No matter who you are, writing is often an intimidating activity—even writing in your journal where no one can see what you write! Too often we don’t know where to start or what to include. Or maybe we’re afraid of making punctuation and grammatical errors and looking foolish to someone who might one day read it.
If this is you, rest assured that almost anything you put down on paper or type on a computer will be interesting in time, especially to the family members and loved ones who come after you. And you don’t have to be a great writer to leave behind great stories. In fact, early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—most of them untrained writers—left an astounding legacy of keeping journals and recording other memories for today’s Church members to read, enjoy, and learn from.
One such early Church member is Patience Loader, a woman from England who joined the Church in her 20s and then immigrated to Utah with her parents and siblings as part of the Martin handcart company in 1856. Written in her later years, Patience’s recorded memories of pulling a handcart through Nebraska and Wyoming, encountering snow and freezing weather, and eventually meeting up with rescue parties from the Salt Lake Valley reads like a best-selling novel. That may be because Patience used some of the same writing techniques that novelists use today, including concrete description, terse dialogue, and a focus on scene rather than summary.
Bring Your Writing to Life with Detail
For people interested in making their own memories stand out, Patience’s account is definitely worth reading. Take this passage, for example, about her attempt to wade through a river shortly before a snowstorm:
The water came up to our arm pits. Poor Mother was standing on the bank screaming. As we got near the bank I heard Mother say for God sake some of you men help my poor girls. Mother said she had been watching us and could see we was drifting down the stream. Several of the breathren came down the bank of the river and pulled our cart up for us and we got up the best we could. Mother was there to meet us. Her clothing was dry but ours was wett and cold and verey soon frozen. Mother took off one of her under skirts and put on one of us and her apron for another to keep the wett cloth from us for we had to travel several miles before we could camp. Here Mother took out from her Apron the bread and molaces Sister Ballen gave her for us. She broke in pieces and gave each some. This was a great treat to us and we was all hungary. It seemed to vie us new strength to travel on.
As you probably noticed, Patience was not a polished writer. Nearly every sentence contains a spelling or grammatical error. And what punctuation there is has mostly been added by historians and editors who helped publish her work. But the description contains so much energy and detail that you hardly notice any of the so-called mistakes—or if you do, they merely add to Patience’s unique style and writing voice. The same can be true for you, if you don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
The Power of an Image
One of Patience’s great talents as a writer is her ability to break down her memories into short, individual scenes. Scenes contain more imagery than summaries. They invite readers into the moment and allow them to feel the same emotions the writer felt. Consider Patience’s harrowing description of a search for firewood:
Now I must say after we got to camp we found we had to go along way to go for wood so my sister Maria and myself went with the breathren to get wood. We had to travel in the snow knee deep for nearly a mile to the ceders. We found nothing but green ceder as all the dry wood on the grownd was coverd over with snow. I ask one of the breathren to cut me down a shoulder stick so he kindly gave us quite alarge heavy log. My sister took one end on her shoulder and I raised the other end on to my shoulder and started back to camp. We had not gone very far when we boath fell down with our load. The snow beign so deep made it very hard work for us to get back to camp with our load but after much hard work we got there. My Mother and sisters was anxiously awaiting our return for thay was boath hungrey and cold in the tent.
The image of the two sisters stumbling through the snow is heartbreaking. A summary of the experience would still be noteworthy, but it wouldn’t be as compelling—nor would it feel quite as much like a story. It might look something like this: “After the storms, firewood was scarce, and my sister and I often had to walk great distances through the snow to find it. The nights were very cold.”
It can be hard to write a scene, even when we are specifically trying to do so. We slip into summary without realizing it. Writing about things readers can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell can take you out of summary mode and put you back into writing a scene.
I will say we traveld on all day in the snow but the weather was fine and in the midle of the day the sun was quite warm. Some time in the afternoon a strange man appeard to me as we was resting as we got up the hill. He came and looked in my face. He sais is you Patience. I said yes. He said again I thought it was you. Travel on. There is help for you. You will come to a good place. There is plenty. With this he was gone. He disappeared. I looked but never saw whare he went. This seemed very strange to me. I took this as some one sent to encurage us and give us strength.
As this last excerpt demonstrates, incorporating dialogue into your memoir or journal writing can be the perfect way to make a scene more vivid and powerful for readers.
You don’t need to remember the quotation with 100 percent accuracy. A sentence or two is enough.
In this next passage, Patience recounts the morning when rescuers from Salt Lake first met up with the company. The man she mentions, Joseph A. Young, was Brigham Young’s son. Note the brief exchange of dialogue between Patience and her friend, Mary Ann Grenning, and then the one sentence, gut-wrenching line from Joseph Young asking where he can find the company’s captain.
What a deplorable condition we was in at that time. Seven hundred miles from Salt Lake and only nine days full rations. That morning the bugal sounded to call us together. The captain ask us if we was willing to come on four ounces of flour aday. All answered yes. We had already been reduced to half pound pr day. Well we return to our tents. I had left the remainer of the beef head cooking on the fire. The next tent to ours was Br Saml Jones and sister Mary Ann Greening was traveling with Sister Jones and family. Sister Mary Ann was at her fire cooking something. I don’t know what she had to cook. I am sure she had but little. We look around towards the mountains and she called out oh Patience here is some Californians coming. And as thay got nearer to us I told her no thay are not Californians. It is Br Joseph A. Young from the valley . . . Seeing us out there Br Young ask how many is dead or how many is alive. I told him I could not tell. With tears streaming down his face he ask whare is your captains tent.
One final example of Patience’s writing is a fascinating description of a man named George Grant, another member of the rescue party. By this time, the company was camped at a place called Devil’s Gate, where an assortment of abandoned huts were being used for fires. As a reader, I’ve come across multiple references to George Grant and the role he played in the rescue, but nothing I have read has been as effective at making George feel like a real person as the little bit of dialogue Patience recorded.
One day I well remember we had avery hard days travel and we came to Devels Gate that night to camp . . . Brother George Grant was there. He told us all to stand back for he was going to knock down one of those log huts to make fiars for us. For he sais you are not going to freeze to night. Now he called out again stand back and said this night I have the strength of a giant. I never fealt so strong before in my life. And at once he raised his axe and with one blow he knocked in the whole front of the building took each log and split in four pieces and gave each family one piece. Oh such crawding for wood. Some would have taken more than one piece but Bro Grant told them to hold on and not to be greedy. There was some that had not got any yet. He said there is one sister standing back waiting very patintly and she must have some. I called out Yes brother Grant my name is Patince and I have waited with patience. He laugh and said give that sister some wood and let her go and make afiar. I was very thankfull to get wood. I had waited so long that my clothing was stiff and my old stockings and shoes seemed frozen on my feet and legs.
Try It in Your Own Writing
The FamilySearch Memories Gallery makes it easy to write and save your memories. You don’t have to write 20 pages in one sitting. You can write two or three short paragraphs. When you’re ready, try writing about something specific that happened to you. Focus on describing things readers can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. Little by little these memories add up, and before you know it, you have a substantial, meaningful history to share with others.
Here are a few prompts to get you started:
- What is an important or perhaps humorous conversation you recently had with a child, parent, or other family member?
- What is something scary that happened to you, and how did you respond?
- What is something that happened to you at work or school that you will never forget?
Source: Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, eds., Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1982), 222–42.
Source: Family Search