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What is the value of writing in journals?

February 1, 2010

journalI remember one time hearing a man at church bear his testimony about journal writing. While he wasn’t as diligent in writing in his own journal, he relayed a story about his wife who, after hearing about journal writing (and the virtues thereof) when she was a little girl, wrote in her journal every day for the past 40+ years. Never a day went without his wife writing something down in her journal.

I have sometimes heard the explanation that the scriptures were like journals…so for our latter-day, the end-of-times (it’s always the end of times these days…)…our journals have the potential to be living scripture. We owe it to our future progeny (wait…but isn’t this the end of times?!) to write so they may have even more latter-day revelation.

…Quite frankly, such stories never really got to me. I have written intermittently in journals, but never with such a zeal or a drive. I just did it because I liked to get my thoughts out. But now, even though I have great gaps between entries, I’m glad I’ve written.

Reading my previous entries have made me realize how foreign my old self was in comparison to me now. My old self had such different motivations and ways at looking at things. My old self is also a bit revelatory, because he is authentic and unadulterated. But he is also a bit naive.

Over at Triangulations, I was thinking about this issue of Rewriting History with Head Nods. I think Sabio describes a natural — and not completely “bad” — process by which the stories and narratives we tell are catered to our audience…and in the process, our actual memories of the events as they transpired becomes catered to an impression we want to portray. As I just said, I don’t think this is “bad” — this is what we do to manage impressions and to be sociable. (Imagine if we didn’t reframe things we thought for varying audiences?)

But as I commented over on the site, I am also glad that I have a journal that features my most immediate reactions to particular events and thoughts. So, however the current story transforms, I can always go back again and read my original interpretation of the details.

Very often, the two stories are drastically different…the former is indecipherable to the latter. But that in and of itself keeps me honest with myself.

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13 Comments
  1. Sofal permalink

    I was recently listening to a Radio Lab podcast about memories. Scientists basically say that remembering is a physical act of creation, rather than an act of looking something up and reviewing it. The more we remember something, the more the recollection gets skewed and distorted. We recreate the event every time we think about it. The most honest memories are the ones that we forget, and thus remained buried somewhere in our minds.

    It struck me how important it is to get a journal entry down really soon after the event. I knew this was important before, but I figured it was just because we forget details after a while. But it’s much more than that. We’ll actually change the details, motivations, and circumstances of the past in our minds as time goes on. It’s a weird, slightly uncomfortable thought.

    • But does a journal entry actually serve to keep the memory “honest” as each time one re reads the entry doesn’t the following actually apply

      “We recreate the event every time we think about it.”

      Typically journal entries are a summary or the basic outline or narrative whatever you want to call it… For example I may write in my journal how I prayed and received an answer or had some sort of spiritual experience…NOW each time I go back and read this entry wouldn’t I also do some creating in my mind as well or would the entry serve to keep the memory “honest”?

      • I also agree here, coventryrm…when I speak about reading past entries to keep me honest with myself, I don’t mean to say that I make the journal entry itself the anchor of my history and memory. Rather, I understand that I create a new memory based on my REACTION to the difference between what I have historically written and what I remember years after the event.

        heck, even when we originally write in journals, how we write the entries is selective and biased.

  2. I had heard the same thing, Sofal, relating to memories as creation rather than review.

  3. I mostly appreciate journaling because there are so many events and details in my life which I would have forgotten altogether had I not written them down. It’s been incredible to me to go back and read something and feel all of the power and emotion (and sometimes, pain) of that moment coming back to me as if it were happening all over again.

    I wish I had been journaling during my first year of interacting with Mormonism. I would kill to have those early exchanges again. I started studying Mormonism in September 1998 and didn’t take up journaling with a passion until August 21, 1999. Almost all of the discussion forums I participated on during that first year have become defunct, and I’ve long since lost those old e-mail accounts, so I’ve lost almost all of my initial reactions to Mormonism and have to work with less-accurate memories and reconstructions. Sad.

    Note to journalers: Do NOT make your journal entries in purple ink. It does not age well. Oh no it does not . . .

  4. Jack, I love how in lieu of journal entries, you look for discussion forums and email accounts for historical records of yourself.

    That’s p. Creepy. I wouldn’t want to comb through my gmail stuff as a repositry of my life in xx years… Although it would probably last that long with the way Google operates.

  5. I’m an archivist and a historian in training, Andrew. We don’t just look to journal entries to reconstruct the past. The collection I’m just about done processing right now has sermon notes, seminary notes, hymn books, records of weddings, baptisms, and confirmations, correspondence, paperwork from lawsuits, receipts, bills, annual reports on givings, photographs, etc. It mostly spans the late 19th through the mid 20th century.

    The modern equivalent of some of that stuff is e-mails and blog entries. There’s a real fear among archivists and historians right now that so much of the past is being lost due to the fact that it’s being communicated through electronic mediums which aren’t being saved.

    I intend to go through and print out my more important e-mail correspondences and blog conversations for safe keeping. Have to admit though, I haven’t done it yet. Been too busy.

  6. FireTag permalink

    My daughter was cleaning out our basement last weekend to make the way for some home repairs, and came across notes from a sermon I preached before she was born and some letters I wrote to my wife before we were married.

    It’s the only way she can meet the young me she never knew. I’m sort of looking forward to meeting me again, too.

    I think that’s a value of journaling. There are so many new “me’s” to meet throughout our lives, just as there are so many new “others” to meet. At least, I know that the “me’s” aren’t secretly ax murderers.

  7. After my mom died a year and a half ago, I was cleaning out her things and I found her yearbook from her senior year of high school. She had written something in it like, “I don’t know what my place is in this world, but I know that God has a plan for my life and I’m going to find it.”

    My mom almost never talked about her faith in God to me. She was always very quiet about it, and she sure made her share of mistakes as I was growing up. But deep down inside, she had it. It was so incredible to get that snapshot of her as she set out on her adult life.

    I have a huge rant about how I never wanted to get married and have kids that I wrote in my journal when I was 17. I wonder what my daughter is going to think when she reads it . . .

  8. Hi…I used this post of yours as reference to the benefits of journaling in a post I wrote about keeping a prayer journal…I hope you don’t mind.

  9. Emily, thanks for the comment. Of course I don’t mind. In fact, I liked your post a lot — I never had considered before the idea of writing prayers down instead of asking them vocally, nor had I considered that one could perceive more success from the former rather than the latter.

    And I love the idea of Gratitude Pages.

    • Thank you Andrew…I really appreciate it. I hope you try a prayer journal…let me know how it goes, okay?

    • oh, one more thing…I’m going to add you to my blogroll.

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