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Dear Diary

louisa_may_alcottby Dora

A few weeks ago, I was back east in Boston and New York, and had time to make pilgrimages to Orchard House in Concord, and Green Gables on Prince Edward Island. I say pilgrimages, because these places were the homes of women whose writings were more than a little autobiographical, that have shaped my own life.

Louis May Alcott is most famous for her books based on the March family. Like her heroine Jo, Louisa came from an impoverished but genteel family, with three sisters who participated in all manner of progressive learning experiences. Louisa worked outside the home, to help with the family finances, as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, and Civil War nurse before gaining success as a writer. Louisa grew up in a home where journaling was a family practice. The sisters would write in their journals, and their mother would read them and leave them comments and encouraging notes.

In 1845, Louisa and her mother corresponded in Louisa’s journal,

LMA: I told Mother that I liked to have her write in my book.

AMA: I often peep into your diary, hoping to see some record of more happy days. ‘Hope and keep busy,’ dear daughter, and in all perplexity or trouble come freely to your Mother

LMA: Dear Mother – You shall see more happy days, and I will come to you with my worries, for you are the best woman in the world.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s mother died when Maud was 21 months old, and Maud was raised by her stern, maternal grandparents. Like her heroine Anne, Maud gained top honors for academic achievement, and took her teacher’s degree in one year instead of two. Maud always dreamed of becoming an author, and faithfully kept her own journals and scrapbooks. However, sometimes it is difficult to verify what it true. One journal entry tells of a post-midnight romantic encounter with a man that she loved passionately. Maud ended the interlude with great inner conflict, before they went beyond the edge, and recorded that the only thing that kept her back was the fear of his later contempt. However, much later, her friend (and his sister) discounted the relationship saying that he was engaged at the time to another woman, and could not have been courting Maud.

Both women achieved fame in their lifetimes. Both women, knowing that their lives would be scrutinized for generations to come, systematically reviewed their journals and even burned pages to ensure their privacy. Louisa even added notes to hear early journal entries.

I was cross today, and cried when I went to bed. I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If only I kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the world. But I don’t, and so am very bad (Sept 24, 1843, age 10).

Poor little sinner! She says the same at fifty – LMA

I’m compelled by these women who used their pens to record, retell and shape their worlds. Throughout the ages, women’s words, thoughts and deeds have taken a back seat to the accomplishments of men. Their stories have not been lauded, but many survive in the form of letters and journal entries. Is is these women that I look to as a source of inspiration when it comes to keeping a journal. Other heroines include Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne Frank and Carol Lynn Pearson. Someday, I will travel to Rocky Ridge arm and the Secret Annex, to stand where their feet stood, and see if I can catch another whisper of their lives and times.

President Spencer W. Kimball was a firm proponent of journaling. Speaking to the youth of the church, he said,

Your private journal should record the way you face up to the challenges that beset you. Do not suppose life changes so much that your experiences will not be interesting to your posterity. Experiences of work, relations with people, and an awareness of the rightness and wrongness of actions will always be relevant. Your journal, like most others, will tell of problems as old as the world, and how you dealt with them.

As for myself? I’m a very inconsistent journal keeper. I love the promise and allure of blank books, and have many of all sizes and shapes on my shelf. There are many times when I have despaired over these half (or quarter) filled books. There are times when I find it impossible to condense the immensity of feeling into mere words on a page. Nevertheless, there are times when I have felt compelled to do so.

Sometimes I can get by with alternative journaling methods. I keep a small notebook and pen with me whenever I travel, to jot down notes and impressions. I keep copies of important correspondence (paper and email) to and from family and friends (both new and established). I have a variety of scrapbooks, and have compiled a few photo books from travels abroad. I’ve even blogged to keep distant family and friends updated on my doings.

Taking all this into account, however, there is nothing like a journal. In a private journal,I am free to express myself without reservations regarding who is going to read it. I may not get as much feedback and discussion as when blogging, but at least I don’t have to worry about how others will take what I write. I can shine light into the dark spaces of my character and work through my weaknesses without heckling from the crowd, sharing judiciously with the few that have gained my trust. It’s my story, and I’ve decided to own it.

What about you? Do you keep a journal? What has and hasn’t worked for you? Do you have any special experiences with journaling? If you have children, are you encouraging them to keep a record of their lives? What have you found most effective? Do you respect their privacy? Have you been able to read the journals of your ancestors? Are there writers whose journals you’ve found great satisfaction in reading?


Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

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9 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Dora. I love these little pieces of info about LMA and LMM, two writers who I likewise have loved.

    The only time I ever kept an infrequent journal was when I was 8 to 10 years old. For many years those entries were just embarrassing. Now I find them hilarious. Other than that, I see my blogging as a record of my spiritual and mental journey. I don’t talk much about the mundane details of life, but I do talk about ideas, and I figure in the end that will probably be most interesting to me and any descendants who are interested.

