By Brad Wilcox
Keeping a journal helps us learn who we are.
Brad Wilcox, “Why Write It?” Ensign, Sept. 1999, 56
“Why?” I overheard the woman ahead of me in sacrament meeting whisper to her husband. “If no one is going to read it, why write it?”
The not-so-hushed conversation in front of me happened simultaneously with our high councilor’s exhortation to rededicate ourselves to writing regularly in our journals. “But why?” the woman whispered to her husband again.
It is a good question. With everything else we have to do in a day, why journals? We tell ourselves, “Journals are for posterity.” Well, maybe my grandson will break both legs and be desperate enough for something to do that he’ll pull out my dust-covered journal. But the remote possibility of such an event in the future has never been motivation enough for me to keep a journal. In my life, I had to discover that writing in my journal is valuable for me—whether my grandchildren ever read it or not.
Writing is an important form of communication, but that is scarcely its major value. Like shooting baskets all alone in your driveway, writing does not require an audience beyond yourself to be worthwhile or enjoyable.
When my in-laws were moving to Colorado, a tragic moving-van fire destroyed all their belongings, including family photograph albums and personal journals. One well-meaning friend lamented, “All that work for nothing!”
My wise mother-in-law responded: “The process we went through writing our journals can never be burned. Every hour we spent on those books helped to make us the people we have become.”
Like my mother-in-law, I have found my personal journal an ideal environment in which to “become.” It is a perfect place for me to think, feel, discover, expand, remember, and dream. Let us look at each of those areas in more detail:
Think: I once asked a college professor what he thought about a particular issue. He said: “I don’t know. I’ve never written anything about it.” His response puzzled me at the time, but not anymore.
“Thoughts are created in the act of writing. [It is a myth that] you must have something to say in order to write. Reality: You often need to write in order to have anything to say. Thought comes with writing, and writing may never come if it is postponed until we are satisfied that we have something to say. … The assertion of write first, see what you had to say later applies to all manifestations of written language, to letters … as well as to diaries and journals” (Frank Smith, “Myths of Writing,” Language Arts 58, no. 7 : 793, 795).
Feel: Primary children are taught that journal writing reinforces the idea that each person is important. His or her experiences and feelings are valuable and are worth recording so they are not lost (see Valiant B [Primary manual, 1985], 7).
When I bear testimony, it may be meaningful to the congregation, but not nearly as meaningful as it is to me. I am better for having required myself to verbalize my innermost feelings. After a youth conference testimony meeting, one young man put it like this: “It’s one thing to listen to everyone else and a totally different thing to get up there yourself. When the Spirit confirms the words that come out of your own mouth, it’s really powerful!” Journal writing puts us in the same difficult but valuable position of finding words for hard-to-express feelings.
Discover: Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, once said: “I don’t want to live in a hand-me-down world of others’ experiences. I want to write about me, my discoveries, my fears, my feelings, about me.”
Often, simply by writing about ourselves we begin to see life from a new perspective. A young woman I talked to put it this way: “My journal gives me a chance to discover things about myself I didn’t even know were there. As I write, I can figure out who I really am.”
Expand: President Spencer W. Kimball counseled, “Write … your goings and your comings, your deeper thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies” (President Kimball Speaks Out , 59). It follows naturally that if we are expected to write such experiences, we will become more aware of them in our lives.
Writing, like other arts, is a representation of life. Thus, the writer is compelled to live life more consciously. Journal writing will not make passive people miraculously more active. However, regular writing does make it harder for us to remain passive.
Remember: As Alma reminds Helaman, written records “have enlarged the memory of this people” (Alma 37:8). Modern memory experts agree that writing down experiences can help us remember them longer and with greater accuracy.
Journals make it easy for me to look back over my own life and see the progress I am—or am not—making. They can motivate me to stay on course or make positive changes.
Dream: “Journal writing … [provides] a place for self-expression where one can afford to take a risk, experiment with ideas and materials, and even make a mistake” (M. Joan Lickteig, “Research-Based Recommendations for Teachers of Writing,” Language Arts 58, no. 1 : 46). Many professionals agree that because a journal is less structured, many find it instantly inviting—it’s a protected place, an invitation to open up.
As with backdoor friends who have never seen my best china, the pages of my journal invite me to share myself—my real self. They are a safe place for my most personal goals and deepest dreams.
On Saturday, 20 June 1942, Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who eventually died in the Holocaust, wrote the following in her personal journal: “I haven’t written for a few days, because I wanted first of all to think about my diary. It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart” (Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl , 2).
I too have things buried deep inside that must find a way out. They can be freed in my journal. As we use personal journals for places to think, feel, discover, expand, remember, and dream, I believe we will come to better understand President Ezra Taft Benson’s words: “The Lord works from the inside out” (A Witness and a Warning , 64).
If no one is going to read it, why write it? The sister in front of me in sacrament meeting had a good question. It is possible that no other living soul will ever touch my journal. My journal, like my mother-in-law’s, could easily be destroyed in a fire. Yet the time I spend writing in it is not wasted.
My personal journal is helping me become more like Jesus Christ and reach my highest potential. That is why I will continue to keep my journal—whether my grandchildren ever read it or not.