Writing a Life

Bored in Vernaljournals, Mormon 19 Comments

“It’s the people who write, who last. If any woman out there has any inclination to to remembered in the future, the next few generations, she’d just better get busy and write out her story, her experiences.” –Claudia Bushman

I haven’t been very satisfied with the writing of my own story. I wish I had a more representative record of my life. I began journaling in 1974 when I was 14 years old. I had a diary all through my high school years. I was certain that when I was a teenager I had some intelligent thoughts. But reading back in my journal, I am not so sure. By what I wrote, it seems that I thought about nothing but boys. Many things happened during the years I was in high school. The Watergate scandal, and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The war in Vietnam. Unrest on college campuses and the Kent State Massacre. Manned space flights to the moon. The first test tube baby. Affirmative Action and Title IX. Radioactive leak at Three Mile Island. I remember all these things happening, but I did not find them important enough to write down. Instead, here is a typical journal entry, written on the date of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War:

30 April 1975
This morning I had a big fight with Mom because someone took my toothbrush and I refused to go to school without brushing my teeth. I finally used someone else’s. Later we found out that Kenny had it in his room. Don’t ask me why. Today I made up the math test I missed on logarithms. We had swimming fifth block. We had a boy in our gym class that was swimming with us — we all wondered what he was doing there. He was a good swimmer though, and pretty cute. After school, Kenny, Doug, Mark and I sat outside and fooled around with a magnifying glass trying to start some paper on fire. We did, a couple of times. A cop car came by and Mark sat on the fire. Doug kept putting his arm around me. I wonder if he likes me again?
Tonight was Allison’s night to go somewhere with Dad but she wanted to see the movie “The Great Waldo Pepper.” But all of the rest of us wanted to see it too, so we all went. It was starring Robert Redford!! He is the best actor and so cute!! The only other movie I want to see is “Tommy.” It has Elton John (the singer) in it. I want to see him. He is the greatest!! And he sings the best songs!!

I joined the Church in 1979, when I was in college. For several years my journals are very saccharine and faith-promoting. I write a lot of quotes from the Book of Mormon and books I’ve been reading such as “Faith Precedes the Miracle.” I did find one entry that gives an insight into what kind of person I had become as a Mormon:

30 Nov 1979
A very sad experience happened to me before I left for Christmas. I saw T. drinking coffee in the cafeteria. She is a member who has not been attending meetings lately. I went over to talk to her and asked why she was drinking coffee. She said the doctor told her not to drink any beverages except for coffee and tea. I mentioned that it might be better to just drink water. She was very upset with me. That night I received a package which contained a Book of Mormon, a D&C, and two Institute manuals. This note was with it: “I give these things to you and you can give them to someone else but just don’t drive them up and down a wall and away from the Church as you have me. Don’t approach me on campus and don’t come down to the room to talk about it cause I will not answer the door.”

Hopefully I learned something from this experience!

In my missionary journals, I probably did a fairly good job representing myself, the ups and downs, and the things I was learning during this time.  I was diligent about writing every day, but I mostly detailed events having to do with the work of finding and converting; and my religious insights.  Soon after my mission I married and started having children right away. I wrote very rarely. This is the time I really wish I had kept up my journal. It seems that during these years I only wrote when I was angry and overwhelmed.

1 Oct 1991
Thoughts are flying through my head like crazy — I can’t get them down. The RS class and the article set off some kind of dissatisfaction in my mind. They seemed so basic and so boring — I tried to tell [a friend] how I felt but I didn’t really feel like she understood me. She said they’d had that discussion in their family and they’d concluded that the Church had to gear materials to the new-convert-type member, or as she put it, “the least common denominator.” I don’t know why they can’t include more meaty talks along with basic ones for new converts. I just feel so disappointed, jaded and cynical.

And then there are some entries about cars that break down, and financial troubles, and fights with the husband, and it sounds like I don’t have a positive thought for the next ten years.

Now that I’ve been blogging for a while, it looks like I may have fallen into the same trap. Though I am an active and faithful member of the Church, I tend to use my writing for airing my grievances. Apparently, I give the impression that I am an apostate or disgruntled member. I don’t know quite how to remedy this. For when I read blogs that are supposedly encouraging and faith-promoting, all I can think is “Yawn!” I want to show the spiritual side of myself, but I refuse to write a bunch of smarmy pablum.

