Writing Our Lives

January 8, 2004 | 12 comments
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Every day for the year of 2003 I read a diary entry by Samuel Pepys, the incomparable 17th century English diarist. The ten-year Pepys diary is being put online a day at a time by Phil Gyford, a British computer person, (www.pepysdiary.com) and the international community that has gathered and comments on the daily entries is similar to this, a tight ingrown, but very learned and witty group.

I read Pepys for lots of reasons. My high school English teacher Marian Doughit wrote her MA thesis on Pepys and I well remember her comments about him, that he wrote daily in shorthand, that he was unsparing in his comments about himself and others, that he was a frequent–if fumbling–philanderer, that he played many instruments and collected many books, and that he was a close witness to history’s great events. I thought then that I would read him some day. I also read him to see what should go into a daily diary. I believe we should all keep journals and that they should have more than comments on the scriptures and faith-promoting-incidents in them. As a historian, I read lots of journals and autobiographies and am always aware of what is put in and what is left out. Many people have formulas. John Walker, a 19th century Virginia farmer on whom I have written, writes on the (1) the weather; (2) the work done by his slaves; (3) any sickness among the 50 people on the place and how he, a Thompsonian practicioner as Willard Richards was, has treated them, and (4) how grateful he is to God for His kindness to him, a “poor illiterate worm.” Not a bad format.

I talk about things I have done and, anxiously, about things I have to do. I compose important documents in my journal and copy them to send to others. I describe such scintilating events as I attend and include menus. I try to be frank and honest, knowing that in 25 years no one will be offended. What I am trying to do is to write my own scriptures, putting in the narrative of my time, the minutia of my life and the big events swirling around me. I make it the story of an LDS woman, including the frequent revelations I get and sometimes their results. I put in the things that I wish were included in the canonized scriptures. I try to make it a diary I would love to read. What do others do?

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12 Responses to Writing Our Lives

  1. Nate Oman on January 8, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    I actually kept a fairly regular diary in law school. In addition to chronicles of events (and the occasional frustrate skreed against law review collegues), I would paste in email exchanges that I had with people (including some of the bloggers here), ideas for papers or essays, copies of important documents (my son’s baby blessing, my patriarchal blessing, important letters, etc.) I found that it was much easier for me to write about what I was thinking than about what I was doing, which generally amounted to “woke up, walked to campus, spent day in library studying.” Most of what I wrote was self-consciously Mormon. In some sense, I used the diary as a place to have religious dialogues with myself that I couldn’t have in class.

    Since I graduated, my journal writing has fallen off a great deal, mainly because my desktop computer — on which I wrote the journal — has been fried. It was very easy to sit down at my computer next to the bed, and write for a couple of minutes before bed. In a new place and a new job, my temporal and spatial patterns have been upset, and I haven’t been able to work journal writing back into my routine.

  2. Clark Goble on January 8, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    Did you lose your writing Nate? I had quite a bit on my computer and lost it in a hard drive crash last summer. I thought I had backups but it turned out I didn’t. It was rather disappointing. That’s partially why I put up my blog – to encourage me to write again.

  3. nate oman on January 8, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    I have hard copies. I also burned the files onto a CD.

  4. Nate Oman on January 8, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    Another advantage of computer journal keeping, is that I can easily paste in pictures and illustrations.

  5. clark goble on January 8, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    One thing I have found is that since I got a digital camcorder I take many more movies. I can’t imagine doing the old scrapbook thing the way many do. Writing on the computer, taking photos, digitizing other items, and making movies is the way to go. We got a DVD recorder for my Mac for Christmas. Now we can make DVDs with iMovie and iDVD is seconds quite easily. (Even my wife who isn’t computer savvy can do it) Then we can mail them off to relatives who can just plop them into their computer or DVD player.

    I’m thinking of converting all my grandfather’s journals with photos to computer. I’m going to try and get my Dad to do his as well.

  6. Steve Evans on January 8, 2004 at 3:27 pm

    Claudia, I confess that I haven’t kept much of a diary since I was young, and I guess I’m not convinced that I have anything worth writing in a personal journal. That is, I don’t feel that my day is exciting enough to warrant memorializing. I can imagine writing about other things and ideas, so maybe keeping an “idea diary” would be worthwhile, but not the day-to-day journal (a la Pepys).

