Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Historic Value of Journals

Lewis and Clark's journals

By Marilyn Turk

Many years ago after the birth of my first child, I desperately wanted to stay home with him instead of returning to my job with a Fortune 500 company. My dream was to someday become a writer, and being a loyal reader of Guideposts Magazine, I hoped my dream would be realized there.

Yes, I was naive about the real-life possibility of supporting myself as a writer as soon as I quit my day job. But one of the Guideposts writers, Marion Bond West, lived relatively close to me, so I called her and asked her how to get started writing for Guideposts. I’m sure Marion thought I was the most naive person she had ever talked to, but she very gracious and explained to me the improbability of my making the transition instantly. I was terribly disillusioned, but then she suggested I keep a journal. I remembered her wise advice that I should keep my day job for the time-being, but begin writing a journal as a starting point for my writing career. So I did, feeling like I’d taken the first step in my writing career.

Thirty years later those journals sit on a shelf in my office, and their content may never see the light of day, but they’re valuable, and this is why. They reveal to me the feelings, the angst, the worries I had as a young mother and wife. I recently read that someone who had kept journals all her life decided to burn them because she didn’t want her children to read her travails. However, for the time being, I don’t want to get rid of mine because they provide real emotions that I can put into the characters in my books.

As a writer of historical novels, I’m so thankful for those who kept journals in the past because they provide such a window into the world they lived in. I’ll never forget listening to some audio diaries of pioneer women on the wagon trains going west. What hardship they endured! Now, I have a clear picture in my mind of what it was like for a woman in those conditions.

For most historic eras, there's been at least one journal keeper whose writing we’ve used to understand the past. For my World War II novels, I’ve found wonderful journals by men and women during those years telling how their life was affected and what they did during the war. What a wealth of information they are.

Many famous people kept journals. For example, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) carried a pocket notebook at all times, noting everything from how to operate a riverboat to the politics of his time. In his lifetime, he filled over fifty notebooks with his observations. His leather-bound notebooks were custom-made from his own design. Each page had a tab, and as each page was used, he tore off the tab, making it easy for him to find his place.

Beethoven with journal
Others who kept journals were Albert Einstein, Madame Curie, Thomas Edison, Lewis and Clark, George S. Patton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Ernest Hemingway, Isaac Newton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Leonardo Da Vinci, to name a few.  
George S. Patton's journal

Wasn’t Dr. Luke the physician a journaler? His reports as he accompanied the apostle Paul on his missionary journeys have provided us with the book of Luke and Acts in the New Testament.

How I wish my grandparents had left journals. I’d love to know more about their lives, especially since I only knew them when they were elderly. 

One thing I’ve come to realize is that what we may see as commonplace in our lives today maybe be unique and different to future generations. They may regard what was normal to us as interesting as it is for us to read pioneer diaries now.

Have you ever kept a journal?
Leonardo Da Vinci's journal


  1. It's very interesting to read about who has kept a journal in the past. Great post, Marilyn! I have kept a journal on and off. When I do, it usually centers on my relationship with the Lord--my struggles and victories. Sometimes devotional articles have come out of those journal entries.

    1. Hi Kathleen. Yes, these days my journals are prayer journals. I use them in my daily devotions.

  2. I love reading journals. I like to learn about family history and events occurring at different times. :-)

  3. Great posts on journals. I've kept a journal in the past, but mainly devotional things now. Thank you for sharing.k

  4. I, too, have kept devotional journals. I agree that the journals from the past are priceless.

  5. Just the other day I spoke with two sisters who had found and read a journal kept by their mother when she was a young bride. It opened their hearts to her in an unexpected way, and today they cherish that journal. They saw their mother as more than their mother - as a woman who struggled and overcame and experienced many of the same emotional challenges they have.