Journal Writing or Making Crap Up?

By: hawkgrrrl
August 16, 2011

Should journals be written for ourselves or for others?  Does writing with an audience in mind, especially our own progeny (for whom we feel responsible) result in white-washing our personal experiences?  You betcha it does.

What is the Purpose of Journal Writing?

One of my mission companions and I were talking about our journals one day.  I asked if she was going to write about one of our recent experiences.  I don’t remember any more which incident it was – it could have been any of several events. It might have been the time she flipped off a bunch of construction workers when she was storming out of the hospital, whacked out on pain killers due to a kidney stone, then grabbed a cab (leaving me in the dust) and called the US embassy to complain about the Spanish health care system.  Or maybe the time we were hitch-hiking and got picked up by a handsome guy (we gave him a Book of Mormon that I doubt he ever read – the guy was hawt, in a skinny, long-haired, unwashed Spaniard way).  It might have even been the time we got into a swearing screaming match in a field right before we taught a “golden” family that got baptized a week later (and are still active 20+ years later!)  In any case, whatever the story was, she felt some of it was unsavory enough that she was definitely NOT going to write it in her journal.  She said, “No way!  I don’t want my grandkids to know I did that!”  As a result, we got into an argument about the purpose of journal writing.

In my view (then and still), journal writing is primarily for oneself, to work out ideas, to capture memories and to gain self-knowledge.  Writing with a mental audience in view creates a motive to portray oneself in a way that is self-justifying and even dishonest (omitting what is unflattering, emphasizing or embellishing what is “on message,”) especially if the imagined audience is one’s own posterity.  Censoring the unflattering truths about ourselves seems like a bad idea on every level:  our progeny will likely encounter the same types of struggles we do, and it certainly doesn’t lead to better self-knowledge and personal growth.  Showing them an example of owning one’s mistakes and being imperfect is a much better example than one that is implausibly perfect and white-washed.

Her view was that we should only share what is positive, what is us at our best, not including our mistakes or bad behavior, presumably so we don’t give the young ‘uns any crazy ideas.  She also felt we should only include what uplifts and is spiritual, things like testimony and faith-promoting experiences.  She said this was what she had always been taught in church, which I suspect is accurate (I never was very good at paying attention to ideas that I think are worse than my own).  My journal writing techniques came from what I learned in writing classes and from my own experiences.  While I’ve always been a big fan of keeping a journal, I still firmly feel that writing for an audience always results in fictionalization.

The Book of Mormon as Journal Writing

I was recently reading Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon.  One of the things he talks about it the point of view of the 3 narrators / abridgers:  Nephi, Mormon and Moroni.  Essentially, they are writing (or compiling) for a future audience (to help them attain salvation), emphasizing faith-promoting stories, and downplaying whatever puts the moral of the story in question.  He points out several times in the story-telling when the narrators’ ulterior motives and self-justification show through:

  • Nephi writes from the perspective of a middle-aged man who knows that despite his own sacrifices, his progeny will be destroyed and he has seen a civil war emerge from his own sibling conflicts.  He tends to justify his own failings (killing Laban essentially made it impossible for them to return to Jerusalem, even though they were initially just in hiding, waiting out assassins, not planning to leave the continent) and overstate the failings of his siblings Laman & Lemuel (consider that both L&L were essentially righteous observant Jews whose younger brother’s actions made it impossible for them to return to their home and inheritance).  All the stories he tells are with the knowledge of how it ends, and he puts his own actions in the best light possible.  Even his “psalms” remind me of the candidates in job interviews who (when asked what is a weakness they have) say that they work too hard or they are a perfectionist.
    • In Nephi’s own words (1 Nephi 19:6):  Neverthless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred.  And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself.  It’s hard to judge too harshly when he admits he has a hard time with self-justification, but I think most Mormons who read the BOM are so uncritical of its authors and contents that they hand-wave away any claimed “weaknesses” as mere humility on the part of the author.
  • Mormon continually interrupts the stories he is telling to make sure we “get” the moral of the story.  His style is preachy and didactic, and if you look closer, many of the stories are more gray than his black and white interpretations imply.  For example, his hyperbolic assertion that Captain Moroni was a righteous man belie the fact that the good Captain is not depicted as being particularly religious and that he also misjudges situations and people, letting his rash temper get the best of him.  Our belief in his “righteousness” is chiefly based on Moroni’s assertion that he is.

