Why Your Thoughts Are Worth Preserving
by Marvin Payne

Whether an audio recording or scribble in a notepad, your journal is worth keeping.

In my last column, I called to repentance several of you who have imagined your journals wouldn’t be worth reading and preserving. There is always some value and usefulness in your work. Take the story Marilee told me about how she was one day, many years ago in the first year of her very happy marriage, listening to an album of mine, called The Planemaker, when suddenly her husband’s voice whispered up off the tape, “and here is Marilee snoring…” and the rest of the cassette was filled with those very much more personal expressions. This is true love. Imagine how eager he would have been to preserve some record of her speaking actual words! You see, you can’t go out and buy a tape of Marilee snoring, but you can always drop by your local Deseret Industries and find a Marvin Payne album.

A few months ago, shopping for props for a show my wife Laurie was directing and I was designing, we were in the American Fork D.I. and I said to her, “I’ll bet you ten bucks I can go over to that LP rack and find an album of mine.” She took me up on it, and a few minutes later I returned with two titles of my own, and one other I’d played guitar on. I didn’t take the money. But Neil Diamond could have made a bundle on a similar bet. There were eight or nine dusty copies of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” I have him beat. Once in the Provo D.I,. I found two cases of an album of mine called “Grasshopper,” still in shrink-wrap. (A case is 25 LPs.) Had it been called “Crickets,” and had it been deposited in the American Fork store, a miracle may have ensued. If seagulls can eat through shrink-wrap.

Actual True Tip: Recording memories on tape is allowed. At some point, they ought to betranscribed though, because tape dies. You can edit them at that point, too, if you want. A number of people have asked (okay, “one” is a number: Debi asked) “How do I become comfortable with my own musings? I sit down with my journal and all of my favorite gel pens and immediately become conscious of what I “should” write or what would be “appropriate” to write. I need to “let my hair down” and don’t know how to do that –any ideas?? First of all, you have to be careful about “letting your hair down” because you may not be able to get it back up again. I know.

But just talking your life through, even with an audience of one or two, might feel more natural and right-brained than writing. That’s how we got from my mother the story of “The Drunk and the Sled,” and “The Suitor and the Scrubwater.”

Another Actual Tip: My dad once sat down to write a history of his life year by year. In the entry for his second year, spent in the Mormon colonies in Mexico, he wrote that, faced with the challenge of learning two languages at once, he gave up on Spanish in favor of English, recognizing that he had to converse with his parents before ever having to engage his countrymen in conversation. In his fifth year he saw Haley’s comet. He was pretty excited. Try the year-by-year method.

You might think anybody can go to the mass media and read all about Haley’s comet, or the more recent strange ascension of George W. Bush and beatification of LaVell Edwards, but no one but you will write how you felt about any of these events. You can indeed write about big historical things, not only because your reportage may actually be more true and less “spun” than the official versions, but because of the invaluable record of your response to those events. Which brings me to Yet Another Actual Tip (back to Debi’s question): A very straightforward technique is simply to write what happened and then how you felt about it.

Bam, bam, one two. My great-great grandfather, John Brown, was one of Brigham Young’s scouts in the vanguard party of pioneers in 1847. He wrote wonderful journals that have been a rich source for historians as well as a treasure to his family. The entry that most “turned my heart to the fathers” followed this “I did, I felt” pattern. He wrote about boldly preaching to the priesthood holders under his leadership, calling them to repentance and being filled with the Spirit. He outlined the subjects and problems he addressed and the sweeping effect of his preaching, creating in my mind a picture of power and eloquent solemnity. Then he wrote, simply, “I felt like a little child. I melted. I knew the feeling. And if I hadn’t known it, I would very much have wanted to know it.

(The fact is, I have come to know John Brown fairly well, as James Arrington, Steven Kapp Perry, and I made him into the protagonist for our big fat musical drama “The Trail of Dreams.” So far, I’ve played him a hundred and fourteen times in that piece, and shown up as John Brown for a number of less formal portrayals [“Fifty or so” is a number]. And my one-month-old son is named for him. So write a journal. You may get a musical written around you, and people named after you.)

Before we leave Debi’s question, let’s remember Huck Finn, who discovered that “you can’t pray a lie.” For me, the absolute best effect of prayer has been to force me regularly into moments of being honest. Writing in a journal can also do that for us, if we refuse to write a lie. But you have to be careful. About a year ago I was preparing to undergo open heart surgery, not an emergency deal, just a simple three-stitch repair, but it required major excavation to get there. Since there was a remote possiblity of not surviving it, I drew up a little informal will (backstage at South Pacific, mentioned a couple of columns ago). In it I assigned the care of my journals to my oldest son, with the instruction that if they were ever to be published, even in a limited way, he should use compassion and good judgement with regard to the feelings of people who are mentioned there. I didn’t really balk at the prospect of presenting myself as riddled with foibles and failures, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone else. I survived, so I don’t know what he would have done. But what I have hoped, in looking back on those passages, is that I wrote about other people in a balanced way, setting their stories of struggle in the same context of goodness and growth in which I hoped mine would be seen. Real life is messy. What we’re writing about is real life. Whenever I’ve caught myself in the middle of writing an entry that was so “correlated” as to feel like a lie, I’ve scratched it out and started over. But I have also scratched out stuff that, after the passion of writing, felt dangerous, hurtful, or useless.

John Brown kept handy pocket-sized journals of his adventures, all in pencil. In old age, he copied them all into one big book. Most of his editing was historical and factual, but such a process might also allow for the overlay of that “growth” context. Some years ago, I did this with my much shorter missionary journal. I think just about any story that ends with repentance and grace is a good story. A reminder: hope is also “the truth” and ideals are also “the truth.” We can write that truth, too.

Final Actual Tip, Purely Practical But Fun: A number of you (“four” and “five” are both numbers) are still stalled at that “How do I get started” place. Try this. Write a document called “My Life According To ____________________(fill in the blank).” It could be “houses in which I’ve lived.” “Church jobs I’ve done.” “Cars Ive driven.” “Pets I’ve chased around.” “Degrees of hair loss.” You will find bundles of memories hanging from every item on your list. You will quite suddenly be writing good history and enjoying it. I had a blast writing “My Life According To The Acquisition And Disposition Of Various Fretted Instruments.” There have been (hold on while I check…) thirty-one guitars, four banjos, three bass guitars, and three ukes, so the document is several pages long, because each instrument connects with specific places, songs, tours, people, and performances. And each of those places, songs, tours, people, and performances is a window into more and more living, more and more feeling, more and more sharing. And though I keep telling myself I’m done with all that horse-trading (my unbreakable pattern of “buy high, sell low” is killing me), that document is often expanded.

Next time: How a journal can be your key to romance!

Send your thoughts to [email protected].


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