I always have a handful of journals going at any one time. There's my main chronological journal, where I record major life events along with insights, inspiration, life lessons, spiritual impressions and more. I also try to keep up with my 5-year question a day journal, which will wrap up at the end of March. I have an Evernote file, where I keep ongoing bulleted lists, one for each month, to record my daughter's milestones, phases, funny sayings and more. Then there are a few themed computer files, where other random memories go.
This year, I'm adding a new project to the list. It's the #52stories project sponsored by FamilySearch, whom I happen to write for. The idea is to write one story from your personal history every week for a year, based on a question or prompt. To make it easy for me (and for you), I wrote a total of 144 questions based on 12 monthly themes, so there are plenty of options to choose from each week.
You can download the full set of questions at the bottom of my "Define Your Dash" article, and I'll post January's list below. (Here's another version of the article, written with a stronger religious slant, but the downloads and questions are the same.) Or here's a direct link to the 12-page pdf.
The first question I answered in my new journal is the very first question on the list: What is your earliest memory of feeling proud of yourself? I didn't labor over my response; I just quickly poured out my thoughts in a few minutes. If I put too much pressure on myself to compose perfect sentences, write brilliant life-changing stories, and never misspell anything or cross out a word, I'll never stick with the project. I'm just going to do it, reminding myself that a memory recorded imperfectly is far better than a memory not recorded at all.
To keep this project simple and doable over the course of the year, I chose a small, 56-page journal, leaving me with just enough space to answer each question on a single-sided sheet of 5 x 8 notebook paper. Having this kind of boundary in place keeps me from spending too much time on each question. After all, this isn't my comprehensive life story. It's just a way to get into the habit of reflecting over my life and writing quickly and succinctly. In the end, I'm sure some of these stories will spark more in-depth memories that I may want to write about in another venue, such as another of my journals, an article for Family Search, or a story I upload to my profile on Family Tree (so it can be found by future generations of my family).
Here are a few additional tips:
1. Remember there are immediate personal benefits that come from journaling. This is not just a gift to future generations; it's a gift to yourself. Writing is a therapeutic act. It can give your life a sense of purpose and control. It can reveal hidden blessings and patterns. It can help you make sense of past events and current experiences. It puts you in the driver's seat of your life story—you get to decide what you write about and how you interpret and connect past events. Take this chance to own your story.
"In his book The Happiness Advantage, Harvard professor Shawn Achor cites research that shows how “explanatory style—how we choose to explain the nature of past events—has a crucial impact on our happiness and future success. People with an optimistic explanatory style interpret adversity as being local and temporary . . . while those with a pessimistic explanatory style see these events as more global and permanent. Their beliefs then directly affect their actions” ([New York: Crown Publishing, 2010], 187–88)."
2. Give your memory time to work. If you try to select a question and answer it in a single 15-minute session, you may find yourself drawing a blank. Read over all the questions at the beginning of the month, and read them again at the beginning of each week. Pick one (or a couple) and let your subconscious mind work on them for a few days, so by the time you sit down to write, you'll have something to say. When you tune your mind in to a particular memory or time period, you'll be surprised at what surfaces as you go about your daily life.
3. Go off script. Don't feel beholden to the questions provided for you in the 52 Stories project. One of the questions might spark a memory that's completely unrelated to the question itself. If another story is more inspiring to you, share THAT memory instead. Follow where your memories take you. And if you want to answer a November question in January, go ahead. This is your project, and you get to make the rules.
4. Let go of chronological pressure. The questions in this project are arranged by theme, not by date order. The stories you tell will be random, pulled from many different periods of your life. Embrace the random nature of the project. This is just a collection of stories, not your comprehensive life story. But the project has the potential to make you a better writer, get you in the habit of exploring your past, and even put you in the mindset to write your comprehensive life story.
5. Be creative with the form of your answers. You don't have to answer each question with a paragraph-style response. Some questions might be better answered with a bulleted list. For example, the question, "What do you consider your greatest academic achievement?" can either be answered with a thorough description of a specific paper you wrote, a difficult class you passed, or your graduation ceremony. Or it could be a list of all the achievements you can remember from throughout your school career.
6. Get family members involved. See if you can get siblings, parents, or grandparents to join you in the 52 Stories project. You could even use this opportunity to ask an older relative a question each week and record his or her answers with your smartphone or another voice recorder.
7. Follow Family Search on Instagram. Throughout 2017, Family Search will post a question every week to their Instagram account (some are from the 144 questions listed on the PDF downloads, some are new and different). Follow along to see how other people respond. Reading other people's memories can inspire memories of your own. And you might encounter a question you like even better than those on the monthly themed quizzes.
8. Find ALL the #52Stories downloads here. You can print a giant 3 ft x 4 ft. poster containing all 144 questions to hang on your wall (there are two different styles). You can print the Monthly Themed Quizzes on 12 sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper. Or you can just get inspired by them all online. It's up to you!