How personal should my personal journal be?
July 1983

“How personal should my personal journal be?” Ensign, July 1983, 43–44

How personal should my personal journal (or history) be? Do I include all of my trials and my thoughts and mistakes? How can it serve others if it’s supposed to serve my therapeutic needs? Is a journal for me or for others?

Wanda West Badger, a historian, lectures on journal keeping and family histories and serves in the Primary presidency of her Salt Lake City ward. First of all, we know we must write; we have been commanded to do so. Since the gospel was first established on the earth in Adam’s day we have been admonished to make a record of our lives. And our prophet today has counseled us repeatedly to keep a personal journal and to compile our personal histories in order to make accurate accountings of our lives:

“If you have not already commenced this important duty in your lives, get a good notebook … that will last through time and into eternity for the angels to look upon. Begin today and write in it your goings and your comings, your deeper thoughts, your achievements, and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies. … this is what the Lord has commanded.” (Ensign, Dec. 1980, p. 61.)

A man who was concerned about his personal history asked how he could possibly write the story of his early life and tell it truthfully, since he had had what he considered a tragic childhood. His parents had died, he had been raised by stepparents, and his early years were filled with heartaches and resentments. He finally decided to leave this part of his life story unwritten.

Maurine Beecher, an historian with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute at Brigham Young University, would challenge such a choice. “We shouldn’t leave blanks in the story of our life,” she recently told a small group. “Dishonesty or attempts to cover up is the one thing that will invalidate what we write.”

But how we tell our story, even if it is unpleasant, is most important. President Kimball has counseled us to treat trials and tribulations carefully and with sensitivity. We should relate these without bitterness or blame. Perhaps our greatest purpose should be to use these experiences as examples of personal growth.

The brother previously mentioned certainly needed to relate these trials in his life, but he could most profitably recall them with a mature understanding, rather than with hatred or resentment. He might relate how he had felt as a child, without putting the blame totally on others. He had, after all, developed into a fine man, a member of a bishopric. Certainly he had experienced much personal growth in his life—in spite of a difficult childhood.

I recall the journal of a high school girl who had been deeply disappointed when she failed to qualify for her school’s pep club. She wrote how upset and deeply hurt she was that she had not been accepted. But she didn’t blame those in charge, or say they had been unfair to her, or that she had been cheated out of a position in the club. Instead, she reflected that perhaps she had not expended enough effort or time toward achieving this goal and that she would try again next year and work even harder. She did, and was accepted into the club.

I believe that we could apply President Kimball’s counsel to virtually any question we have about what to write and what not to include in our histories and journals:

“Your journal should contain your true self rather than a picture of you when you are ‘made up’ for a public performance. There is a temptation to paint one’s virtues in rich color and whitewash the vices, but there is also the opposite pitfall of accentuating the negative. Personally I have little respect for anyone who delves into the ugly phases of the life he is portraying, whether it be his own or another’s. The truth should be told, but we should not emphasize the negative.” (Ensign, Dec. 1980, p. 61.)

If we choose not to record our trials (and we all have our share of them), we would certainly deprive our posterity of learning experiences which could be of great value in their lives.

Dr. Ellis Shipp, one of the first woman doctors in Utah, kept a journal while she was attending medical school in the East. She recorded many of the trials she was going through at the time, such as being separated from her husband and children for long months at a time, yet at one point she wrote that she herself did not fully understand why she recounted these incidents. But a young woman of today, reading that journal, felt that Dr. Shipp had written those words just for her. There were many similarities in their lives; her husband had left her and she was in nursing school, separated from her three children much of the time. Dr. Shipp’s experiences helped to give her the courage she needed through a most difficult time of her life.

My own mother recorded some of her frustrations, and I am grateful for the written record of her “comings and goings.” She died when I was only six years old, and it was not until my grandfather—her father—gave me her journal that I truly became acquainted with this woman. She shared with me through the written pages her heartaches and her joys, her frustrations and accomplishments. Reading of her struggles, of her testimony, and even of her faithfulness in teaching her Sunday School class each week, helped me to know and understand her—and myself—better.

When our nine children were young, I kept a family home evening scrapbook in which I recorded, along with pictures, our weekly schedule and what took place at our meetings. During the “business” part of our family home evening the children usually related all the “bad” things that the others had done during the week:

“Barbara said that when Mom and Dad go out the boys are noisy, wrestle, yell, and run through the house.”

“David complained that Bridy choked him.”

“David says that Mary Jane grabs glasses and pulls hair off his friends.”

“Becky said that David got mud on Cathy Johnson’s coat.”

“Barbara said the boys should learn to say better prayers.”

Now I’m sure that most people would have left this part out of the record. But when I see how much my children, now grown, enjoy and appreciate being able to read these accounts, I’m glad I left it in. They think the entries are hilarious; but even more importantly, now that they are parents they can relate to their own children’s experiences and feelings.

Journals and histories should be personal and should include trials and mistakes; but care should be taken not to dwell on the negative. We should record what we learned from our experiences, how we grew and developed as a result of them. And let’s not forget to bear our testimonies in our writing. Indeed, “Those who keep a Book of Remembrance are more likely to keep the Lord in remembrance in their daily lives. Journals are a way of counting our blessings and of leaving an inventory of these blessings for our posterity.” (Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign, May 1978, p. 77.)