “real” journals with more narrative entries describing day-to-day activities and important events in my personal life, which I have stored in a very heavy plastic bin that has moved cross-country with me. Even this separation between spiritual journaling and personal journaling, though, didn’t keep me from constantly re-examining my reasons for writing. In the end, that turns out to be something all writers of every genre have to wrestle with. Why am I doing this? And for whom? 

As I began working on this post, I intended for it to be about journaling in 2020, the Year of Corona, but, as happens to writers, I found myself drawn to these foundational questions about the role of journaling in Mormonism and my own experience as a young journaler—back when I was writing entries much more regularly and when keeping a journal at all felt like a very “Mormon” thing about me. I’m curious to know: Do Mormons journal anymore? What have you heard at church about keeping a journal? Has it changed over time? What has been your own experience with journaling?

Stay tuned for Part 2, the originally planned post where I talk about keeping a pandemic journal in the here-and-now, at a time when the here-and-now feels paradoxically mundane and significant—the perfect conundrum, it turns out, to consider through the lens of journaling.

Cover photo by David Schwarzenberg from Pixabay

Comments

  1. Michael Austin says:

    This is excellent Richelle. I had not thought about it, but you are absolutely right that nobody seems to talk much about journaling. I wonder if that is because it has almost become a lost art in our society, with the various social media outlets–where people record impressions and document historical events both large and small as a matter of course–picking up the role that was once reserved for journals. I imagine that these will all someday be archived and indexed so that, when anyone becomes famous, people will be able to read all of their Facebook posts and Tweets the way that we no read the journals of some historical figures. But something tremendous is lost in this tradeoff, since comments on social media are, well, social. The self that we project there is a carefully filtered and curated self that usually records what we want people to think about us rather than what we are. I am certainly more willing to say things in a journal that won’t be read until I am dead than in a Facebook post that everybody will see as soon as I hit return.

  2. Just two personal observations:

    1) My spouse of 43 years died of cancer. She had kept a journal all those years. After she passed, I looked for them and found they had all disappeared. I am sure she destroyed them. She did leave me a few pages relating to the time we were falling in love and why she chose me. I treasure these few pages because they explain so much, but that is all she left, and the photographs I took. Her children, and her memory.

    2) Her father was a respected Church leader. He became a Regional Representative in the time before the new 70’s. He was responsible for the 3 hour block program in the Church. I found his mission journals. I was interested because I knew that his fiancee had visited him in St. Louis on his mission in the 30’s. I looked for the entries and found, basically, “Lyle arrived,” and “Lyle left.”

    I am so sorry that JMS did not leave her journals for us to read, warts and all. Maybe they were so critical of us, I have no idea. As for her father’s journals, they were utterly bereft of anything to pass on to future generations. Why did he bother.

    I think that journaling is a noble thing, but a memoir is so much more. It is a life in review, it is meaning extracted. Journaling, mainly, is about the rocks in the road, the flat tires, the amusement parks, the camping trips, and the jelly that did not set.

  3. Journals kept as a gift to the future is an exercise in futility unless one has led a very interesting life. People often think they would love to have had the journal kept by one of their forebears but generally, their lives were no more interesting than our lives are in the present. And it takes a lot of time to pan through the trivia to find a flake of gold. I’ve kept a journal for most of my life and have only rarely gone back to read anything in them. The motto in the Field Notes notebook is significant for me: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later. I’m writing it down to remember it now.”

  4. Chad L. Nielsen says:

    Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I felt strongly encouraged by the Church to keep a journal. I even remember a specific mutual activity where a member of the bishopbric talked to all of the youth about why it was important to keep a journal, emphasizing mainly the recording of history and the opportunity for catharsis/working through feelings. Being raised with the need to journal instilled in me, I have found it interesting how little it has been encouraged since then (and was glad to find in this post that I’m not the only one who has wondered about that). As far as I remember, there was one talk by President Eyring where he gently suggested keeping a journal as a way to remind yourself about how God’s hand is in your life (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2007/10/o-remember-remember?lang=eng), and the Wilford Woodruff manual has a chapter on record keeping, but those are the main places I’ve remembered seeing it encouraged.

    I know on my mission, I was encouraged to keep a record, but I felt like I was the only one out of the several individuals that I served with that actually kept a regular journal. I was asked by at least three companions what I found worth writing about every day. I would be interested to find out how many missionaries actually do keep journals.

