Diary and Journal Ideas
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“Diary and Journal Ideas,” New Era, Mar. 1977, 39

Diary and Journal Ideas

America’s 100th birthday. July 4, 1876. Salt Lake bishop Frederick Kesler took pen in hand to record his thoughts in his personal diary (one of about 30 diary books he would fill during his lifetime). Probably never thinking that anyone in the Bicentennial year would read his words, he matter-of-factly described his disappointments about America because of recent attacks on the Church by the government.

“I tarried at home. I did not feel to go anywhere or in any way to take any part in the National Jubilee of the Centennial of the 100th birthday of our Nation. But on the contrary I felt Solemn, I felt that our nation was on the eve of going to pieces & that there was more need of mourning than of rejoicing. I felt as though we would verry soon hear of Calamities that would make the stoutest hearts to quake sutch as our Nation had never experienced before. Yea I felt as though a speedy decay awaited our once too happy Country. My heart sickens at the thought of sutch great Calamities as awaits the world, espetialy in the United States … Still I can but Say the Lords will be done, let thy work O Lord be hastened that Zion may be FREE!”

Now, a full century later, we have just experienced the nation’s 200th birthday celebration. What does your journal record about your 1976 thoughts regarding America? Perhaps you are already a skilled diarist, making fairly regular entries that detail your activities and feelings. Or more likely you are part of the majority who are not diarists yet.

Who keeps diaries these days? Are they just kids’ stuff? Not at all! It is surprising how many people, youth and adults, keep some kind of personal journal. I recently surveyed a group of 50 Brigham Young University freshmen and sophomores and found that one out of three were diarists and one in two had kept a diary within the previous five years. In adult groups I have surveyed, sometimes 40 percent admit they are or have been diarists.

Latter-day Saints, as much as any people, have a rich heritage of diary keeping. The Church Archives contain diaries kept by Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Parley and Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Heber C. Kimball, Eliza R. Snow, Heber J. Grant, Joseph F. Smith, David O. McKay, and scores of other Church leaders. President Spencer W. Kimball has kept a fine set of diaries. A guide to Mormon diaries, soon to be published, lists about 2,000 individuals whose diaries now are preserved in Utah libraries. These are diaries kept by leaders and by common people, men and women, sophisticated and simple, young people and adults and the elderly.

But even if Mormons past and present have kept diaries, still the question is asked: Why bother? Why keep a diary?

When I started keeping my personal journal over ten years ago, I really did not know why I was doing it. Since then I have discovered several solid reasons.

One is that my diary provides a changing record of who I am. Over time, as new experiences, acquaintances, and education come, I change. Which is the “real” me anyway: the teenager? the college student? the missionary? the newlywed? Each one, due to circumstances and time (older and wiser?), is different, and the current “me”—a result of all of these—is different from any one of them. My journal serves as a record of how my thinking, conduct, interests, and values have changed over the years, providing a perspective for judging my growth. Memory cannot do this like the written record does.

The diary also serves as a family record. Because the family is the most important unit in eternity, a record of it should be at least as important as minutes of Church meetings. My journal is such a record, discussing births, deaths, illnesses, achievements, and the individual interests, tastes, and personalities of each member of my family. As one example, here is how my diary described our young family’s normal nighttime routine six years ago while I was in graduate school:

“(January 22, 1971) Nightly ritual—Daddy walks thru door about 6 P.M. Jeff (2) grabs his legs, Scott (9 months) follows him in bedroom. Coat etc. off. Both boys on lap in big green chair. Julie (nearly 4) waits in wings. Scott terribly fussy. Dinner. Julie cleans up plate, eats vegetables as it ‘makes her tough.’ Jeff so-so. Scott doesn’t let Linda eat. After dinner: PJ time. Julie easy. Chase Jeff down. Change him. Piggy back rides to Scott’s room. Tell all nursery rhymes off curtains. Prayers—both do it. Bed. Phonograph (Julie wants ‘Lemon Sisters’). Close door except for 6″, Scott tries to go in. Julie needs drink, etc. Jeff crawls out of crib over chest of drawers—gets Julie. Finally settle down. Dad restless. Doesn’t get studying til 9. Lin to bed by 10 or 11. Bill by 12. Kids wake up. 4 nites of 7 one ends up in bed with us.”

As a form of insurance, my diary provides a small bit of immortality in the sense that through it I can speak to my children and future posterity even after I die. Should that happen before my small children are grown, they will not be left without some knowledge of who their father was, of his testimony, and of his interest in them and his hope and love for them.