    Not to excuse my apathy, but I think there are convincing arguments against keeping a daily record: my job is uninteresting, my nights uneventful; records of contemporary daily life are plentiful, so it’s unlikely my own record would give the insights that Pepys’ does; and finally, I too am a “poor illiterate worm”, that is, I don’t find my writing style to be particularly interesting.

    Maybe these are arguments not against journals per se but in favor of careful editing and greater effort. I’d be curious to hear your response, but also to learn a little more about the kind of journal you’re keeping. Sounds to me like yours is more commentary and inquiry than simple description of daily events — if so, is it really a “diary”?

  7. Nate Oman on January 8, 2004 at 3:53 pm

    I just visited the Pepys Diary site — which incidentally is set up as a blog. It is really fabulous. Someone ought to do this with some of the great Mormon diaries. Wilford Woodruff’s would be great. Size might be a problem. One solution would be to run three interrelated blogs: early Wilford, middle Wilford, late Wilford.

    I can think of other diaries that it would be great to see as well. I would love it if someone did this with John Hay’s Civil War diaries (he was Lincoln’s personal secretary). How about Mary Chestnut? John Adams?

    A fun idea. I obviously need to spend MORE time blogging…

  8. lyle on January 8, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    I write when I am happy…and when I am no longer writing…I stop…which signals that I am unhappy. Lol.

    However, as Nate mentioned, I keep my ‘writings’ in eformat. Yet…I don’t think that this is the same as when I manually write a journal. I discovered this discrepancy while typing my written journals to eformat.

    What think ye all?

  9. clark goble on January 8, 2004 at 6:08 pm

    I found that with traditional journals I only wrote in them when depressed about something. When I finally read some of them I found they gave a rather “unusual” perspective.

  10. Jim F. on January 9, 2004 at 3:03 am

    Steve, it is funny that you don’t keep a journal when you figure so prominently in Janice’s and mine a while back. You figure as the main character in several of our favorite stories. That suggests to me that in spite of the uninteresting job, seemingly uneventful nights, etc. you are a sufficiently interesting and witty person that what you write would be interesting to read.

    I’m not a good journal keeper. I do so for a while, then I quite, then I start up again, . . . . And when I do keep a journal, I don’t often have anything of great import to write about nor am I a particularly good stylist. However, I very much enjoy going back and reading old journal entries. Seeing the things I wrote as a missionary is embarassing and, at the same time, reassuring and uplifting. Reading the things I wrote when Janice and I were first married reminds me of our life together and helps me see the depth that it has acquired.

  11. Steve Evans on January 9, 2004 at 11:31 am

    Jim, you flatterer, you. Can’t you see that I’m trying to justify my laziness?

    It’s encouraging to see that your post-adolescent & post-mission journals have proven to be of worth. I guess a part of me feels like all the really interesting things in my life have already happened… you’ve got to admit that by and large the craziness dies down after a certain age.

    BTW, I’m now realizing that being the main character in your favorite stories may be a dubious distinction…. kind of like how the crazy people in testimony meeting are my favorites!

  12. Steve Sandberg on January 9, 2004 at 9:53 pm

    This NYT Magazine piece, focused mainly on the teenage blogging crowd, shows what can happen to our diaries, and our lives, when we “post our lives.” http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/11/magazine/11BLOG.html?pagewanted=all&position=

    How would Pepys’s diary/life have changed if it came online, a day at a time, in realtime–where his wife, Pall, Mr. Davis, or uncle Wight could comment?

    I imagine the audience of my own journal to be myself, decades down the road, or perhaps my kids or grandkids. But I don’t think I would ever be comfortable with an immediate audience on the intensely-personal thoughts and feelings I jot down, not even myself. The more mundane things aren’t interesting yet. For some reason, it feels more comfortable, and is more interesting, to revisit those entries after some distance in time.

    I married the girl I had a crush on in high school. If I had known then, at 16 and 17, that she might be reading what I wrote, and might even comment on it, I wouldn’t have written half the things I did, and it would all be lost to me (and my wife–I let her read those entries a few years ago, and she was highly amused by them) now.