Thursday, April 12, 2012

I Keep a Journal

Among the things I brought with me on my mission was an empty journal. My first brief entry was written on the day I entered the MTC. Over the following two years I wrote nearly daily. It became part of my routine. My parents occasionally sent me supplemental blank pages to add to my journal binder. When it was overstuffed, they sent me a new binder.

I occasionally go back and look at my missionary journal entries. Most of them are pretty mundane, sort of like looking back at the end of the day at a to-do list written in the morning. (I almost always wrote before retiring for the night.)

But scattered among those humdrum accounts I find little jewels, such as events I had completely forgotten. Sometimes I feel anew the poignant feelings I was experiencing at the time that I wrote, although, I am reading only bland details.

My emotions were occasionally captured in writing, but rarely was there time for such luxury. Nor was my writing ability at a level where I could effectively recount what was going on inside. My feelings are instead mostly written in my deep memory. This means that nobody else that reads my journals (if anyone else ever does) can possibly experience them as I do. That's a shame, but it is what it is.

My early journal writing was affected by my awareness that someone else might someday read what I wrote. Consequently, I was perpetually on guard to try to present myself in the best light. Most of my posts took a (perhaps overly-) optimistic view of matters. I refrained from revealing my deepest thoughts and feelings (especially negative ones), considering them too private to capture in written form. This likely robbed my writing of much of the value it could have had.

Following my mission I continued to write in my journal with some regularity, even if it didn't happen daily. There have been times where this has come in handy. I was once called to testify in court several months after I turned in a drunk driver. Fortunately I had gone home and written a detailed account of the event in my journal the day it happened. I brought my journal with me to court.

The defense attorney was astonished at my recall of details of the event until I explained that I had just reviewed my journal entry. The judge asked if he could look at my journal. As he perused it to make sure that the entry could not have been inserted at a later date, a wry smile crossed his face.

The judge called the prosecution and defense attorneys to his desk for a private conference. The defense attorney then conferred with his client. After this he stood and said that his client had decided to plead guilty. The jury and the witnesses were then dismissed.

Life got busier as the years passed and my journal writing became sporadic and infrequent. Finally, when my oldest son was about half a year old, I began writing again. But instead of writing in a book, I recorded my entries in a word processing file on a floppy disk.

After more than a year of writing, I learned a very harsh lesson in the importance of backing up electronic data when my file was inadvertently erased. I was so disheartened by this data disaster that I did not write any more journal entries until the following year, when I made a New Year resolution to do so.

I am now in my 17th year of creating regular electronic journal entries. Although there are various ways this could be done, I have ended up writing word processor files—one for each month. At the end of each year, I compile the 12 monthly files into a single annual file (while retaining the monthly files). I keep my files redundantly backed up to minimize potential data loss.

There are pros and cons to electronic journal keeping. I type much faster than I write, so I can more easily capture details and thoughts that would be lost if I were writing by hand. Searching for words and events is also much easier. On occasions we wonder when a particular event took place or which child was involved in something. I am frequently able to quickly find that information in my journal.

Last year I pulled a number of interesting family vignettes from my journal and read them for family home evening. The kids ate it up. It was amazing how funny some of these happenings were when read years later, even when they weren't comical at the time they occurred.

But data loss can also occur through obsolescence. No electronic format is as permanent as paper. Every few years I go through my word processing files and bring them up to the most current standard. Then I save each annual file in a read-only format (currently PDF). Still, I know that the day will come when I can no longer keep this up (or that I pass on). Who will then maintain the electronic integrity of these writings?

I have considered the possibility of printing the several thousand pages that I have. There are businesses that would print these files and bind them at a reasonable cost. Maybe I could bind each year individually and add years as I go along. But the thought of putting these extremely private ramblings in the hands of people outside of my family to have this work done has so far given me enough pause to prevent me from taking that step.

I could be fooling myself about all of this. I seriously wonder who in the world would ever actually read from my journals. Would some descendant do so? I'm not so sure. Few people that have access to their ancestors' journals actually take the opportunity to read them. If they do so, they soon quit because they're so darn boring.

That, say many journal writing experts, is the main problem with journals. People tend to record more mundane facts and fewer personal insights. (My grandmother always wrote down the number of eggs she gathered from her hens each day.)

My journals include many personal observations. But I admit that they are mostly filled with mundane facts. It seems that I just can't help myself. I always recount the day's happenings, despite my best intentions to write more interesting stuff. Journal critics note that people don't like reading dull material.

This criticism assumes that the main reason for journal writing is for the benefit of future readers. I wonder if this is really the case for most journal keepers. I write to explore—to better know who I really am and what makes me tick. If somebody gains some benefit from reading my ruminations at some point, that's just icing on the cake.

I will continue to make journal entries as long as I am able, which I hope means that I will write for many years to come. I suppose that I will at some point break down and have my journals printed. Maybe somebody will someday read some of what I have written; maybe not. But I will continue to write regardless.


Michaela Stephens said...

I understand where you are coming from. You wonder who is going to want to read all the boring stuff of what happened.

I think it depends on the care that you take to describe it. It is possible to describe something in such a way as to allow readers to vicariously experience it. Naturally you won't want to do this with EVERYthing that happens, but you'll want to do it for the events that matter most to you.

I have come to the conclusion that if we journal copiously, at some point in our lives we will have to make our "small plates" by writing a personal history that takes a broad view of our lives, pulling the most important things together.

I love your story about your journal entry about a drunk driver and how its presentation as court evidence led to a guilty plea. Totally awesome.

If you are into typing your journal, you might try It is an online site that allows you to keep your journal on it. It is free, your account would be password protected, and you can print out your journals every so often for a decent price. I've been keeping my journal on it since 2009 and have two printed out journals for it.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I have already started my personal history. I'm up to about 130 pages. I only add material every couple of years, because I want it to come from experienced reflection rather than in the heat of the moment (like a journal).

I have thought about as well as other possibilities. But as of yet I have preferred to keep my journal under my own personal control where my family members can easily access it. But I may change my tune in the future.