  2. kew says:

    I am incredibly lucky that one of my journaling periods coicided with when I met and started dating my husband. So, I have the entries for our first date, for wondering if he would be the type for me to marry, for our discussions of marriage. I LOVE having that recorded. I stopped writing a couple months later.

    My current journal has less than 20 pages written in the last two years. I did promise myself that I wasn’t going to give up on this beautiful book though. I should write tomorrow. It is so cathartic. I think. I’m not entirely certain what cathartic means, but it seems like the right word. 🙂

  3. Carol says:

    I kept a journal until my life’s trials became too difficult to record. Now my blog is my journal in a sense. I have endured trials that I thought were too severe to endure and hope that a few of the things I’ve learned can help others.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    Dora, intriguing questions! You make such an important point–it does seem that we learn best about women’s history by reading their journals. I love how Laurel Thatcher Ulrich demonstrated that in A Midwife’s Tale.

    I’ve been trying to learn about my female ancestors, and I’ve been sad to see that none of their journals (if they kept them) have survived. I’m an infrequent journal writer and have about 5 or 6 journals started. I like to pretend that my family blog makes up for my infrequent entries, but really, that blog is so sanitized. It records our meager family accomplishments and never really mentions our struggles. I suppose it’s better than nothing, though.

  5. Alisa says:

    I loved this post, Dora. Thank you for bringing me the writings of these authors who I love.

    I have a lot of conflict when writing my journal, mostly around angst of my undefined audience. For some reason, I can’t get myself to write to my future self as my journal’s audience. Likewise, if this journal is meant for my children or grandchildren to read, I would write differently. If I had a relationship like LMA and her mom, while I might not confess everything in my journal, at least I would have a definite audience I’m writing to. Until I can figure out how I imagine my journal being used, or who will read it, or who I would want to read it, I seem hopelessly stuck.

  6. stacer says:

    I haven’t kept a paper journal since starting my private LJ in 2005. It has the option of private and friends-only posts, so I still journal there as I did on paper, but I can type much, much faster than I can write, so I actually write the things that I feel before forgetting them.

    There is a service that lets you format and print your journal for a relatively modest price, but I haven’t done it yet. I mean to every year, to have a chronical of each year to add to the volumes on my shelf, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. Every time I think of it, I don’t have any money. But that’s the goal. And I have at least an entry a week from the last four years, usually 2-3 a week, which is more than I usually achieved in the 20-some years of journaling before that in blank books. (I started when I was 8.)

    I like getting the comments of close friends on my journals–I usually write my journals as if I’m writing to a close friend or relative anyway, and I often use my journal for cathartic release of something that’s bothering me, so to then be able to talk about it is helpful. If I don’t want anyone to really know about it, though–say, perhaps, my thoughts on something I’m reading in the scriptures affecting something terribly personal to me, or to record a blessing I was just given–I just mark it completely private, but then I can tag it “personal” or “blessings” and have a much easier, searchable way of finding those thoughts again. I can’t tell you how long it takes me to find similar records in my paper journals–it takes afternoons, sometimes.

  7. Vajra says:

    The personal is the political.

  8. Kelly Ann says:

    Someday I too may make the pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island … Both LMM and LMA inspired me as well and I always love learning about their lives. I wish I would journal but sometimes I am afraid of recording my thoughts. Instead I blog, save copies of letters, and am content with the audience driven content. As a kid and college student I kept a journal infrequently. The only time I was consistent was as a missionary. Maybe with time I’ll get better. For now, one of my personal goals is to record some of the stories that haven’t been recorded. I don’t have kids but I want my neice and nephew to know that their crazy liberal Aunt wasn’t that crazy or that liberal … just her own self!

  9. X2 Dora says:

    Just watched, “Freedom Writers,” for a class assignment. Powerful. From the foundation website http://www.freedomwritersfoundation.org/site/c.kqIXL2PFJtH/b.2286935/k.92DC/A_Teachers_Vision.htm
    “As sophomores, my students were inspired to write letters to Miep Gies, the courageous woman who hid Anne Frank, and Zlata Filipovic, the teenage author who penned Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. When Miep Gies told my students to make sure that “Anne’s death is not in vain,” they understood her message that writing and storytelling have the power to change the world. Following in the footsteps of extraordinary teenagers like Anne and Zlata, my students used their own diaries to share their experiences of loss, hardship, and discrimination.”

    Gruwell goes on to describe how students found their voices through journaling, and as they struggled to articulate the myriad trials in their lives, they discovered a will to speak out against discrimination and oppression. Almost like narrative therapy through journaling.

    The whole history reminded me, in no small way, of Toni Hardy. Mrs. Hardy was an English teacher at my highschool, who led the Peer Counselor program that I was involved in. As part of our homework, we were required to keep journals. If we wanted, she would read and comment. How precious those journals are to me now. How she took time to read them, to comment in them, to understand me, to encourage me to grow.

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