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How to: Keep a “Journal”

By Linda Hoffman Kimball

freezer door journal

What are your most creative ways of journal keeping? Could cell phone images of your freezer be the most accurate way of depicting you life? Is a more formal option too intimidating? Are you terrified at the prospect that “angels may quote from” your Facebook postings through the eternities? Back in 1975 when President Spencer W. Kimball referred to keeping journals could he have envisioned the “branding” we can create for ourselves in a digital age?

The days of journal keeping with a vellum notebook and quill pen are long gone. This article from the July 2014 Ensign describes current ways to share our lives.  I bet plenty of you are doing some version of these or have come up with other clever ways to keep track of your life and times. If so, can you share?

Pres. Kimball reminded us, “Your journal should contain your true self rather than a picture of you when you are ‘made up’ for a public performance.” While he also discourages dwelling on the negative, sometimes our mistakes and weaknesses are the springboards for our most satisfying growth. If we didn’t have the story of Saul, would we ever fully appreciate the Apostle Paul? Should there be a private journal for real therapeutic benefits and another one for more public consumption?

Several years ago –before ubiquitous computers – I went to a women’s retreat where the inimitable Louise Plummer gave a wonderful workshop on unique ways of keeping a journal. She suggested that an inventory of what you have in your handbag would reveal a lot about your life. Autobiography by hairbrush, lipstick, pens, ticket stubs, breath mints, candy wrappers, and gas station receipts. She also suggested keeping checkbook records – but today do people still write checks? If an archeologist came across these details, how close to reality might her reconstructions be? Today, if someone comes across your handbag, your cell phone would be in it and your whole world could probably be printed out on a 3D printer.

I don’t know many details about my great-grandparents and their previous generations. My husband’s side (with Mormons back to the earliest days) has photos of several 19th century ancestors – (in)complete with missing teeth and the slick-to-the-head hairstyles of a rigorous pioneer life. Some kept journals of their hard knock and holy lives.

But no one on my side kept journals and I can only guess about most of their routines, quirks and aspirations. I have discovered a few amazing caches of letters and those have helped me get acquainted with some of them. My grandmother was a nurse during the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918-1919. What was that like for her? Did my great-grandfather who moved from Ohio to Chicago in the 1890’s own a horse? If so, where did he keep it and what care did it require? Commonplace details rarely get mentioned in anyone’s records.

Just ask historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Midwife’s Tale: The diary of Martha Ballard was a ground breaker in social and women’s history. The terse diary of Martha’s life in the late 18th/early 19th centuries was overlooked by previous historians for being too dull and full of boring domestic details. Laurel’s approach was different:
I did not immediately assume that people with children and husbands were subordinate or incapable of having lives of their own. And I valued — I valued — the things women did. I didn’t always want to do them, but I valued them.”

Will another generation past us be able to comprehend living in an analog world? Why wait a generation? Who reading this right now remembers the time before digital? Among the letters from that cache of letters I mentioned was one woman’s letter written in 1903 tut-tutting about the traffic congestion brought about those motorized vehicles. She hoped it was just a passing phase.

It might be a good idea to challenge folks now to write a research paper without the benefit of Google to turn their hearts to their primitive forebears.

There are hazards in both directions of course. What will happen if people’s written love letters get burned or water damaged? Will people whose courtships were largely carried out through email or text messages have access to those valuable records if their computers crash? Will they continue to teach cursive in school?

How we keep a record of our lives is a challenge to our creativity and our technology. That we keep a record is the real challenge.


photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/12457246@N03/13954824611″>The Elements</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

About Linda Hoffman Kimball

Linda Hoffman Kimball is an artist, writer, photographer, and poet who grew up as a faithful Christian near Chicago, & joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1971 while at Wellesley College near Boston. Early on she assumed that all Latter-day Saints were articulate, inquisitive, faithful, and socially engaged since her role models in the University wards in Cambridge, MA., were. Her husband says she is “fluent, but not native” in Mormon-ese. She is a founding member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.

3 thoughts on “How to: Keep a “Journal””

  1. I love your ideas for alternate ways to journal. My journal is a comfort to me and the surest way to see God's hand in my life as I look back at what I've come through and how it's all played out.

  2. Oh, the digital age does present some challenges for record keeping. I love diaries / journals written by people decades, even centuries ago. Mundane details are very interesting as well as more lofty thoughts. We have so much more in writing today, but much of it is digital and can go "poof" so easily. Thanks for the suggestions of various ways to record daily life and the exploration of the hazards of being so digital.


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