Types of Narratives: Journals & Diaries

Here at The Family Yarn we encourage you to pursue Narrative Genealogy – recording in written form the unique story of your family so that future generations can read with interest about where they came from.

Narratives can take a number of forms, and throughout January, we’ll talk about some different types of narratives and how they can contribute to your family’s story. Last week’s discussion covered two forms of self-authored narratives: autobiography and memoir.

Someone told me once that the problem of life is that it is so daily. I think they just wanted to get through the mundane to experience the highs of adventure and major life events. How boring!

Daily is where life happens.

One of the elements of traditional genealogical research that turns people off is the dry focus on the big events: births, marriages, graduations, Census reports, deaths. The everyday occurrences, though, those are what gives color to a story and grows a thick crop of leaves on a family tree.

A daily journal or diary is technically a narrative, although the individual records of thoughts and/or activities are less likely to tell a cohesive story. Taking a broader scope and considering a month, year, or decade of entries, however, can reveal wonderful personal and family histories.

Diaries and journals, not unexpectedly, tend to be even more personal than memoirs, often even secretive. I usually consider daily records as less a final product for a Narrative Genealogy and more a collection of rich source material for a more organized narrative effort. That’s not to say that you couldn’t present an ancestor’s life story in the form of a diary - that can make for an engaging read!

Journals add color to the basic facts of a life. A birth certificate can tell us the date of a child’s entry into the world and his mother’s name, but imagine reading the personal diary of that mother as she chronicles her hopes, fears, and expectations leading up to and following the birth.

One advantage of diaries and journals is that their daily nature typically ensures that the information is recorded very soon after an event, minimizing the possibility for errors due to faded memory. Like other self-authored narratives, though, they also suffer from the potential for bias or one-sided reporting of events.

It’s a great idea to keep a journal of your own as it can offer future readers insight into your daily life. Imagine having a diary of your great-grandmother’s or a journal of your uncle’s farm operations during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Now imagine your grandchild’s child finding a diary of yours from 2015 and considering your record of life today just as fascinating.

Have you ever kept a journal or diary? Have you read an ancestor’s journal? What sort of information did you learn that you wouldn’t have found otherwise?

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