    I also find that my journals have shifted their audience from time to time. Sometimes it’s for my descendants, sometimes just for my own memory (or venting/catharsis), and at one point on my mission I took an MTC teacher’s advice and wrote my entries as report letters or prayers to God (that didn’t last long). More and more, as I have studied primary sources for my own history hobbies and read history books, I find myself writing primarily for future historians and descendants in order to give a window into the life of a Latter-day Saint/American/Utahan/Nielsen in the early 21st century. That shapes a lot of how I write–trying to capture what is going on around me, my feelings about important events that are going on, conversations (including texting conversations) that give insights into my life or the lives of family members, and occasionally details about how certain things are done these days–the types of things that I find interesting in my ancestors’ memoirs and journals. I have no particular interest in or hope for rising to fame, but primary source materials, even from obscure individuals, have an important role in writing histories, so I write with the idea that my journal may be primary source materials for historians in the future and/or as the main source for my descendants to learn about what our family was like during my lifetime.

  5. The “Come Follow Me” Sunday School manuals emphasize the importance of journaling. Each lesson encourages us to record our impressions after reading for the week.

  6. I listened to the Young Men’s General Presidency Devotional after reading this post. Since journaling was on my mind, I noticed the leaders asked the youth to write their impressions down along with what they had learned.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post. Yeah, journals used to be a thing, but I can’t remember the last time I heard such an encouragement. I have kept three journals in my life. First a mission journal from 1977 to 1979 (by far my best effort). Then a sporadic journal after my mish to 1991. Then I would print t out my weekly family letters a d put them in a binder. Eventually that one lettered out as well.

    My mission journal could be made into a movie, but it would be rated PG.

  8. This is actually something I have done a lot of. As a teenager (80’s) I had a school teacher give it to us as an assignment and I kept going. They are very colorful with lots of pictures from magazines stuck in it – I would be very artistic and cut and fold pages so the picture would cover many pages. It is interesting to read and see the fashions and pop stars. It is interesting to see how quickly my crushes changed. Most of my teenage years are documented like this.

    I did a little between YW and my mission (21), but when I went on my mission (90’s) I wrote daily. I also stuck pictures – but this time the MormonAds from New Eras. I brought home 3 A4 journals – my husband did 9 A5 journals on his mission.

    I did a little after but I would do good for a period of time and then stop. 11 years ago we started a family BLOG. Our children were 5 – 9 and we were living a long way from our extended family so it was a way of them seeing everything we were up to. We stuck to. We do on average 4 a week, some long some with small one-liners to remember the children’s funny comments and adventures. We don’t think many people read it but we still write, it is private so it can only be seen by those we invite (had to this after a stalking incident with our oldest daughter at about 15). We have just started going back and professionally printing them out. it is an amazing history of our family. Whenever we are trying to remember things we search the BLOG. The kids now 20 – 16 love reading old stories and looking at old photos.

    For our 20th wedding anniversary, my husband went through all of our love letters and my emails to friends and family and old journals between mission and when the BLOG started and had it professionally printed. It is 400 pages long. It is beautiful. I have never been so touched by a present.

    So I have in writing a large part of my life from teenagerhood to now (48). It is wonderful to remind myself of things from the past, both good and bad.

  9. richellejolene says:

    Thanks for chiming in, everyone! Thinking of what Adele and Barb bring up, I feel the need to clarify that I see a big difference between writing down impressions after a meeting on a looseleaf paper (sometimes provided for you by the teacher) or responding to a short prompt from a lesson/study manual versus keeping a regular journal, something that’s more an account of your life and that you cherish and hold on to, possibly for generations in your family. In the Church, we still do lots and lots of the former (it’s kind of our pedagogical MO, along with “breaking up into small groups”) but talk much less about the latter than we used to. To me, the jotting-down-impressions habit is more like a free-write, temporary and meant to spark inspiration in the moment, whereas journaling is more sustained and narrative.

    When I was younger (like Chad, I grew up in the ’90s and early ’00s), “keeping a journal” was on the list alongside “read your scriptures,” “pray every day,” “go to church,” etc. as a baseline Mormon behavior. That might still be true for the youth, and I’d be interested to hear more about that, but it feels much more optional now as a Mormon adult in 2020. Maybe in part because of what Michael said about social media, which probably deserves a post unto itself.

