Discover Yourself: Keep a Journal

Nearly everywhere Al O’Dell goes, it goes. It went in the car when he and some buddies drove to California. It went on the airplane several months later when he went on his mission. It was several bulging volumes thicker when he was released two years later. And as the ensuing months and years bring new ideas and new people, it grows with him.

Like many who keep a journal, Al finds that his journal is more than a record, although it’s an important record. And it’s more than a sounding board, although it’s that too. It’s even more than a record for his posterity; it’s history for the sake of the author as well as the reader.

He feels an urge to write that comes from within—an urge to express, to understand, to improve, to establish the validity of his experiences and his existence. When he sits at his typewriter to crash out a few quick pages or when he spends a quiet hour on a Sunday to catch up on the last few days, he is spending valuable time with himself, listening to himself.

“Keeping a journal gives you a chance to let some whisperings trickle through you from your own spirit, as well as from the Spirit of the Lord,” says Brother M. Gawain Wells, a psychologist with the Brigham Young University Comprehensive Clinic who has been interested in the effects of family record-keeping on mental health.

“Too many of us listen carefully to others’ voices and never our own,” he says.

But just what does listening to our own voice do? Those who have studied journals and journal-keepers concur that it does a lot—all of it positive.

“I Feel I Must Write”

The act of writing in a journal can help a person deal with emotional pressures. Some people who don’t intend to keep journals—and some who don’t even want to—find themselves writing as they try to cope with difficulties. Christian theologian C. S. Lewis didn’t even approve of the journal he spontaneously kept following the death of his wife, Helen Joy Lewis. But those notebooks became his emotional salvation as he recorded his struggles with grief. (Published first under a pseudonym and then under his own name, the journals were entitled A Grief Observed. Others coping with grief have treasured Lewis’s record.)

Keeping a journal can have what psychologists call “postmortem effect,” Brother Wells says. After the emotion is gone from a difficult situation, a person can “go back to the situation, see what happened, and see what might have been a better way to handle it.

“Writing can help you express some of the emotions—until you can let go of the feelings, learn from the experience, and consider appropriate alternatives.”

A person coping with grief over the loss of a loved one, for example, may need to “let himself down into the situation until it’s worked out, until he can emotionally part with the person,” Brother Wells says.

Grief, loneliness, and isolation are common themes in many journals, even though the journal-keepers also write of joy and exultation. Elouise M. Bell, assistant professor of English at BYU, studied women’s journals intensively in 1979 as a participant in a Modern Language Association conference. 1 “One of the things I have discovered—and it is not an original discovery with me—is that women sometimes keep journals because they’re lonely,” she says.

“Writing a journal is the first step in identifying that loneliness. I think many women who are lonely don’t really identify it as such. They know they are vaguely unhappy and they have problems in their lives, but they don’t identify that particular problem as one of isolation.

“When you start writing, you start identifying these things. I think that first step of identifying is half the journey to the solution. You start communicating in your journal and then you are on your way to communicating with other people.”

Whatever the need behind the impulse, many write simply because they feel they must. And they feel better for having done it.

A full-time missionary whose girlfriend just informed him of her plans to marry someone else: “I’m writing about an experience I had last night so I can get it totally off my mind. Thank goodness for this journal! I can transfer things directly from my mind to this paper, and they’ll never bother me again.”

Alice James, sister of psychologist William James and author Henry James, journal entry of 31 May 1889: “I think that if I get into the habit of writing a bit about what happens, or rather doesn’t happen, I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me. … It may bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its sins; so here goes, my first Journal!” 2

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh, journal entry of 13 May 1941: “Tonight Charles comes back and I feel I must write down before I get involved in life again what I have felt in these two weeks he has been away—what I have learned with the lid of life taken off me for a brief spell. For when he comes back and I again care passionately from day to day what happens, when I go up and down with the events, with the newspapers, with life itself—then I shall no longer see clearly. That is the trouble with life—the essential conflict between seeing and being, … between mortality and eternity. The two pull in opposite directions and one must try to harness them both.” 3

A thirteen-year-old deacon who had just received his first journal as a Christmas present: “Hey Brother, … I need someone to talk to, to express my feelings to, and guess who was nominated. Mom and dad have gotten devorsed and dad has remarried. … My step-mother is ok, I guess. I do have kind of a hatred towards her because she took dad from our house. We played racquet ball yesterday. … Dad said he’d get me a racquet ball racquet to practice with. He doesn’t have to because I love him very much.”

