Refine the Define – What’s in Your Journal?

Monkey Mirror
“For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face:
now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as I am known.”
1 Corinthians 13:12

Not long ago I stumbled upon a brilliant quote that read:

“Those who do not keep journals will be defined by those who do.”
(OK, I didn’t really stumble upon it because I authored it, posted it, and then went back and stumbled upon it.) (Link here)

I’ve actually thought a lot about this idea, and still believe it to be true – but I think that I need to add a corollary:

“Those who do keep journals will define themselves – for good or ill.”
So you may think the corollary isn’t as wildly profound as the original quote. Possibly, but let me explain. I won’t waste your time, and you just might thank me later…

Over the past few weeks, I have spent some time looking through my old journals. I was surprised to discover that I have had a miserable life, full of sadness, sickness, loneliness, and frustration. At least that’s what you would think if you read my journals. It turns out that my most prolific journaling times in my life were when I was going through important periods that had a higher degree of difficulty. And I was failing.  Two periods stand out as the best examples:

 1) When I was a teenager, my dad got a job transfer and we had to relocate. I was miserable. I hated my parents. I was sullen, angry and depressed. And since we moved at the beginning of summer, I had nothing to do – except write in my journal about how miserable I was, and how my parents were destroying my life.

 2) On my mission I was a faithful journal keeper – as long as I had negative things to write about. I faithfully wrote down each time I was sick, when my companion was a jerk, when the weather was bad, or when we weren’t having very much success.

 Here’s the problem:  I have had a great life! I had a happy childhood. I had a wonderful, successful mission. So what gives? Why the deep, dark version recorded for my posterity?

I think I have the answer:

When I’m happy, and things are going great, I don’t bother writing it down, because I am too busy enjoying life to stop and write about it. I may well have written about my companion who drove me crazy, but when the work was good, it was very good, and I just never felt compelled to stop, take a breath, and write it down. In high school I stopped grousing about how unfair my teenage life was about the same time that school started and I made some new friends. But that part, mysteriously, never got recorded.


The best, but saddest, case in point is that I have rarely written in my journal since I got married. Because I am happy. Ridiculously happy. All of the wonderful experiences that have given my life richness and meaning are undocumented – leaving behind a history that paints me as a poor, unfortunate soul, in pain, in need. (courtesy Ursula)

So, I have volumes of life history that paints an entirely inaccurate version of what my life has been up until now. Sure the dour snippets are accurate in their context, but they were the exception, not the norm.

What do I do? How do I go back and correct the record without looking like I am trying to “shine my halo” for posterity’s sake? Here are some thoughts:

 1) Compile my missionary journal with the letters I sent home to create a more balanced view.
2) Scan my old journals and annotate them with comments as I feel necessary.
3) (Shudder) Actually write a personal history that my posterity can look at as the de-facto version of my life.
4) Work some of the positive experiences from my life into my blog, but not with too much detail.

Yikes! They all sound so daunting.  So, I raise this voice of warning: Make sure your blog entries and journals are not just repositories of angst – because one day you will look back and wish you had documented the joy along with the pain to really be known as who you really are. And if you don’t I will be there to mock you for not paying better attention to my warning.

One of the most difficult parts in writing a personal history, or keeping a journal is how much “filtering” goes into the endeavor. I don’t want to make it look like I have spent my life carrying a harp and wearing a very shiny halo, nor do my grand-children need to know every sordid detail of what I did wrong in my life – we still believe in repentance, right?

 I know people who have thrown away journals from their youth because they looked back and thought they were embarrassing. I find that quite sad.
There are a lot or real writers that read this blog – and many of you just returned from a writer’s conference, brimming with motivation and ideas. Thoughts?

This past week I have been immersed in Family HIstory as I never have before. It has been a fascinating endeavor, and I am grateful for those people who bothered to write things down and keep track.
There is so much to do. I realized the abject silliness of the claim that “All my family history is done.” Even if Aunt Martha has taken every family line back to Adam, and you haven’t written a personal history, you ain’t there yet.

Nothing better than a Sabbath day to sit down and write in our journals…
MMM logo small
(This is a revision of a post originally published May, 18, 2011 – it just seemed extra applicable to me this week.)