Unfortunately, Sister Bushman, my writings probably won’t be of much interest to future historians. Neither am I representative of a twentieth-century Mormon woman. I’m just one of myriads of bloggers, sitting at a screen and pouring out the day’s frustrations, hoping to make a couple of sympathetic connections and stay sane at the end of the day.

Comments 19

  1. My favorite diary of all time is, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” I don’t believe that she thought she was an intellectual, She wrote it because she knew she had a voice and something important to say even at a young age. I think this book is timeless, with respect to the fact that yes, she was in hiding from the Nazis’, she still had the normal everyday angst that normal teenagers have with their parents.

    I still read it occasionally because I think no matter how old you are, hopefully you are not the person you were a year ago, or even from last week and you can still learn something from it.

    Another great book is,”Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” by Linda Brent. Its’ one of the few slave narratives that is written by a woman. It is quite powerful. Some parts will make you very angry, some parts will make you sad, but then you think of how strong a person this lady truly was and if she can endure the situations that she had to endure, we can certainly endure the little bumps that we have to. I highly recommend it.

  2. BIV
    Like you I often wish I’d chronicled important historical events that occurred during my lifetime, but my journal entries mainly reflect my life revolving around family, work, and church. These journals will disappoint future historians, if any read them, but they reflect a reality. People care most about events within their own small sphere of influence.

    I don’t often read blogs about world events. I use standard news sources for that kind of information. But I am interested in blogs that show people like me thinking about and dealing with their own religious and cultural situations.

  3. BIV, I love your blog posts. I don’t think you’re apostate or whiny. I think that you think, which I know can be a curse sometimes, but I appreciate your willingness to share your thinking with the rest of us.
    I too wish I had written more when I was in the thick of caring for children, husband, animals, garden, church callings, etc., but I was too busy living life to keep track of it in any organized fashion. That was in the days when people wrote letters (no email), and when my mother died I found that she had saved many of the letters I wrote to her over the years. I was disappointed to see that I had so thoroughly sugarcoated my life in those letters, but there are a few where I really spilled my guts.
    That’s my problem, even now, when I write in a journal; I have a hard time being honest. That’s what I like about you. I think you are honest, and we can’t be honest without being passionate, which includes offending someone along the way (which is why I have such a hard time being honest, because I’m a people-pleaser).
    So, thank you. And please keep writing and sharing.

  4. I love the Diary of Anne Frank, too! She’s not writing for history, but her life just seems to pour itself out onto the page. She writes because she can’t help but write. All the passion she feels is so sincere; Anne writes of her small sphere of influence, but included is so much history. It’s a poignant reflection of the time in which she lived. I’d love to be able to find a voice like that in my writing — something that would really endure and that would stir something in people’s hearts.

    Catherine, thank you… it really is hard to write when you’re right in the middle of the tough part of life. I remember visiting Walden Pond and reading some of Thoreau’s writings. I felt so stirred by them, and so wished I could write like that! But I had to chuckle as I read of him coming out to the peacefulness of the site, living in that little house with no worries and his mother still coming out and bringing him meals twice a day!

  5. The things I tend to write for myself are important personal testimonies, or decisions and rationales — things I expect to need to remind myself about later when the feelings change, or the consequesces for following through on the decisions are hard. “Thinking” about “feelings” while I’m feeling them is foreign to me, so I’ll probably be good subject matter for a future Mormon Therapist post.

  6. BIV

    I do not even for one minute think you are an apostate. Nor do I think that you were disrespectful to leadership. I think even if you sent this to salt lake they would not find this to be disrespectful. Do not worry about things that Vort says to you. He has a very conservative, in-your-face-attitude about the church, and church policy and if you don’t agree with him has a tendency to go after you, and everyone else who doesn’t agree with him. I find your post to be very thought provoking and I can tell you put in a lot of time and effort into the lesson. Thank you.

  7. “my writings probably won’t be of much interest to future historians” – maybe not, but they are more likely to be of interest to people in general, and to me, that’s more important.