C. S. Lewis, Christian apologist, journal entries following the death of his wife, Helen Joy Lewis: “What would H. herself think of this terrible little notebook to which I come back and back? Are these jottings morbid? … I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. Do these notes merely aggravate that side of it? Merely confirm the monotonous, treadmill march of the mind round one subject? But what am I to do? I must have some drug, and reading isn’t a strong enough drug now. By writing it all down (all?—no: one thought in a hundred) I believe I get a little outside it. … In so far as this record was a defence against total collapse, a safety-valve, it has done some good.” 4

Sophie Tolstoy, wife of Russian author Leo Tolstoy, journal entry of 25 February 1865: “I am so often left alone with my thoughts that the desire to write my diary is quite natural. I sometimes feel depressed, but now it seems wonderful to be able to think everything over for myself, without having to say anything about it to other people.” 5

A woman pen-named Martha Martin, who was isolated by an avalanche in Alaska, undated journal entry from the 1920s: “I can hardly write, but I must. For two reasons. First I am afraid I may never live to tell my story, and second, I must do something to keep my sanity.” 6


A journal can also be a tool for self-evaluation and self-improvement. “We examine our lives as we come to know ourselves through our journals,” says Sister Bell. “Even if you take your journal and go back a year, you learn things about yourself you didn’t know at the time. You understand things about yourself. In knowledge begins real freedom of the soul and the spirit, and a real chance to be all that we can be and all that we should be.”

But a question frequently arises: how honest should I be in recording events and feelings?

“I believe in honest journals and in locks and keys,” says Sister Bell. “If you are worried about another reading your record without permission, make provision. Keep it well locked away.”

Which is not to say that every bad thought must be recorded. President Spencer W. Kimball suggests writing truthfully without whitewashing vices or accentuating the negative. “The truth should be told, but we should not emphasize the negative,” he says.

It is crucial that we not judge ourselves too ruthlessly, Sister Bell says—that we not run from self-investigation for fear that we might find out we don’t fit a certain pattern.

“The truth is that we are all individuals; we are all unique—and isn’t it wonderful! There is enormous diversity in the Church, and it is marvelous. We ought to celebrate it, not stifle it. That diversity only flowers in self knowledge.”

Some use a journal for setting priorities, analyzing circumstances, and even making promises to themselves and to the Lord. As they do, they have a permanent reminder of what and who they are becoming.

Louisa May Alcott, author, journal entry from 1843, when she was ten years old: “a sample OF OUR LESSONS. ‘What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr. L. I answer:—Patience, Obedience, Industry, Love, Generosity, Respect, Silence, Perseverance, Self-denial.

“‘What vices less of?’ ‘Idleness, Impatience, Selfishness, Wilfulness, Impudence, Activity, Vanity, Pride, Love of cats.’” 7

Elder Hugh B. Brown of the Quorum of the Twelve, journal entry from 1 July 1925, when he was serving as a major in the Canadian Army: “dominion Day at Cardston, where a monument was unveiled in memory of the noble men who gave their lives for their country. I gave an address at the unveiling ceremonies, which was somewhat difficult on account of the feelings of some of the people occasioned by my own untimely return from overseas. Many who had criticized me and who had believed me to be a coward were present. But more than this did I feel the influence of those whom we had met to honor. To them I owe no apology. They, if they could speak, could only testify that my conduct towards the men under my command was fair and just and I would have gladly accompanied them to the front lines if it could have been. … I often felt inclined to retaliate and heap coals of fire on the heads of those who were responsible for my seeming ignominy. … Surely Victor Hugo must have suffered to be able to say so well what I have so often thought, viz.: ‘Unjust criticism and burning blushes of shame, that terrible and admirable crucible into which nature casts a man when she would make a demon or a demi-God, from it the weak come forth infamous, the strong sublime.’ Thank God for our adversities.” 8

A Latter-day Saint fifth-grader who had a crush on a boy named Bob who was running for student body president: “In orchestra, I sit behind Bob, and when I got lost he turned around and said, beginning of 3, then later he said beginning of 4, then beginning of 5. At the end I said, ‘end of 5.’ He turned around and laughed. I voted for Ernie and Cheryl. I should have voted for Bob, but I didn’t.”

Jonathan Edwards, Congregational theologian, journal entry from 22 September 1723, when he was nineteen years old: “I observe that old men seldom have any advantage of new discoveries, because they are beside the way of thinking, to which they have been so long used. Resolved, if ever I live to years, that I will be impartial to hear the reasons of all pretended discoveries, and receive them if rational, how long soever I have been used to another way of thinking. My time is so short, that I have not time to perfect myself in all studies: Wherefore resolved, to omit and put off, all but the most important and needful studies.” 9

“You Can See the Hand of the Lord in Your Life”

Sacred experiences gain validity by being recorded. Any experience assumes perspective. And seen over a period of years, a life recorded day by day and page by page assumes pattern and purpose. A journal thus becomes a vehicle for seeing God’s interaction with us.

“It helps you get closer in touch with the Lord’s time frame, when you can read your own intimate history over a period of months rather than days,” says Bishop Wells. “Patterns emerge, and you can see more clearly the hand of the Lord in your life. You can see how he has helped you and answered some prayers by events, not revelations, in a quiet way that escaped you in the press of circumstances.”