I won’t give away the whole book, but these are a few examples Hardy points out that show how the Book of Mormon is written.  Frankly, they are the same qualities I object to about LDS journal writing:  only include what is faith-promoting and write with your children in mind.  Surely this isn’t what is meant by likening the scriptures unto ourselves.  Who wants to read such a thing?  The merit in the book (at least according to Hardy) lies in the transparency and complexity of these literary devices; the stories are more interesting and nuanced than their narrators’ perspectives.  Does this human failing make the narrators more interesting or less interesting?

I suspect white-washing journal-writers will also be seen through by their clever progeny, although you can’t easily see through what is omitted (certainly omitting the Laban incident would have been more convincing than trying to defend it, but it was pivotal to what followed).

What Do You Think?

In truth, it’s difficult for anyone to be objective and avoid self-justification in autobiographical writing, either in the church or the world at large.  Even historical biographies do this at times.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to portray ourselves authentically and realistically.  Don’t we want our progeny to know us as we are?  Will they even recognize us if we’ve falsely portrayed ourselves as paragons of virtue?

What’s your opinion? Would you rather read black and white stories with neat little morals to them?  Wouldn’t you rather know people as fully fledged human beings in morally ambiguous situations?  Do you think the church teaches this faith-promoting self-censorship approach overtly, or is it just a natural byproduct of human nature?

Most importantly, are there things you would omit from your journal?  Do tell!

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15 Responses to Journal Writing or Making Crap Up?

  1. jacobhalford on August 16, 2011 at 7:09 AM

    I think it is interesting to consider the shift that a journal has had historically. Initially a journal was a record of the times of daily prayers, coming from the Latin Diurnal, meaning during the day. They then moved to being chronicles or records of what has happened during the day. I find it interesting that journals have become a form of autobiography now rather then just a catalogue of what we do during the day. We don’t simply say what happened, but we now reflect and put it into narratives of significance.

    I think by our very nature we self-censor, and this feeding of censorship into our journals is just a by product. It is important, however, to be honest with ourselves about our problems and struggles. The editing of journals is an material example of self-deception that we all do anyway as its difficult to be honest about our failings. The act of writing seems eternal and to commit some of our less then ideal actions to paper can be a difficult thing to face. Who really likes to admit to themselves and write down their weaknesses?

    Personally, I keep a copious amount of journals and notebooks so I often try and reflect on why it is that I keep it. I tend to do it as a surrogate memory, to store stories, memories and thoughts so I don’t need to waste cognitive resources on them. A bit like Dumbledore’s pensieve.

    Something that keeping a journal has always motivated me to do, is live in a way that I want to make a record of it. To make every day such that I can and want to record everything that I do. I see the censorship of a journal being the other way to how you describe it then. Keeping a journal makes me edit and censor how I live my life so I can write about it rather then censoring what I write about.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 16, 2011 at 7:26 AM

    It was the discussions of weakness that started me on realizing the Book of Mormon could be deconstructed and gave meaning to the way I looked at the kingmen. Mulekite = kingman, btw, and those with noble blood are not the Nephite interlopers …

    A lot going on there.

    Journals, to be useful, need to be human and to serve the writer first. I think that for those who come later, they need to be complete, to show real humanity that can connect.

    It is also interesting to think about what each person considers shameful or something that should be hidden or not worthy of mention.

    I like the way this post works together with Jacob’s comments, btw.