Another reason to keep a diary, it serves as an information bank. When memory is inadequate, my journal tells me names of old acquaintances, dates of important happenings, explanations of how things occurred. It also records progress with particular problems, resolutions made and results of keeping them. It contains spiritual experiences to reinforce my own and my family’s faith.

Historians too may find some important historical items in my diary to help understand this period of time.

And we should be diarists because the Prophet has asked us to keep journals. Recently he said: “We urge our young people to begin today to write and keep records of all the important things in their own lives.” (“The Angels May Quote from It,” New Era, Oct. 1975, p. 5.)

Another question often asked is what kind of diary book to use. Diaries now preserved in the Church Archives represent a wide variety of types. One is simply a few sheets of hand-cut paper sewn together. Some are bound in fine leather volumes. Others are written on the back sides of pages with non-diary data on them. Some are typewritten and placed in dog-eared folders. In my experience as a diarist I have found two different types of journals to be satisfactory:

(1) A looseleaf-type diary is inexpensive and expandable, making it quite convenient. I make diary entries whenever and wherever I wish, using any good quality standard-size paper at hand, no matter where my diary itself is. Also, I can easily add supplementary materials to it, such as photocopied items. A fast typist, I enjoy not having to longhand all my entries.

But this type of journal has a sloppy appearance due to its looseleaf cover, its paper pages of varying quality, size, and color; and its mixture of typing, longhand, and photocopied entries.

(2) The store-bought blank diary, by contrast, is attractive and neat. Pages are all of uniform size and quality, and the binding is permanent, making the diaries pleasant to record in and to read. Handwritten entries seem much more personal than typed ones (although not as easy to read!). An inconvenience though is that you must have the whole diary with you in order to write your entry. Also, any typed entries must either be taped in or else written in longhand. Purchased diaries that have dates printed on the pages often do not leave enough space for long entries; better the plain lined pages.

Whatever kind of diary book is used, the main requirement is good quality paper and a protective cover. Spiral notebooks are unsatisfactory.

How often should journal entries be made? Again, diaries show quite a range: some daily, some once or twice a week, some monthly, others just plain irregularly. Generally, your own personality, interests, and time will determine how often your diary will hear from you. The main thing is to get started. Don’t begin by trying to catch up your life history first. You may find time later for a retrospective life story, but start off now by writing about current things.

Daily entries require self-discipline and usually a regular time and place, but are well worth the effort. Such at-the-time recordings capture more of your feelings and reactions and better details than you can later remember.

Many journals, however, end up skipping days or even weeks between entries. My journals contain both daily and catch-up entries. I usually write catch-up accounts from notes jotted down along the way. Such delayed entries, less detailed and emotional, tend to overlook daily trivia and to highlight just the most important things. They also provide a valuable perspective that only hindsight can produce. If too much catching up is needed, I resort to typing in order to record a lot in a much shorter time than writing long-hand takes. Occasionally too much work is required to catch up after a period of neglect, so rather than let the diary die, it is best to leave the gap and start making current entries again. Letters home, which sum up in detail a week’s activities, are sometimes photocopied and inserted in my journal as catch-up entries. If you did nothing more than write such a detailed letter weekly and saved a copy of each, in a few years you would have a fine, although unorthodox, journal.

Another question often asked is what should be recorded in journals? Again, President Kimball gives good advice. “Do not suppose life changes so much that your experiences will not be interesting to your posterity,” he explains then suggests recording “your goings and comings, your deepest thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations, … your impressions and your testimonies,” your “experiences of work, relations with people.”

“Your journal is your autobiography so it should be kept carefully. You are unique, and there may be incidents in your experience that are more noble and praiseworthy in their way than those recorded in any other life. There may be a flash of illumination here and a story of faithfulness there; you should truthfully record your real self and not what other people may see in you.” (Kimball, “The Angels May Quote from It,” p. 5.)

Mainly you need to tell about the who, what, where, when, and why types of things. Certainly religious experiences and thoughts deserve special emphasis. How privately precious, for example, is Bishop Kesler’s confidential diary entry concerning his feelings about the Book of Mormon:

“(Oct. 20, 1874) Tarried at home, read considerable in the Book of Mormon which I am reading through By course. I enjoy much of the Spirit of the Lord while reading that book altho I have read it many times Before stil it allmost seems like a new book. I enjoy more of the spirit of the Lord while reading that Book than any other book that I ever read in all my life.”

Obviously, earth-shaking matters deserve comment, but so do your everyday experiences. And rather than simply listing what you did, where you went, or who you were with, offer some explanation and give your thoughts and reactions. Tell why you did something, how you reached the decision, what your part-time job was like.