  1. It’s important to document in your journal events and ordinations. We moved just as 2 of our sons had important priesthood advancements/ordinations and the paperwork didn’t get done. But I had written of the events in my journal and was able to use those entries to document the events officially for the church records! Loved your ideas. Thanks for sharing them.

  2. I started writing a gratitude journal last year because things were so rough. I needed to be able to see the Hand of God in my life every day. If I wasn’t looking for it, I wasn’t seeing it.

    I’m still writing every day, and still finding at least three blessings (gifts, graces, tender mercies) every day. I find that even if it’s been a difficult day, I still have a positive outlook and a positive entry in my journal because I’ve included the ‘bright spots’ in an otherwise dismal day.

    I’ve done this to a lesser extent since Pres. Eyring gave his talk in October 2007 General Conference, “Oh Remember, Remember.” However, the last year I’ve really needed to focus on it. I was particularly grateful for Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk this year, ” Grateful in Any Circumstances” because it reinforced my determination to be grateful.

    Not everything I write is positive, but because I include the blessings ‘enduring to the end’ is more of a journey than a crash landing.

  3. You touched on this (the harp part), but I blog as a journal, and I tend to do the opposite- share only the good parts, because it’s more public than a private journal. So maybe I should share some of my more frustrating days occasionally, or, when I print out my blog as a family history book as I intend to do…sometime, add the other side of the story as commentary before it goes to press.

  4. This is exactly why I’m such an advocate of a Gratitude Journal. It helps me look for and write down the positive things, particularly in the middle of difficult things. It has made a huge difference for my life.

  5. Man, I needed this today. I get overwhelmed when I get behind on my journal writing and then try to find out where to begin again, and how to go back and catch up on things. One thing that I just remembered thanks to your blog post is that I had a wise boss (a General Authority at the time) who said that so much of journal writing is about the moments in life. He said we don’t have to necessarily do a daily journal with every single thing we had for breakfast but to always remember to write down the “moments” consistently so that we capture the goodness of life.

  6. Perfectly timed post. I challenged my sister about two weeks ago who would write the most in their personal history/journal, and have procrastinated my start precisely because of fear of recording too much of the dark. Your post has restored my resolve. Thanks.

  7. I, too, have found this to be true. We tend to pour out our hearts onto paper when we need to unload our sadnesses, stresses, and struggles. But when it comes to writting down our joy and happiness we enjoy the moments and happily live it. I have heard that many have started “grattitude” journals, and I’ve been meaning to start one for years now. Your posting today has made me determined to finaly start mine. Thank you MMM.

  8. My teenage journal is full of angst, anger and I’ll admit that I ripped out a few of the more parts of “teenage indiscretion”. However, now, I have 2 journals. My husband jokes that they are the large and small plates. My most spiritual experiences are written in one and our day to day stuff in the other. I separated it about 15 years ago. When I go back and read some of the sacred experiences, I love that the same Spirit I felt when I first had them is present. That being said, I haven’t been a good journal keeper for 3-5 years and am excited to get some thing caught up. I’ll still separate it, it works for me. maybe if you want to go back and write the more spiritual things from life just separating them makes it natural. That’s my 8.5 cents.Thanks for the motivation!

  9. I have kept a journal off and on since I was about 13. I’ve kept most of them. There was a period in my life when I was going through some pretty nasty depression. I found those journals just a couple of months ago and read them….nonononono. Nope!! I was shocked by what I’d written and there is no dang way on earth I wanted anyone else reading that twisted nonsense. I shredded them and chucked them and all I feel is a huge sense of relief. That person is gone, and no-one will read her craziness and I’m sooo grateful for that.

    Here’s a question I’ve mulled over for some time. It was during a class in relief society when we were encouraged to write journals. The point was brought up that journals our own personal scripture. There was a young lady in the ward who had just given birth to a child with severe spina bifida. She said that she wrote in a journal during her pregnancy, and faithfully recorded her true feelings when she first found out about her daughter’s disabilities when she was pregnant. She said, “I feel so much different now that my baby is here. There is no way I want her to read those dreadful things I wrote, it would hurt her so much.” She wanted to know if it was ok to destroy those journals. The class was divided in their answer. What do you think?

