Monday, January 16, 2012

What makes a missionary journal a good historical source.

In my chosen hobby, good sources are a valuable treasure. In that regard I have been fortunate. While researching Tennessee LDS history, I have run across several really good missionary journals. But I have also run across several abysmal ones. They have been so bad, that I have reflected on my missionary journal and just how much better I could have made it. I wish I had been given some examples of what good journal writing was before I ever started my mission. I can't go back and do it over. Anything I write today would be a recollection, not a journal. It isn't the same.

If I can't change my own, then perhaps I can improve the quality of the missionary journals being written today. How, you may ask? It isn't as hard as you might think. Today's missionaries may indeed have some really good writing skills. Yes, I'm an optimist. But any one of them could improve the historical value of their journal just by my placing a bug in their ear of what an amateur historian is looking for.

Every few months we invite the missionaries over for a visit. We live pretty far from the center of the ward, and from their apartment, so it usually ends up being about three times a year. Once they are in my home I try to expose them to some good examples of record keeping. Since most historical records are not on the missionary reading list, I usually start with a photo album, specifically my mission album. Every missionary I have met has been interested in looking through missionary photo albums. They might just be being polite, but it could also be interested in missionary stuff because they're missionaries.

Eventually, the discussion gets around to stories and myths the missionaries have heard in the course of their work. Missionaries are great about passing along faith promoting rumors, and I encourage it. But I am careful to add the caveat that rumors are not necessarily true. I have plenty of examples of ones that are not true. That gives me the chance to describe a few missionary journals I have read and what makes them interesting.

Honestly, that is usually all it takes to get them thinking about their own journals. You can almost see the gears turning in their head as I describe why I like certain journals and not others. To cinch the deal, I go back to my personal experience. I tell them I wish I had read a few good missionary journals before my mission.

Here are some points to consider for good missionary journal writing. I've never bored a missionary with this list, nor do I think I ever will, but I might pass it along to some future missionaries.

1. Use full names, at least once. Or at least as full as you know. You may know who "David" is right now. But by the end of your mission you may have met several Davids and your grandchildren will definitely not know. One journalist wrote about "S. Reed" is one entry. Fortunately he used Brother Reed's full name later on, since his first name was one I would never have guessed, Sirenious.

2. Use clear dates. Don't go crazy, historians generally don't care if the baptism started at 1:03 pm, but references to tomorrow and Friday are meaningful only if I know what today is.

3. Describe your feelings about specific events. Being particularly in tune with the spirit has benefits. You may not recognize it at the time, but it may mean a whole lot more when you look at it retrospectively. Don't go on for pages. Be concise, and direct. A simple straightforward description is usually the most insightful.

4. Write about others. A journal isn't just about you, it is about the people you meet; your companions, and the people you you talk to, both members and non members. Some very good journals I have read describe not only the people but also the nature of their relationship too. Were they friends? Why or why not? You don't have to like every body, just but don't be mean. 

5. Create a sample of events, instead of recording every instance. I read one journal which recorded the time the writer woke up, what he ate for breakfast, which days he stoked the fire, etc, for 40 years. While some of that might be interesting to some, most will find it difficult to read. Instead, reserve that kind of detail for special events, or if you want to record it, do it for one day each month. If you do go that route, make it Sunday for one month, Wednesday the next, and so on. The sample, even if it is an ordinary day, becomes an event because it isn't overdone.

6. Providing a detailed description can work for places too. When I got to a new area on my mission. I carefully described my impressions of the apartment, the chapel, and the geography. Because I didn't get transferred to often, I didn't overwhelm my journal with detail, yet I made sure I got detailed at least 7 times in 2 years. Granted, I would learn more about the area after I was there a while, but I could always write more later if I wanted.

7. Spelling is important, but not that important. I have learned more about how to pronounce place names in Tennessee (and in one case a companion's name) from the misspellings than from anything else.

8. While I would love for every handwritten journal to be easily readable, messy writing is not unique to the 21st century. Some people will provide some really beautiful handwriting, but most missionaries are average at best. Don't worry, as long as it can be read, few historians will think less of you for poor penmanship.

9. Technology is making everything easier, so take advantage of it. If you don't write you journal in a searchable format, someone will have to convert it later. Why not skip a step? A collection of emails is just as good and a handwritten journal. True, there is something to be said for seeing a journal in writing, but if given a choice of a photocopy of a hand written journal, and a reliable typed and searchable original, I'd take the latter.

10. Most importantly, this is your journal. Write about what you think is important. If you don't care about when you get up, don't record it.

I have to add this last disclaimer. Not all journals must be shared with posterity. Some should be destroyed. But that is a discussion for another day.


Clark said...

Thanks for this. And I'm looking forward to the "some should be destroyed" continuation. I'm afraid much of my missionary journal writing falls into this category, as the positive thoughts were recorded in letters home (or to the mission president) and the journal served as a catharsis to record--and purge-- the negative.

BruceAllen said...

Some journals of well known missionaries to the Southern States you might think should have been destroyed.
B. H. Roberts struggled with what we would call an alcohol addiction. He was eventually sucessful in beating it, but on his mission, was sometimes not doing well at all.
J. Golden Kimball sufffered with depression on his mission similar to what I have seen in other missionaires.
John H. Gibbs complained about a difficult companion in his journal.
I have letters I wrote to my mission president each week, in addition to letters home and my journal. Like you, however, I would rather my letters served as a journal, rather than the journal I wrote.