Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles on family history. Click here for the first article, here for the second, and here for the third.

Most of us feel that our lives are relatively simple, uninteresting, mundane. “Why would anyone want to read about me?” we say. But oh, what I wouldn’t give for a few pages written by either of my grandmothers or grandfathers; I want so much to know them, and I have almost nothing to go by.  

Recently I listened to a talk given by George Durrant and produced by Covenant Communications one of the years I worked there. He inspired and uplifted and motivated me to get back to writing my personal history. I called him and asked permission to quote from that talk and share it with you. Gracious, as always, he said he’d be honored.

His talk started with a reminder that even simple folk have interesting histories. He said:

Do you remember seeing a movie called Camelot? There was something in that movie about people such as me. It was a song which went like this: “what do the simple folk do?” Now that’s where I fit into the story. If I had lived in King Arthur’s day, I would have been one of those simple folk that King Arthur wondered about when he sang that song.

I can see myself as one of the simple peasants who lived three miles north of the Camelot city limits. King Arthur, riding on a white horse and accompanied by several knights, is passing by my thatched cottage. He passes and looks over at me. I’m playing basketball with my children on a court that I had smoothed out near my small garden. My children are laughing and shouting, “Daddy, Daddy!”

King Arthur reins in his horse, pauses quite awhile, and watches. The knights say, “Let’s go, King.”

He replies, “Just a second or two.” And then slowly he rides away to make some more history.

But in his heart as he moves silently toward his castle, he remembers me, and I think he would say to his knights, “Who was that man?”

They’d say, “Who cares?”

He’d reply, “Those children seemed to care.”

And do you know what? I think the king would be jealous of me.

Yes, I, like many of you, am among the simple folk who could be envied by a king but whose life appears at first glance and even second glance to be rather routine… We simple folk may not have found our way into the public limelight, but we were always thinking and feeling and hoping and dreaming. And those things and our struggles and our private victories, even though small, make our life story one of captivating interest to all those who love us and especially to our families.

What Have You Written Down?

What records do we have that we might ask God to preserve for our loved ones to read? Have we written our testimonies on paper? When was the last time we wrote a heartfelt letter of love and concern to a loved one? Are we keeping a personal journal? Have we written our own personal history? What records would you like God to preserve for your posterity to read?

Journals as Tools

I received an e-mail from one reader concerned that her journal was full of trivial things that no one would want to read – and wondering what we should be writing in our journals and what should be taken from journals into our personal and family history. I attended a class on that very subject and received such wonderful guidelines. I don’t know who to give credit to – I can’t remember for the life of me who the teacher was, but I gleaned the following information from the handout from that class.

Guidelines for Writing in Your Journal

A journal should contain daily or weekly entries of current meaningful personal experiences. It could include:

  • Goals, hopes, and aspirations
  • Work experiences
  • Problems and how they were resolved
  • Joys and sorrows with family members
  • Relationships with others
  • Deepest thoughts
  • Faith-promoting experiences
  • Significant family events
  • Triumph over adversity
  • Personal testimony
  • Counsel for future generations who might read your journal

Now, I keep another kind of journal as well – I call it my therapy writing. I don’t write it to be read by anyone else – in fact, sometimes I write a line, write the next line over it and when the page is full I tear it out of the notebook, crumple the page and throw it in the trash. I have no desire to preserve my anger and hurt and doubt and fear for future generations, but writing is the best way to get it out. And writing about my dilemmas often brings me new insights and sometimes even personal revelation that I might want to record in my real journal.

So you might want to keep two kinds of journals like I do. Therapy writing I try to do almost daily, but I write in my real journal weekly. That keeps me from recording too much detail and too many trivialities; when I look back at a whole week’s events, I have just enough distance to pick out what is meaningful. If I go more than a week I forget important things and get my days all mixed up in my head. So weekly works for me.

Mining the Gold from Our Journals

From our journals we can later mine golden stories and thoughts for our personal histories. Of course, a personal history can be written strictly from recall.  But if your recall is as cloudy as mine, you will be grateful for any poignant details you wrote at the time.

I am in the mining stage. I am reading my journals for the first time – and haven’t gotten very far in the process. But what a delight to come across details I had forgotten – even if it was dead grasshoppers in little boy’s pockets or baby teeth marks in the cheese.

My gratitude for life increases as I read my journal entries. Sometimes the entries were far apart – for instance when the demands of life with several tiny children left little time for writing. But I’m so grateful that I wrote anything at all. Not only will my personal history be richer, but I’m gleaning stories and quotes about each child to add their early histories. The memories I have of them before they remember, plus the memories my journal entries bring back, will someday be precious to them.

The best thing I’m finding in my journals is faith. Every word I read about my faith-promoting experiences of years ago fans the fires of my current faith. We all need huge bonfires of faith right now to protect us from the wolves of the world. What better thing could I do for my posterity than record and preserve these words of faith!