    • Personal scripture? Not when we define scripture as the word of God. A record, yes. Can we never throw out anything we write? My husband gnashes his teeth at all of the stuff I keep (only the best) from our kids– “We can’t keep everything!” he gripes. We can’t and we sometimes shouldn’t. Say in college you wrote a paper on a controversial topic, but since changed your mind. You can’t claim you never felt that way, but to hang on to the paper wouldn’t represent the person you are now and could tie you to your previous beliefs. A gentler rewrite might suffice. “My father dwelt in a tent” to me is a kinder version of “We had to live in a tent. It was hard and filthy and there were many, many desert bugs that made me cry on a daily basis.” That’s what I think for all it’s worth.

    • When I read this, I thought of the LDS Addiction Recovery manual, prepared by LDS Family Services and published by the Church- a great resource for anyone, not just those addicted and their loved ones. (This is in step 4, which encourages you to write as part of your self-examination about your past and your recovery, and in looking for this part, I noted that it specifically said to remember to write the times when you acted RIGHT as well as the wrong.)

      “Remember your sins no more”
      After you have completed your written inventory and when the time is right, those portions that include negative or angry expressions, accounts of personal transgressions, and any other sensitive matters that should not be shared with others or passed down to future generations should be destroyed. The destruction of these writings can be a symbol of your repentance and a powerful way to let go.

  10. I’m totally guilty of this. I want my kids to know that I loved life and was so grateful to be their mother, and so grateful that the Lord blessed me with them as my children!! — Unfortunately, that is not often portrayed in my journal (at least not as often as I would like).

    I’ve been trying to work on this… baby steps, right??

  11. For yrs I kept paper journals. Along the way I decided I should “get with it” and do it on computer. One day, when I inserted my floppy, everything I’d written over the previous few yrs had changed to another language – gobbledygook, I think it was. That was discouraging! A few yrs after that, my oldest had gone off to college, and I realized that our emails contained our lives and our voices; the spiritual, the funny, the hard to endure, the everyday. I decided I ought to save at least some of them. It worked the same when the other kids left home. A few times I printed those email collections to save in book form. Now the girls are really scattered, and we are still writing our lives in emails, and I’m still saving them.
    PS Two of my girls turned me on to your blog, and it is great! Thanks!

  12. I used to keep a journal every day. It helped me reflect on the positive because I always tried to include a short list of what I was grateful for that day. Then, when school started, I quit writing. I find that without it, my spiritual progress is not as smooth. I don’t record my insights and therefore have to keep having them presented to me over and over again. I need to include it again as part of my daily routine. I love it. It’s stupid of me not to do it.

  13. I love words. There are days when I read or write and it feels like the very air I breath and the food that I eat. Necessary and quite often very delicious. I love using words to create beautiful and strong things. Unfortunately, I use words to my detriment as well. I use words to yell at my kids when I am angry. I regrettably have used words that hurt other’s feelings. I am very sure that as Mormon went through all of the records kept by the people of the Americas, there were things written in times of wickedness that were not to be a part of the scriptures we know and love as the Book of Mormon. In our lives, we write things based on our genuine feelings at the time. We move on and hopefully grow beyond our sorrows and complaints. In doing family history and looking at journals of our ancestors we need to look at them as a whole and not at a high or low point of life. Should we write the good and the bad? Yes. Should we focus on one or the other? I love the idea of a gratitude journal. It will change the perspective of our challenges and teach us to write and to think of the struggles in ways that are productive and instructive to any who might read it. Keeping a journal doesn’t only record our words, it records our progression to the person we are becoming.