A truthful portrayal of the challenges and conquerings of life can help the writer in the future. He can see how varied and rich his life has been, how the Lord has blessed him, how his strength has grown, and how his knowledge of the Lord’s love for him has increased.

A single law student in her early thirties: Tonight I was reading Joseph Smith’s description of the character and attributes of God—and suddenly those words weren’t just lists of adjectives about some faraway being, beyond understanding. They were descriptions of a person who is actually my Father. I believed in his love for me. I felt it. It was a physical sensation that made tears come and breathing stop for a moment. I believed that he was everlasting (though I don’t understand it). I believed that, being his daughter, I was worthy of his mercy and patience and longsuffering and love. And I had to talk with him. As I prayed, I realized that I had never understood nor accepted God’s love for me in this way before. A personal, specific, fatherly love, reaching into my very apartment, my very bedroom.

And with this knowledge of my Heavenly Father as a person, with a personality, a person who can be hurt or happy about what I do, I want so much to please him, to make him proud of me, to be able to come to him unashamed. He is my Father, my adviser, my friend. I want to do his will.

Hosea Stout, Mormon pioneer, journal entry from 13 February 1846: “About ten o’clock I went in company with Br John D. Lee to the camp on Sugar Creek. This was near to the place where I lived at the time my wife (Surmantha) died and was the place of many a mournful hour to me in days gone by, when by her death I was deprived of … the last bosom friend which I then had on earth in whom I could implicity confide. On our way to the camp I passed by her grave which was near to the road. I found the paling still round it which I put there seven years ago as a last token of respect due to her untill the first resurrection, not dreaming of the plan of redemption which was so soon to be revealed through the now martyred prophet Joseph. … When I left this place [at the time of her death] I went disconsolate and alone, mourning her untimely death and my own lonesome condition. But I went to Nauvoo to keep the commandments of God and my history from that time to this will show the scenes of peril and want which I went through to roll forth the kingdom. … Then I was alone and but little know[n] to my brethren & to [the] prophet. But … a succession of dangerous & continual scene & of a life devoted to … this kingdom … has brought me to where I am. …

“These things came flitting across my mind when I approached her grave and the land so full of gone by reflections. And I exclaimed in my mind ‘O Lord keep me in the way I should go that my exaltation may be shore.’” 10

President Spencer W. Kimball, journal entry from July 1951: “I might hope that my children will take from my many journals and write a simple story or biography for me. I would like for my posterity to remember me and to know that I have tried so hard to measure up and to live worthy.” 11

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Discover Yourself—Keep a Journal” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a family gospel study period:

1. How could writing down your feelings help you cope with a traumatic experience?

2. In what way could writing in a journal ease a sense of loneliness?

3. How can a journal help you evaluate your progress?

4. Why is it important to maintain a proper balance between stressing the good and noting the negative?

5. Why is a journal a good place to record promises to yourself and to the Lord?

6. Why do you suppose “sacred experiences gain validity by being recorded”?

7. Are you keeping your journal current? If not, what specific things can you do to be more consistent?

8. Are you recording events only—or do you include, as President Kimball suggests, “your deepest thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies”?

9. What can parents do to “train their children from young childhood to keep a journal”?

[photo] Photo illustration by Jed A. Clark and George Gruber

Janet Brigham, assistant manager of press relations in the Public Communications Department of the Church, teaches Sunday School in her Granger, Utah, ward.

Show References


  1.   1.

    A text of Elouise M. Bell’s remarks on journal-keeping is published in Blueprints for Living: Perspectives for Latter-day Saint Women, vol. 2 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1980).

  2.   2.

    Alice James, The Diary of Alice James, Leon Edel, ed. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1964), quoted in Diaries of Women, Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter, eds. (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), p. 194.

  3.   3.

    Anne Morrow Lindbergh, War Within and Without (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 182.

  4.   4.

    C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 12, 47.

  5.   5.

    Sophie Tolstoy, The Diary of Tolstoy’s Wife, 1860–1891, trans. by Alexander Werth (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1928), quoted in Revelations: Diaries of Women, p. 142.

  6.   6.

    Martha Martin, O Rugged Land of God (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1952), quoted in Revelations: Diaries of Women, p. 301.

  7.   7.

    Louisa May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Her Life, Letters, and Journals, Ednah D. Cheney, ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1919), quoted in Revelations: Diaries of Women, p. 32.

  8.   8.

    Hugh B. Brown, quoted in Eugene E. Campbell and Richard D. Poll, Hugh B. Brown: His Life and Thought (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1975), p. 74.

  9.   9.

    Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards, vol. 1 (New York: G & C & H Carviii, 1830), p. 94.

  10.   10.

    Hosea Stout, quoted in On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, Juanita Brooks, ed., 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1964), p. 122.

  11.   11.

    Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr., Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1977), p. 271.