  10. I’d kept a journal on and off (mostly off) throughout my teenage years and into post college. It started out as a password protected Word file on my families computer, that I then copied to my college computers and took the password off. After college, and after getting married, I thought that the file size was getting to be unwieldy. So I broke it up into one file per year, and have kept with that pattern since then.
    A few years ago I was thinking about what more I should be doing, and the lack of journaling came to mind. I’ve been pretty good about keeping a daily entry since then. I imagine that my kids will read all of these once or twice in their lifetimes. As for what keeps me going, is that writing in my journal has predominantly become my therapy sessions for how I’m managing/dealing with a clinically depressed spouse. I imagine if someone was going to create a compilation of my life the primary source would be the different pictures which have been taken and not so much the journal.
    About ten years ago (I think it was when my youngest sister left for college) my dad started sending out weekly journal emails to his wife and children. It’s mostly him reflecting on the week, nothing preachy, and it does keep us informed as to what is going on. Most contain a paragraph per day, in chronological order; some are just large impressions of the week. Either way, it feels odd if my inbox doesn’t have an email from him on Sunday morning.

  11. Brent Guy Wilson says:

    I didn’t set out to be a journal-keeper. Nevertheless, in the late 1970s I began writing notes in and around the drawings I was making in my sketchbooks. Before I fully understood what was happening I had begun to record my life. Now, in 107 journals I have drawn and written my thoughts, recorded my daydreams and my night-dreams, designed research projects, diagrammed theories, outlined lectures, made caricatures of conference speakers, recorded my doctoral students’ examinations, and chronicled the evaluation and research projects I have undertaken. In my journals I have made collaborative drawings with kids in various countries and I have written poems and drawn of memories of my childhood in Idaho. My journals are travelogues and collages recording my journeys around the world and my visiting professorships in the US, Egypt, Europe, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In my journals I have sketched seemingly endless plans for the paintings and artist-books I wanted to make – and mostly never had time to make. About a decade ago I came to the realization that my visual journals were more important than the paintings and artist-books I had planned but didn’t make. My journals are more than a record of my life in art; they are my art. Ninety of my journals are in the Special Collections of the library at Penn State University and available online https://digital.libraries.psu.edu/digital/collection/brentwilson/id/1777 and https://www.centerforlatterdaysaintarts.org/come-follow-me/2020/2/17/march-23-29-enos-words-of-mormon-he-works-in-me-to-do-his-will.
    In 1995 I realized that I was not recording spiritual and church experiences in my everyday journals. Consequently I began keeping a Sunday journal – there are now 14 of them in which I record and respond to sacrament meeting and general conference talks, outline Primary lessons, and, yes, record those few vivid spiritual experiences, inspiration and personal revelations.

  12. The general authorities are not encouraged to keep journals any longer. If they do, my understanding is that they have to turn them over to the Church at the end of their service. Books like Greg Prince’s, “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” let to the policy. Journals are now feared to fall into the hands of historians and others who will write from them without Church approval. By the way, I loved that book. Policy is a huge loss for the members and future historians.

  13. I was a teenager when President Kimball was still alive, so I’m part of that group that was strongly encouraged to keep a journal. We had lessons on them in YW, in seminary, in primary, and in fact, now that I think about it, I had religion professors at BYU who made writing at least two entries a week a mandatory class assignment, even for a while after President Kimball died. None of that is in the curriculum anymore. I can remember walking into Deseret Book and the BYU Bookstore when my family visited Utah (before I went there for school) and seeing shelves upon shelves of blank books of all different styles and designs. Those have mostly disappeared, although I suppose that could be because people are more likely now to use computers than write by hand. But I also think it’s because there’s just far less emphasis on journals in general. I keep one off and on, and based on a discussion we had in class a few months ago, I think most of the women in my local Relief Society have kept a journal at one point, but very few were doing so before the pandemic hit. I picked mine up again partly to keep track of the days.

  14. There are many ways of keeping a journal. Of the ways I’ve used that have proven helpful, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and The Bullet Journal by Ryder Carroll are two methods I’ve incorporated. I now use a single journal for morning pages, long-form journaling, planner, calendar, art journal, and commonplace book. My journal can also be a forum for Lectio Divina. For those parts of my journal that form a catalog or inventory, I keep a separate notebook for “collections” as I found it too cumbersome and repetitive to add them every time I start a new journal. I write every day for at least 30 minutes, as well as completing at least one art piece in my journal.

