Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
Quoted by an Angel
[p.62] Yes, Brother Trebek, that would be, “What TV series would Spencer W. Kimball have produced?”
Although Mormons have always been a journal-keeping people, President Kimball was the one who made it an article of faith. Here are some of his better known statements on keeping a journal (taken from The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, pp. 350-51): “Keep an honest, interesting journal.” “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 should contain your true self rather than a picture of you when you are ‘made up’ for a public performance.” “Get a notebook, my young folks, a journal that will last through all time, and maybe the angels may quote from it for eternity.” [p.63]
Brothers Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert have suggested that personal journals are an important literary genre. They note: “At their best, when directed and informed by the immediate impress of the events themselves, the journals … of early Mormondom comprise one of the most distinctive and remarkable bodies of literature to come from the first hundred years of the church” (A Believing People, p. 83).
I’ve tried to follow President Kimball’s advice many times, in fact. I’ve started several journals, but rarely finished them, as if that were the point. I usually abandon them after filling only twenty to thirty pages. The authors of the small plates of Nephi would’ve berated me for wasting so much valuable writing room. But the natural man flits to the latest new journal that catches his eye. I judge these books by their covers. Lately I have had my eye on a leather-bound journal I saw in a Levenger catalogue, guaranteed to last over a lifetime. I guess my situation is analogous to the way many people read the Book of Mormon: they read 1 Nephi about twenty to thirty times without reading the rest. In fact, the only journal in which I wrote extensively, filling nearly the entire volume, was my mission journal; but a clear Book of Mormon pattern is evident in that volume as well. The beginning is loaded with details, sermons, poems, and adventures. In the mid-[p.64]dle of the journal, after I’m no longer green (by missionary standards at least), there is an extended period of Bible-bashing and anti-Mormon skirmishes, just like the wars in the middle of the Book of Mormon. And then comes the summary narrative portions at the end of my mission journal in which 200 days, rather than years, pass with only a few words (“and I did tract exceedingly”), like in 4 Nephi.
But back to President Kimball’s advice. I like his suggestion to buy “a journal that will last through all time.” Permanence. The ability to speak to the ages, or at least to our descendants. That’s what writers crave, and let’s face it, a journal is the most obvious avenue to achieve that goal, since only a few authors from each century make it into a Norton’s anthology or the Penguin Books pantheon. And spending some money on a decent journal and a fancy pen is an affordable, sensuous luxury and gives the exercise of writing an aristocratic flair that’s rarely achieved while sitting in front of the computer with a goofy screen saver that keeps interrupting you.
Many authors keep a “writer’s journal,” but that practice reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s obnoxious attempts to view every incident of her life as a possible story idea that must be immediately written down, even if you have to ask someone to repeat something stupid [p.65] they said so that you can capture it in all its banality. I, too, kept a writer’s journal for a while. It’s full of complaints about rejection letters and how I hated the fact that Michael Fillerup is the only guy in Mormondom who seems to get short stories published any more. (I have to admit the reason for that might be because he’s good.) I might as well have filled up my fountain pen with bile.
My favorite suggestion by President Kimball is that angels might some day quote from our journals. I’m not expressing a lack of faith, but I’m not certain how an angel might quote some of my own journals, except for some unintentional comedy relief, like watching Plan 10 from Outer Space on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Some Mormons think you probably won’t even need your journal in the next life since angels will have video-taped our lives anyhow and will play them back for everyone to see on Judgment Day. It will be one long movie marathon. My luck will be that some sarcastic angels will be wise-cracking, hanging out in the front row of the celestial theater when my life flickers across the screen. If you doubt whether angels can be sarcastic, just listen to the angel who visits Gideon (Jdgs. 6:11-12), cowardly threshing his wheat while hiding behind his winepress rather than out in the open where the Midianites could see him (see Mary Ellen Chase’s [p.66] discussion of Gideon in The Bible and the Common Reader): “And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him, and said unto him, The LORD is with thee, thou mighty man of valour.”
“Mighty man of valour?” Certainly, you say, the angel merely recognized Gideon’s latent courage and, having recently read something like I’m Okay, You’re Okay, assisted Gideon in seeing his potential. I, for one, remain convinced angels can be wicked in only one sense: their sense of humor. So you better watch what you write in your journal.