    I too have been an avid journaler since age 13. There are many reasons to write: 1) to make sense of things you experience, 2) to vent or express what’s inside of you which promotes mental health, or 3) to communicate your life to others. Frankly, I think that the 3rd one is the least important even though it is the one the church most commonly promotes. The problem with the 3rd one is the tendency to white-wash. My life can’t just be an object lesson for others. The moment we begin chronicling our lives with that in mind, we begin to edit and interpret in the most favorable light possible.

    I think we all have lapses of time where life gets too busy to write. There’s an old saying that goes: “My life would be the poem I could have writ, but I could not both live and utter it.”

  8. BIV
    I have multiple volumes of journals I can barely stand to open because they remind me of how arrogant and narcissistic I was at 15, 20, or 35. I loved what you posted on the date of the fall of Saigon. I think you’ve got a great story waiting to happen. Juxtaposing your typical teen interests with a teen in Vietnam (or any other place where survival was on the line)and then bringing your lives together. Could be great! My journal of recent years has deteriorated by LDS standards. A good share of the entries are quotes from my kids. Most are hilarious. For example, one week sitting in church, my oldest daughter puts her mouth to my ear after listening to the priest say the sacrament prayer and whispers, “I get the feeling they say the same thing every week.” I’ve got a few dozen such quotes. I also record my race times in my journal. I’ve found it to be the best way to look back on my time last year or five years ago on a given race. I can barely stomach reading my entries when I was aspiring for Mormon’s job as scripture writer and editor, but the fun stuff from my kids makes great reading again and again. Thanks for writing, blogging, and being real.

  9. When I was young, I was pretty good with a journal. I think I was in elementary school, and had to write in a journal for a month. I always get a chuckle when I read that journal. Here’s what I usually wrote on Sundays during that time. “Today I went to Church. Steelers 35 Oilers 28. Yankies 8 Dogers 6….” and I proceed to give all the important scores of the Rose Bowl, World Series, NFL and college games. You would think I watched the games at church, but I didn’t. However, I was (and still am) an avid follower of sports. (Funny thing is that when I do write about it blogs, my sports posts always strike out!)

    High school was a very depressing time for me, and I don’t like to read my journal. Everything was negative. When I wrote on my mission, I wrote most often when I had a tough companion; when things were good, I often didn’t write. Since the mish, I feel like I have to catch up on things. For example, “well I got married a few years ago, and we now have a few kids….” I’m afraid that my journal writing won’t really give descendants a very good picture of me.

    If you look at my blog or this blog, you will see that I like be challenged when I study religion, but I think that is a one-sided view of me as well. I like to take videos of my family, and it is interesting to hear myself on video. I think that is probably the best view of me. My brother died about 4 years ago, and I love to see him holding his children. I also have some recordings of him from both his and my mission farewells, and I also have him cracking jokes when he was a radio DJ. I think these are much better representations of what he was like than any journal can ever reveal.

    I doubt historians will care what I have to say–unless they want to see how a good Mormon deals with challenging issues with the church…. I don’t really write too much about current events either.

  10. I’ve kept two different types of journals over the years. In one journal, I would write the, more or less, typical journal entries: what I did that day, what I thought about, etc. This journal was not kept very frequently. I have entries from January 1992-March 1992, then jumping to April 1993-July 1993. Then in April 1994, I began writing again, and the events of that year in my life (ending with a mission call), were so wonderful, that I felt very happy to write it down. So from April 1994- March 1997, I wrote in my journal every single day, covering every single day of my mission and the year before. After my mission, life dropped back to boring. BYU wasn’t that much fun, and I really didn’t feel like writing about it. Since 2000, I have hardly written in this more conventional journal until 2005 when I got married. I’ve kept it fairly haphazardly over the past five years, but it’s been better than the previous five.

    The second journal I’ve kept, however, I started on November 22, 1990 and have kept every single day since. It will now approach 20 years that I’ve kept this journal. In this journal, I simply write one line a day. So for example, the very first one is

    Nov 22 (1990) – Thanksgiving Day/ Thought up my greatest idea

    As you can see, it won’t necessarily be helpful for anyone else reading the journal (the greatest idea was a cool space opera story) 🙂 but I remember the important part of the day vividly.