There are many ways to be creative with your diary. One fun idea is to think of it as a newspaper or news magazine; along with the usual “news” of the day, intersperse reflective, in-depth “feature articles” or editorials on such things as current favorite TV shows or movies, your tastes in clothes or food or reading, your present religious feelings and problems, likes and dislikes about school or government, or your current finances. Or write an essay about particular friends, family members, or specific activities like today’s fast and testimony meeting, a funeral you attend, how you get dates, your engagement decision, or how a specific holiday is celebrated in your home.

These “feature articles” are important because in a year or two many everyday things in your life will change or vanish. For example, notice how quaint this “feature article” about typical shopping prices in 1970 now seems:

“Eggs down to 41¢ this week from 53 a few weeks ago. Gasup to 35¢ from 26.9 a month ago. Bread 44¢, milk (2%) $1.03, bacon 90¢ a lb., bananas 11–15¢ a lb., Life Savers 7¢, 2 lb. Hersheys cocoa 79–89¢, margarine 31¢, bologna about 80¢ a lb.; hamburger low of 59¢, usual 65¢ a lb. Cold cereals lg. box like wheaties and cheerios near 60¢.”

Creativity likewise is expressed through sketches, designs, and poems that add interest to your diary. Some diarists like to decorate title pages and to illustrate flyleaves. An artistic yearly summary is fun as well as useful in reassessing yourself. Some ambitious diarists put an index at the end of each volume.

While photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and such items can be included in diaries, they should be used sparingly; too many inserts can bulge the book beyond its binding unless a looseleaf type is used. A separate supplementary binder or folder might better serve for storing such things. I reserve the last one-third of my looseleaf diary to serve as a “diary supplement” section. In it I put a few photoduplicated items (selected newspaper clippings about current events, sample TV listings or movie ads, this year’s completed income tax form, ward newsletters and membership rosters, poetry, key letters, printed programs, etc.). However, most items of this type need to be placed in scrapbooks, photo albums, spiritual thought files, and financial files. Your journal really cannot substitute for all these, since it has its own unique functions to perform.

Examining old diaries, you soon discover other useful lessons about diary keeping, such as: never use felt tip pens, messy ball points, or pencil, because over time these become blurred, smeared, or run clear through the pages; newspaper clippings cause diary pages to yellow; paper clips, staples, and pins rust and stain diary pages; most tapes and glues become brittle and unstuck over time.

Another noticeable lesson is that there is a tendency by diarists to use their journals to express despondency, complaints, and worries. This is fine, but normal days and happy times should be given equal time. Likewise, a “Pollyanna” diary is inaccurate too, so mention problems, doubts, and dislikes, for they are part of you. Try to keep a balance of moods and attitudes in your journal.

To avoid guesswork later it is helpful to indicate the day, month, and year with each entry; to give the full name of a person when mentioning him or her for the first time; to periodically give ages of children or teenagers about whom you write; and, when traveling, to give your location right after writing the date of your entry.

We sometimes forget that the everyday world around us now quickly becomes altered by time. People and experiences now very common to us become unfamiliar in just a short time. People whom we think will be our close friends forever move away, and we lose contact. Relatives, now important in our lives, die. Old buildings are replaced by new structures. Kids’ games, teenage social customs, family daily activities, Church activities, and styles in dress and music change. So do our personal concerns, interests, tastes, abilities, and goals. WE CHANGE. Scene by scene, therefore, our lives should be reflected in our journals as fully and as accurately as possible.

With regular, thoughtful attention, and a few creative entries, a diary can become a book of tremendous worth to you and to your posterity.

Illustrated by Phyllis Luch

Wilford Woodruff drew this design in his diary for July 1, 1838, after converting and baptizing all in his father’s Connecticut household. His diary reads: “I felt that the work of this day alone amply repaid me for all my labor in the ministry”

Doodle in front of James Burgess’s diary for 1841

Doodle in English convert Alfred Cordons’s missionary diary, 1844–48

Men in the Mormon Battalion discovered many new, exotic plants along the march. When words could not describe this plant, diarist Levi W. Hancock drew it, then noted: “I have drawn a date tree which grows in the vineyard where we are now camped. My pen is poor and cannot do justice to it”

One of Heber C. Kimball’s adopted sons wrote part of Heber’s diary and also sketched these scenes of their wagon company crossing the plains in 1846–47

One of Heber C. Kimball’s adopted sons wrote part of Heber’s diary and also sketched many scenes, like this one in Heber’s 1846–47 diary