  14. Journal writing can seem daunting, but how precious they are for you and future generations. And since you have a love for the scriptures you can learn/appreciate from them how important journals are. The brass plates were so important that the Lord had Lehi send his sons back to Jerusalem to obtain them from Laban, so that he could know his history. Nephi wrote on the gold plates and passed them on to Jacob and so on. And I believe in 3 Nephi 23 Christ chastised the people for not recording the events that had happened and again in 3 Nephi 26 (I believe) he commanded them to write. Yes journals are important, to write the good, the bad and the ugly. We are not only commanded, but it is good for our mental health as well. When thinking about our life history, don’t think about it being a lifetime behind, but rather a story ahead. Little snippets here and there are wonderful. My great Grandmother, at some point felt inspired to write down her life history, and I love going back to read stories from her childhood. What a blessing and wonderful way to remember her. Oh, and I believe it was Elder Faust (don’t quote me on that) who said he never kept a journal until he became an apostle. It is never too late to start writing.

  15. Oh, I highly recommend making notes to the side when going through old journals. It’s nice to see there was a solution, and maybe you even forgot to write about it so just a note is really great, but maybe add the date of your note if you feel it might be needed because sometimes is confusing to see your notes and wonder when you wrote them. Some stuff it doesn’t matter.
    Journaling, for me, is therapy. I have to write the hard stuff…. BUT I make sure (as of about 10 years ago) to not write exaggerations!!! I used to do that a lot, but really it isn’t accurate, and it isn’t as helpful if you are writing to vent or sort through thoughts. Exaggerating will only make it worse, in my experience. So here is what I do.
    If something is bothering me, I write about it, but I try to avoid absolutes like “This is the worse day EVER!” “Today has been very hard” is much better. “Challenging” is another great word, “Trial of Faith” that works too. If you can try and describe the reality instead of exaggerating it, it helps calm you and recognize (especially if you have seen the patterns of how trials and answers have come in the past that you never thought you’d survive in previous journal entries, in previous years) that “this too shall pass” and you can try and focus on what you can learn from it. I have found the Spirit really helping find the right words as I write too- to write the truth of what is really happening. It has helped me through some super dark times, and also I stopped beating myself up by writing that way, because if we put ourselves down we can’t hear the Spirit. Remember that Heavenly Father loves you and doesn’t want you to speak badly about yourself, or really anyone else. I’ve stated that I struggle with people, but I try not to write that so and so is a “big jerk”.
    I wish I could have said that better, but I hope the idea of what I was trying to say gets across. I know there is a conference talk from about 10 years ago that helped me realize I was exaggerating in my journal writing, but I can’t tell you who it was. Maybe Pres. Packer, maybe Pres Eyring (I guess Elder at the time) Not sure, but it was like someone popped a water balloon over my head when I heard it, and from then on journaling was different and this beautiful thing. Lots of heart pouring out, even in trials. I think because if the Spirit is helping you find the words you find beauty and blessings to count amidst your trials.

    • “because if the Spirit is helping you find the words you find beauty and blessings to count amidst your trials.” Absolutely, writing can be like praying, you are taught as you go through the process of lining thoughts and insights up while seeking and pondering and being guided by the Spirit. Words fit together and position themselves in our understanding and open us up to peace. Pouring it out gets my brain out of the ‘continuous spin’ cycle, and lining it up with an inner listening ear helps me see more truly. Sometimes what is bothering me is something that once identified doesn’t matter or isn’t even real, but I have to get the other stuff out of the way to realize that.

  16. Haha, I’m pretty sure the “abject silliness” line was for me, based on my comment from the last post. But how about this? At age 25 (13 years ago), I gathered every photograph, typed document, and audio recording of any of my lines, and assembled it into a massive searchable database on the web available to everyone in my extended family. It took 4 years and thousands of hours… I’ve been working on an update with the few things that we’ve found since then, but there are so few and they are relatively insignificant compared to what we already have that it almost doesn’t feel worth it. And to your point above, I keep a regular journal (in several forms).

    So given all that, do I still not get to claim that I’m done? If not, then we should probably just admit up front that “finishing” is impossible (at least in this life).

  17. Somewhere buried in a box in my basement is a 5×8 orange spiral notebook. My first journal. President Kimball advised everyone to write a journal during a GC session, and my mother dutifully went and bought one for each of us 4 boys (at the time), of which only two of us could write in them ourselves. I have been a journal writer ever since. My teenage years were a mix of good and bad. The very best things in my life, and the worst both made it in there.