    Mar 11 (1993) – Antigone/Spring Concert/ very cool solos in jazz

    My AP English class saw Antigone in San Francisco. That evening the band, orchestra, and jazz band had a concert and my tenor sax solos were awesome! 🙂

    July 10 (1995) – Taught a Fourth to the Falnagys and a First to the Dumitrescus/ good discussion

    For my mission I have this account, and a much fuller account in the regular journal.

    Oct 17 (1997) – Stewarts/Pizza Hut

    And sometimes, there’s nothing at all to say except I worked (my two jobs at the time in Utah).

    I like this journal, because for me to keep it up, I have to put in it the good and the bad. It’s not a journal I will be sharing with anyone but my wife at the moment. My daughter might be allowed to see it when she is old enough. After I am dead, I really couldn’t care who sees it. 🙂

  11. I don’t think the idea of the journal is to be prolific. I think the idea of the journal is much like what Hawkgirrl expressed in her response(7).
    The only other thing that I would add is that I think diaries for the most part are a way to link past, present and future generations connected. I thinks it lets us know that as much as things change, that certain things remain the same, but we can still learn

  12. Biv,

    What I am struck by in your journal entries is the voice. You may not be writing about world events but I don’t know that your family will care. They will want to know you, who you were and what your life was like. The voice is strong enough that they will indeed get to know you.

    I’ve been journaling for over ten years in a very consistent manner. the journal is a place to work out story ideas, prep for lessons, work through intellectual, or poetic concepts etc. But most of its pretty obscure. I hope my kids don’t throw them all out before they get to the descriptions of themselves as newborns, etc.

  13. Truly an excellent perspective, Douglas Hunter (#13), and well expressed. And beyond our own families, general historians of the future will also use such data to put a more practical perspective on “the days of our lives” as we experienced them personally even during the more “historical” world events. I cringe to see how crassly, how passingly I mentioned the assassination of John F. Kennedy in my high school journal that evening – but that tells us something we need to know about kids (or this kid). And, it reminds us that over-arching perspective more usually belongs to the times that follow – or to more developed, seasoned historical minds.

    Here is a spectacular exception or contrast to the more limited things most of us perceive or articulate at the very moments of great or time-altering events: Get a load of this . . .

    July 3, 1776, John Adams to his wife:

    “. . . The day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore. You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. . . .”

    [quoted in Charles Sumner, Prophetic Voices Concerning America . . . (Boston and New York: Lee and Shepard, 1874), 55]

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  15. I feel like perhaps I view it a bit differently. I am also a fairly avid journal keeper (well, more so in the past since I blog too much now). I look at my journal entries as a representation of my life at that point. More abstractly I think my blogging and journaling is part of a description of a life journey. At this time in my life, from my posts, it can probably be inferred that analysis of my religious belief system is the most important thing. It hasn’t always been that way, and it won’t be that way forever.

    I like your posts, and all the posts here because I think they represent a collection of life experience. Our posts represent the struggles and bright spots of each life journey. Since I think it is a given that at any one time most of us are feeling something that at least one other person is similarly feeling, at least one goal of my writing is to find that person (and perhaps others) and connect with them.

  16. Biv

    How I wish I had journals from my parents, grandparents, etc. I could have such a better sense of who they were and that’s what I try to convey in my journal entries (weekly). It’s for those who come later.

  17. My mother kept more of a diary than a journal — a record of key events from day to day. When she was about 50, she organized those with her memories into a memoir of her first 50 years, and it’s a treasured work in our family. I followed her lead and did the same for my kids.

    It’s not great history, except that it is history from one point of view. While the lunar landing did not get great mention in my 11 year old journal (I didn’t keep one then), my recollection of our family huddled around the 13″ screen of the TV in the kitchen on a Sunday night after church did make it into my personal history.

  18. “I began journaling in 1974” – surely “began keeping a journal/diary” would be better here. Why do Americans turn every noun into a verb, even when it sounds clumsy?

    Sorry, no offence. Nice piece otherwise.

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