  15. Camilla Shoemaker says:

    Excellent article. I have a whole shelf full of old, filled journals from the time I was a child until I was about 22. I realized though that I didn’t enjoy going back and reading them (feeling silly about what was written or the “uneven” nature of audience, tone, maturity, etc) so I stopped writing things down. I think blogging took over journalling, because you had a clear idea of your audience and would write something your readers would find interesting. It’s hard to write for people in the future, even your future self. If a blog reader didn’t find your post interesting they wouldn’t be your regular reader and that was OK, you didn’t worry about letting your progeny down.

    I still feel the guilt for not keeping a journal though. I have a reminder on my phone to journal that beeps every Sunday. I ignore it every week except a couple weeks a year, and always feel a bit like I’m letting someone down (God? Myself? Future generations? Who knows but the guilt is real.)

  16. I started my first journal when I was about 7, not out of encouragement from church leaders, but because my older sister got a journal that year and I wanted to be just like her. I started writing almost daily (see also: I stopped losing my journals) around the age of 10 and developed my own habits of journal writing before I started getting strong encouragement to keep a journal in Young Women.

    The main purposes of journalling I was told at church was just like in this article: recording spiritual promptings, leaving a record for descendants, and working through difficult emotions. For the first point, I have a separate, smaller notebook that I bring to church and is filled with more doodles drawn during sacrament meeting than words of inspiration. I don’t write for descendants exactly, although I do sometimes think about what could be useful to future historians. The third point is the only one that regularly features in my journal.

    When it comes down to it, I don’t often think about an actual audience. I write to the journals themselves, and each one becomes my most trusted friend. I talk about my day like I do to my actual friends. I share my deepest joys and pains, some of which I never tell anyone. I organize my swirling thoughts. I retreat to it in the middle of sleepless nights. I review TV shows I’ve been watching. Most of it isn’t very interesting to look back on, but the important part for me is in the writing, not the reading. It’s that no matter how dull or how thrilling or how miserable the day is, I can end it in a safe, personal space.

  17. Jack Hughes says:

    I started journaling as a teen in the early 90s, after attending a Church fireside where the practice was strongly encouraged. My parents seemed pleased by my enthusiasm for keeping a journal. So much so, in fact, that they started reading my journal entries without permission and shared what they read with other adults, much to my embarrassment. I know parents like to share amusing anecdotes about their kids with other parents, but for me at the time it was a serious betrayal. I destroyed my journal and swore off journaling, realizing that anything I ever wrote could be weaponized against me in the future. It also made it impossible for me to confide in my parents when I needed their help with personal problems.

    If you have kids that journal, good for them, but please respect their privacy.

  18. Oh, Jack, that’s awful! I’m so sorry that happened to you!

  19. Angela C says:

    I grew up listening to Kimball’s admonishment to keep a journal, and I did keep it faithfully, writing every single day until I was nearly 30. Then, I realized that quantity was just hiding anything of quality, so I dialed it down to once a week or so. Eventually, that turned into every few months.

    I tend to think the more interesting journals are those with prompts like gratitude journals, 50 questions, share-your-life memory prompts, or a Q&A one I have where you give a short answer once a day all year, then do those same questions every year for 5 years. My answers are often similar, but the variations are interesting, too.

    I strongly felt that journaling was for myself, and not for others to read, though. My husband and I read each others’ for a little bit when we first got married, but I realized I was writing it for an audience suddenly, so I said we should quit reading them and let them just be for ourselves, and that change was important. It’s a place where I sort out my own thoughts and feelings. I don’t need anyone reading over my shoulder, either a theoretical future audience or a current, present-day one.

  20. I started keeping a journal seriously about ten years ago. I did this because of stress and mild mental health issues. Writing things out lets me work through problems but also to just get it out and forget it. I don’t know who’s counseling to journal but when I was Elders Quorum President, just before the “great quorum reorganization”, I taught it all the time. I still bring it up.

    I write on average about twice a week, but I have times, like in stress or significant events, when I journal almost every day. Lately it’s been more frequent. I cant’ think of a time when I went more than a full week without it.

    I send an email to myself–an address that autosorts into a “journal” folder. Once a year I dump the emails to pdf and save them/print them out. It’s insanely easy.

    I am grateful to have recorded so many important things in my journal–things of world import or personal import, especially of my children growing up. In fact, I have something to put in my journal tonight about my daughter. Most significantly, I once was writing in my journal when I realized that something I had prayed about in the morning had been answered rather specifically during the day. I had not up to that point in the day realized it, and am pretty sure I would not have. So yeah, it’s important to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.