    During my mission I wrote something every day. The second week of February, year one is the funniest. 10 days fit on one page: “Nothing significant for today.” A year later when I was in an area where I taught a grand total of 11 discussions in 7 months, I had a lot to write every day, mostly how I loved the work and wished that the people would just stop and listen.

    Whether or not to keep or throw things out, That is something to consider carefully. For the last 20 years I have kept 2 journals due to my job. One at home and one at work (I was often gone for weeks or months at a time). If I lost the one at work, I would be sad, but at least my kids would have the spiritual aspect of mine and their lives from the one at home. The FOML will have a well balanced view of what my life was.

    Thankfulness….I am currently gathering information on the men of the Mormon Battalion for a possible writing project. I just recently found anaccount of the life of one of them. I wish I would have had that when I did my master’s thesis, it was full of information that I don’t know that anyone is aware of. Even Fleek didn’t reference this journal. My EC isn’t as grateful as I am, but I love having copies (and some originals) of 6 generations of journals on the top shelf in the office. I just read a story about a grandfather who bragged in his journal about beating an older boy at stick pulling, only to discover days later that he’d let him beat him. Some neighbor boy named young Joe Smith.
    Personal scripture….One of my mission companions had a mother who took the Lord to task. When she had a question, she fasted, she prayed, she got a notebook and pencil and sat down and waited for the answer. and further more…….

  18. That is so WEIRD that you posted this today. I too have been thinking that since getting married 10 years ago I’ve only written in my journal during hard times. And sadly, most of my entries are when I need to vent (read=complain) about my husband. 🙁 So just THIS MORNING I pulled out my journal to write about our wonderful Women’s Conference last night and the impressions I had – specifically in an attempt to have a “happy” journal entry. What a coincidence you would post this the same day.

  19. Early this year I saw a journal in a bookstore that was just one line a day. I’d been discouraged with my lack of effort in writing in my journal, and I thought, “I could do one line!” I think I’ve only skipped a handful of days since mid-January, and my personal history these last few months is far more interesting and complete than it was in the two years previous when I began a new journal. I talk about what was good on a good day and what was hard on a hard day with less glossing over either than when I did my catch-up entries every few months.The trick was finding the time to write (it usually ends up being about a paragraph; I can’t keep it to just one line), which I do now when my kids, ages 3 and 1, go down for their afternoon nap. I write for a few minutes and study the scriptures, and those two activities have made a huge difference for me.

  20. I wrote a lot on my mission in my journal. Two journals worth. But still, there was more that I could add, so I went through my journal, typed it into the computer, and added commentary of things I could remember but at the time didn’t take the time necessary to write down. Hopefully it will be something good for my posterity. On a similar vein, I went through the Book of Mormon and made a comment on every verse that had meaning to me. It ended up being over 250 pages. Most gratifying when my son used it to prepare part of his gospel doctrine lesson. But it was a kind of journal of my reading the Book of Mormon.

  21. Don’t go back and edit……..copy this post and place in each of your journals….and in the new one you need to start ASAP….and go forward. Your posterity needs to see the person you are/were….how things were going at certain times in your life, how you felt during those times and then how you figured out how you only wrote when you were too busy enjoying life to be bothered with journal writing. It will show them growth….and growth is a good thing – for everyone to see. Stick additional pages in your past journals filled with the good times if you must & and as you remember them….but, I don’t believe that editing is a good option. Just my two cents worth….

  22. I have the opposite problem. I can’t bear to write about things when I am having a hard time. It’s much easier to write about things after the trials are over.

  23. I just finished reading Paula Kelly Harline’s new book, The Polygamous Wives Writing Club, which I have reviewed over at Millennial Star. Harline takes journals and autobiographies for 29 little-known Mormon women who were married to polygamists between 1847 and 1890. Not only are many of the diaries written preferentially during times of hardship, I find Ms. Harline has cherry-picked the hard stuff (for the case where I am intimately familiar with the full record).

    So please, please, please write journals and family histories, etc. But do attempt to be even-handed. Record the brilliant and exalting moments as well as the dark and difficult moments.

Add your 2¢. (Be nice.)