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  3. Ray on August 16, 2011 at 9:02 AM

    First, Hardy’s approach to the Book of Mormon is what I’ve tried to preach for decades. It is a great book in that it tries to look at what the BofM actually says (and, importantly, doesn’t say) – not what we assume and have assumed it says. I HIGHLY recommend the book.

    To the main point of the post, I have never been able to keep a journal as a record of what happens in my life. That sort of journal bores me to tears, and it was my own private Hell when I tried to “keep a journal”.

    Now, I write my personal blog, mainly to record what actually is important to me – my thoughts. That’s probably more than a little narcissistic, but I like the pensieve analogy in Jacob’s comment. I want those things recorded so I don’t forget them – and so I can see the evolution of my beliefs over time as I go back and review them – and so my children and their children will know what was important to me (and how my views hopefully evolved over time).

    Do I censor myself when I blog? Sure, to some degree – but less on my personal blog than when I comment in a forum like this. Here, I try to be very careful that I am not misunderstood (which often doesn’t work), while I often add more detail and nuance on my own blog. I write with a purpose and a “mission” – so, of course, I self-censor. I’m fine with that, however, since I’m not writing a “history” – and I think that’s one of Hardy’s main points about the Book of Mormon abridgers.

    The “writers” of the base texts wrote histories, but the “authors” of the Book of Mormon didn’t. Two different purposes – two different approaches – two different results. Until we accept those differences and stop treating the Book of Mormon as something it’s not (a history of objective facts), we will struggle with understanding and appreciating it for what it actually is (a journal of subjective thoughts and beliefs).

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  4. Andrew S on August 16, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    Is it coincidental that there are two great blog posts that refer to Grant Hardy’s book published so closely together (see Julie’s review of the book at T&S)?

    Anyway, I’m definitely going to have to check out the book now.

    As for journaling, I don’t write with an audience in mind. In fact, I do whatever I can to avoid it being read by anyone else (including writing in a code I’ve developed over time.) If anyone finds my journals and wants to read them, they better hope I’m already dead so I won’t retaliate to prevent them. It’s just too revealing.

    …and I hope it takes them a *long* time to decode the writing.

    My blog is, of course, completely different. I’ve been working on being more candid, and also more lyrical, but that approach usually doesn’t get a lot of commenters (grumble grumble).

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  5. mh on August 16, 2011 at 4:19 PM

    as a kid, I had to keep a journal for 30 days. I always get a chuckle out of my sunday entries, because I would say ‘today I went to church.’ and then I would tell the nfl and mlb scores for that day.

    in middle school, I had to write for english class. it got to be a habit, and I kept writing. the writing was mostly therapeutic. in middle school, I talked about my frustrations (normal teenage stress.) I hate to read my journal now, because it sounds like I was unhappy all the time. but I never wrote when I was happy.

    my mission followed a similar pattern. for some reason, I only wrote when I was upset. i’ve tried to talk about happier things in my journal, but I don’t keep up very well.

    with blogging, I tend to avoid personal stuff. readers might know what I think about religious topics, but not much else. none of the things I write will give readers a balanced perspective of me. I don’t really try to white wash me, but i’m not totally open when I write either.

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  6. Paul on August 16, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    I’m not a big journal writer — inconsistent over time. So I doubt anyone will read those. What they will read (I assume) are my letters (copies saved) and my personal history which I wrote.

    The personal history is written for an audience (my children and theirs) and is of course edited by my biases, but I’ve included the good and bad (though not every black secrect of my heart; for that I suppose you’ll have to show up on Judgement Day). I have, however, tried to make is about ME and not about the other characters in my life.

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  7. Ziff on August 16, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    I’m an inconsistent journaler, but I’m like you, Hawkgrrrl, in that I write for myself. I have no other audience. Like Andrew, I’d rather nobody else read my journals.

    Also, thanks for the pointer on Grant Hardy’s book. I particularly like the description of Mormon, who I have always found to be an annoyingly ham handed narrator with all his “thus we see” conclusions. I’ve got to read the book now and see what Hardy says about him in more detail!