Writing a Personal History Brings Self-Understanding

George Durrant recorded more reasons to work on your personal history. He said,

You can gain self-understanding by writing a personal history. My life, as yours, is like a long series of experiences stacked one on top of another.

Each experience, great or seemingly small, is like a number that is part of an almost never-ending series of numbers in an addition problem in mathematics – experiences that can be added up, the sum total of which is not just a number. Instead, it is you – wonderful, unique, interesting you.

It doesn’t matter if others have found you – and in finding you then have come to love you. The great discovery comes when you find yourself and can say: “I have found myself. I’m glad I’m me. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. I’m glad my life has been mine – with all its joys and sorrow, defeats and victories. I’m glad I’m me.”

Writing a Personal History Brings Gratitude

Brother Durrant also tells us that writing a personal history can bring a sense of gratitude. He tells of his confusion about a major in college; he liked art, but was afraid to pursue it. He finally took a painting class. When his first painting was critiqued by the class several negative comments were made, but one girl said, “I like the way George did the sky.”

That one validation gave him something to hang onto – the encouragement he needed to become an artist. He said,

I relate this story for a reason: first because it was one of those landmark experiences in my life, and second because it offers a real key to writing a personal history.

As you look at your life, always look for the sky. Look for the clear, blue, gorgeous, glorious things that have happened. And that doesn’t mean you leave out the heartaches and the heartbreaks. But somehow there’s a sky in every picture. Find it and describe it. That’s what makes a personal history live – how you felt, how you struggled, how you won, how you endured.

And when you describe these things, gratitude will fill your whole soul, and grateful people always have been and always will be happy people. Writing a personal history can attract gratitude as a magnet attracts metal.

Writing a personal history can, if you approach it positively, give you such a feeling – not that life has always been rosy or free from pain, misery, sorrow, and heartbreak. But amidst all that, there have been the tender, heartfelt experiences, relationships, and insights that make each one who considers his total life experiences want to cry out: “Why me? Why has so much that is so tender and kind and good come into my life?”

Your Personal History Becomes Part of Your Family History

Brother Durrant says,

With the passage of time, a personal history becomes a part of a body of recorded information which becomes the family history. When we read the histories of those who make up our family tree or our pedigree, we once again receive the blessing of self-understanding.

A birth certificate proves that you were born. A personal history proves that you lived – you really lived. A pedigree chart proves your ancestors were born. A family history proves that they lived and because of them you can live.

President Ezra Taft Benson said, “We call upon you to pursue vigorously the gathering and writing of personal and family histories. In so many instances, you alone have within you the history, the memory of loved ones,  the dates and events. In some situation you are the family history. In few ways will your heritage be better preserved than by collecting and writing your histories (Ensign, Nov. 1989).

Back to Brother Durrant:

One day recently while I shaved, I softly said to the reflection in the mirror: “That face is not original with me. It was not shaped by my victories or defeats or joys or sorrows alone. That face was born before I ever drew a breath. That classic nose is far more prominent than I am. It began with my great-grandfather, or was it his father or his? My brown eyes were colored by my grandmother, or her mother or hers. My height came from my mother and her tall father and his.

“Yes,” I said to myself, “there I am in the mirror, but I am not really just me. I am made up of my own personal and peculiar blend of an ancestral reservoir – a little bit of him and a touch of her and sprinkling of him and quite a dose of her, all of whom lived on, two, and even twenty generations ago. Did my ancestors ever, in a moment of vision, see my reflection in their mirror as I, in a moment of memory, can see their in mine? So, my dear ancestors, here I sit looking into the reflections of the past. Now that I know you, for the first time I know myself.”

Brother Durrant looks ahead, thinking of his grandson reading his life stories to his great-grandchildren and saying, “We’ve got a great family, kids. We’ve got a great heritage. I want each of you to keep writing down what’s happened to you. Put it in a book so that we can keep our family heritage alive because it’s one of the most important things we have.”

Now Is the Time

He concludes,

The great histories have been written. It’s now time to write the histories of the heart. The histories of the simple folk. Histories that have occurred, not on the battlefront or in Parliament, but histories that have taken place within the walls of our own homes. Histories which would make kings say, “I wish I could have lived that way.” These histories form a seedbed in which all other histories grow.

There is only one person in all the world who can write your personal history, and that person is you. If you don’t write your history, it might be written by someone else. Then it will be a history, but it sure won’t be personal.
And if it isn’t personal, much of its impact will be lost.

Money could never buy such a sacred possession as the recorded influence of the Lord in your life. Nothing else you could give your grandchildren could be half so important as your testimony written as only you can write it.

President Spencer W. Kimball said, “People often use the excuse that their lives are uneventful and nobody would be interested in what they have done. But I promise you that if you will keep your journals and records they will be a source of great inspiration to your families, to your children, your grandchildren, and others, on through the generations. (Ensign, Nov. 1978).