Leaving a Legacy, One Sentence at a Time


Photo courtesy of Abizern via Flickr.

I was reading a blog post by author Greg McKeown the other day, and he made a comment that, although it was really aimed at making readers more productive and better leaders, really spoke to me as a personal historian.

He noted that after both his grandfathers died, one man’s descendants had literally no correspondence or written record of the gentleman’s existence. The other side of the family, on the other hand, had a series of journals that the other grandpa had written a brief note in every day for nearly 50 years.
McKeown concludes that this has profound import for those of us alive today.

“What I am saying is that if we want to leave a legacy to those who come after us, one powerful way to do it is to write a journal. David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian, has said if you want to become the voice of your generation, write a journal entry every day and then gift it to your local university library at the end of your life. Voice of your generation or not, I believe that a journal is one of the most precious gifts you can give to those you leave behind.”

Journaling is a gift to the future – our future, our family’s future, our community’s future. Some entries may seem so embarrassing or so inflammatory when you write them that they may seem at best to be fit to fuel the fire in your hearth. But 10, 25, or 50 years from now, they may reveal something interesting about you, your life’s story, or the times you lived in.

The other upside to keeping a journal is that if you decide to write your memoirs, you’ll have a ready-made source of raw materials for your book!

How to start a journal that leaves a legacy

1. Buy a notebook you love. I’ve become a connoisseur of notebooks that I use for journals. I prefer hard-bound volumes with lined pages and covers that include fun quotes, reproductions of maps, and/or images of letters on them. If you enjoy the aesthetics of your notebook, it provides motivation to crack it open and use it. At the very least, choose a notebook that fits how and where you tend to journal – the last thing you want to be doing is fighting the very object you’re making time in which to write.

2. Keep it simple. If you’re moved on occasion to write a 3-page entry in your journal, great. But don’t make it a daily expectation.

A great goal for getting in the habit of recording daily reflections is to write a single sentence in your journal each day. Quinn McDonald, who has led workshops on keeping a one-sentence journal, explains some of its strengths:

You actually write every day if you only have to write one sentence. You think the sentence over carefully, choose the right words and work hard to get the emotions right. That’s the heart of good writing. So now you are writing every day And enjoying it. These are entries you go back to and re-read with amazement.

An alternative to this approach is to pick a daily discipline, such as this appreciative living exercise by Jackie Kelm, and recording your observations in relation to that in your notebook regularly. This can reduce self-consciousness, while still preserving what’s topmost in your life at the moment.

3. If you prefer to journal electronically, output to analog periodically. You never know what’s going to happen to today’s popular digital formats – from MP3 files to phone apps that store your input. I love several of my apps that let me record topic-specific insights, but I’ve started exporting them to print when that’s possible. With audio and video diaries, you might even consider getting a transcript made.

4. Experiment with timing and other cues until you’ve established your writing habit. Some habits are easier than others to establish, although much of that depends on your personality, your level of motivation, and the environment you can set to reinforce your positive habit of journaling. Author Charles Duhigg advocates focusing on setting up cues for you to engage in your habit, providing a reward to reinforce the habit and then letting the routine you’ve established help make the habit “stick.” Eventually, he notes, you have created a powerful habit if the intrinsic feeling of accomplishing the habit task eventually outweighs the external reward you use to get yourself started.

Tess Marshall, guest blogging on the Zen Habits site, says that using peer pressure in a positive way can help you stick with an emerging positive habit like journaling:

It’s easy to give up without accountability and support … Announce your new habit on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog. Ask friends and family for support. Tell them you want to be held accountable. If you miss a day, feel discouraged, or get stuck, report it so your friends can cheer you on and encourage you.

5. Decide how you want your journals preserved. The paradox of writing a journal to preserve your thoughts and memories is this – you can become so wrapped up in capturing what’s happening (and your interpretation of it) in the moment, that you either lose your notebook later because you didn’t think about how/where to store it after you’d filled it, or the elements of time, temperature and storage conditions conspire to ruin your journal and erase its value to you or future generations.

Luckily, a little bit of forethought goes a long way in the preservation department, freeing most of your energy to actually write down your experiences. Writer’s Digest recommends looking for journals and other paper products that are acid-free, and avoiding the use of paper clips, rubber bands and self-adhesive notes, as they can cause permanent damage to your pages. Both Writer’s Digest and the Jewish Women’s Archive advise the use of archival-quality boxes to store finished journals, and storing your archived journals in a cool and dry place with stable temperature and humidity. Another helpful tip is to label your journals with starting/ending dates and other pertinent information (location, age, education, etc.) – anything that will help future-you or those who come after you orient themselves to this journal’s place in your life story.

If you’re able to put in a small amount of effort now, starting the journal/diary habit can reward you with a treasure trove of memories, observations and descriptions — things that may turn out to be pure gold if you mine them for your memoir or personal history project years down the road. And beyond that, journaling is good for you, so enjoy some physical and mental benefits in meantime!


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