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!