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  8. hawkgrrrl on August 16, 2011 at 11:33 PM

    I used to write daily until I was about 28 year old, which is a lot of daily entries since I started at age 13. But then I decided every few days (never more than a week apart) is much better at bridging the gaps. I got tired of entries that said things like: “Ate pie; it was good.”

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  9. Rigel Hawthorne on August 17, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    My missionary journals were often my forum for complaining, as I didn’t want to write letters to home that sounded too discouraging. There was good stuff too, and I think it was primarily for me. Unfortunately, I still haven’t found the box they were in during our last move, 5 years ago.

    With the home pc, I’ve done some word processing journaling, with good intentions, but with each new computer purchase, I never get around to downloading the files from the old to the new. So, that hasn’t worked out so well.

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  10. The Mormon Shelf « Irresistible (Dis)Grace on August 17, 2011 at 5:59 PM

    [...] struck me. Yesterday, I juggled discussions at three blogs: Times and Seasons, Millennial Star, and Wheat & Tares. Actually, there were even more discussions I was juggling, but those were the discussions at [...]

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  11. Jen on August 17, 2011 at 6:22 PM

    Keep a journal that talks about events, fun times, etc. Keep a separate journal for feelings only, it is very therapeutic and helpful in sorting through negative feelings especially. When writing completely negative entries, delete them afterward, the process of getting the feelings out is accomplished and helps brings closure.

    I don’t believe it is a good thing to write negative things about others in journals. My father’s journals were all thrown out for that very reason and I never was able to read any of them. People don’t want to be bashed in journals and if you are the bashee and die, you will most likely have your journals tossed as well. I say be as positive as possible and write about challenges and struggles, but don’t focus negatively on people as much as how you worked through your struggles together, etc.

    I have gone through my journals and got rid of parts of them because they brought back very negative feelings and memories. I didn’t want to remember a stupid boyfriend I had in high school or how I “hated my dad” and I didn’t want my kids to read that either. I would much rather talk to them now as an adult and tell them of my experiences then to have them read my emotional outbursts in my journal. I don’t see any value in them reading things that made me feel terrible, especially when I can talk to them now about it with a perspective that will help them, not harm them.

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  12. Glenn Thigpen on August 17, 2011 at 8:40 PM

    Keep a journal the way you want to and don’t try to tell others how to keep theirs.
    Read the Book of Mormon the way you want to and don’t try to tell others how it should be read.

    Glenn

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  13. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 17, 2011 at 8:57 PM

    I was a very continuous journal writer until the 1990s. Something broke and it still is not fixed.

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  14. Heber13 on August 18, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    I remember reading the David O McKay book, and it seemed McKay diligently wrote down details that he could later go back and review what was agreed and what people told him, to keep his memory straight on things. That seems very useful for someone who is organized and diligent enough to do that.

    But I also remember the journals were used a lot to determine his character, such as his reactions and thoughts around niece Fawn Brodie.

    So it does seem that others who will read it will make assumptions by it.

    I kept a diligent journal through my 20s. They are mostly how much I hated my imperfections and could never measure up to the gospel standards, but also my spiritual experiences on how I relied on God to help lift me from my weaknesses. I think my kids could learn something from those stories. (Maybe I should have blamed my brothers for not treating me better, and how I was able to rise above them by being chosen of the Lord???)

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  15. annegb on August 22, 2011 at 7:59 AM

    I kept a diary during my sophomore year (lost it, but boy would I love to read that); then, when I lost my family, I began to write again. I filled about 12 of those notebooks and have filled about 8 hard cover journals–almost filled another. That being said, I am somewhat sporadic. Sometimes I’ll skip months; sometimes I write every day for months. THAT being said, I don’t sugarcoat anything. My kids all want my journals when I die. I don’t blame them. Although they will read that I called their dad names more than they thought! I don’t write with any kind of goal or purpose other than sorting my thoughts.

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