NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Family Journals

Family Journals

Have you ever wished that you could read about the lives of your grandmother or grandfather? Where did they live? What were their lives like? How did they meet their spouse? What were the major turning points in their life? A family journal can answer those questions for generations to come.

Research indicates that individuals who pursue reminiscence work, such as writing a journal or verbally sharing personal history, are more likely to implement change in their own lives. Through reflection, they are able to understand who they are in the present and how they are shaped by their past experiences. Research also indicates that elderly participants are more likely to achieve a sense of life satisfaction, reduce signs of depression, and reconnect with their social networks.

When beginning the journaling process it is important to understand that everyone’s life is a series of unique events. Everyone has a story to tell, each story being as unique as a snowflake.

For those concerned that their story is not unique, consider this:

  • Reviewing your own life can help you understand it better.
  • You can pass on family stories and/or your own story to family members.
  • You can leave a historical account.
  • You can experience the pleasure of reminiscing.
  • You can experience the pleasure of writing.
  • You can give an honest account of your life.
  • You can improve your quality of life.
  • A great place to start is with a timeline. Write down some important dates. These might include significant dates like birth dates, marriage dates, dates children were born and so forth.

    Your journal becomes much more interesting when you start to fill in the stories surrounding these dates. Focus on giving an in-depth description of the event. For example, you could simply give the date that your first child was born, or you could talk about the anticipation of your first child, how you decided upon a name, what it was like to hold your baby, and other things you remember from that time. Telling the family story instead of just reporting a date helps the reader really understand the story and helps the writer achieve a sense of identity and purpose.

    Here are a few of the life story turns that you may choose to include in your family journal:

    Early years:

  • How did you spend your days as a child?
  • What was your favorite subject in school? Least favorite?
  • What was your first pet’s name?
  • What was something you did that you never told your parents about?
  • Tell about a day off from school.
  • Describe the house where you grew up.
  • Where did you go to school? What was the school like? How did you get there?
  • What game did you like to play with your brother/sisters? What were the rules?
  • What is your full name? How did your parents decide upon your name?
  • Did you have chores when you were a child? What were they?
  • Childhood family and relatives:

  • When you were a child, how did your family celebrate Christmas?
  • When you were a child, how did your family celebrate the Fourth of July?
  • When you were a child, what room did most of the family discussion occur?
  • Did one of your family members/friends have an unusual saying, catch phrase or manner of speaking? What was it?
  • What were some of the strengths of your family members?
  • What were some of the challenges faced by family members?
  • Tell a family story that you have heard from an earlier generation.
  • How did your parents meet?
  • What is a traditional family recipe or food? What was included in the recipe? And who always made it? Why?
  • What did your parents do for a living?
  • Who was your favorite uncle or aunt. Why?
  • Describe a family reunion.
  • Adult years and vocations:

  • Who was the most influential person in your life? How did you meet them?
  • What was your first job? (who did you work for, and what were you doing) How much were you paid?
  • How did you decide on your career?
  • Marriage and descendant family:

  • How did you meet the “love of your life”?
  • Describe the day your child or grandchild was born.
  • Think about one of your younger children or grandchildren. If you could write them a letter to be delivered to them in 15 years, what would you tell them?
  • Describe a family reunion.
  • When and where did you go on your first date?
  • What global event impacted your family? How was your family impacted?
  • Where did you go on vacation? Who went with you? What did you do when you were there?
  • What is your most memorable experience as a parent?
  • Community activities:

  • What community activities have you helped with? Why did you get involved? Who were the people you worked with?
  • Military service:

    Who in your family served in the military? What did they do? Where did they serve? Do you know any of the friends that served with them, and where their friends were from?


  • Looking over your life to date, who has been your best friend?
  • Who was your best friend in school? Why were you friends?
  • Big events:

  • Describe a weather related incident (thunderstorm, blizzard, flood)
  • What is the first birthday party you can remember? Whose birthday party was it? What made it memorable?
  • Determine which journal medium is perfect for you. Decide how you want to keep your journal, either on paper or in electronic form. Both methods have advantages and drawbacks, so you'll need to weigh up what works best for you. For example, a paper based journal – whether handwritten or typed - can be taken anywhere, never needs electricity, and can be highly personalized with drawings, collages, theater-tickets and mementos. However, typing can be faster and easier in the electronic format, and an electronic document can still be personalized in different ways.


    Decide what kind of journal you'd like to keep. There are different possibilities open to you when developing your journal theme or approach. You could simply use your journal to write down all the thoughts that come to you at any particular time, randomly, or you could make your journal more focused on a specific theme to draw out something that you're trying to develop more of in your life. And there is nothing saying that you can't keep both a random and a specific journal at the same time! Some ideas for themed journals include:

    • A gratitude journal – in this journal you record all the things for which you feel grateful each day, week, etc. and note the people, animals, events, and things that really matter to you.
    • A vacation journal – in this journal you record more than just what you see on your vacation; you also record your feelings, impressions, and emotions as they are challenged, changed, and illuminated by your travels.
    • An ideas journal – in this journal you record all the ideas and inspirations that flash into your mind at any time without warning, providing a place that you can come back to as an idea-storming resource when you have the time. The ideas can be for writing, for business, for play, for inventions, for anything at all!
    • A child raising journal – in this journal you record all the things that you think are special, wonderful, lovable, and memorable about your kids at different ages and stages. This is a great way to keep a record of those funny words, phrases, and comments made by kids as they grow up and see the world anew.

  • A transition journal – in this journal you record the transition you're going through, such as job hunting or loss, becoming a parent for the first time or again after many years, starting a business, going on a special journey, etc. This type of journal can document changing patterns in your life, and it is useful to ask yourself such questions as "What do I enjoy and not enjoy?", "What do I expect for the future in what I am doing now?", "Which people can help me as I transition?", etc.
  • Find the perfect place (or places) for writing in your journal. Journal writing is a time of reflection and requires solitude, peace, and no interruptions. It's important to feel relaxed, at ease, and not worried about someone else barging in on your reflection time. It's also important to feel comfortable. Select your favorite journal writing spot or spots keeping in mind all of these essential needs and experiment by writing in different places to see what happens to the content of your writing.

    • Take a seat in your chair by the glowing fire or lie down underneath a blossoming apple tree.
    • Find a quiet part of the house where you know you won't be disturbed.
    • The suitability of a place can change with the time of day. Keep this in mind when selecting your writing nook; for example, the kitchen might be hubbub and bustle all day long but come 10pm, it might be the quietest and most enjoyable part of the house.

    Find a time that's right for you. Some of the advice on journal-writing tries to turn it into an effort by suggesting that you should commit to daily writing, or to some form of regular writing. This misses the point in keeping a journal, which is that it is an extension of you and how you're feeling. And if you don't feel like writing in your journal even though you made some commitment to yourself to write in it, it's possibly going to turn into something that you resent. Better than making a commitment to regular writing is to make a commitment to yourself that when you feel like using your journal to be creative, to vent feelings, to write down ideas, etc., then you will. And if that's daily, then good for you; if it skips a month or two or even a year here and there, then so be it. Many journal writers have journals spanning years with gaps of entire years between and pick them up again from where they last left off whenever they need the journal.

    • Keeping your journal by your bedside can be helpful if you find yourself forgetting to write in it. Often thoughts come before sleeping time and writing in a journal can be a helpful way to wind down at the day's end, provided it's a comfortable place for you.
    • Remind yourself whenever you feel down, antsy, brimful of ideas, etc., that your journal is the perfect outlet.

    Relax. Every person differs in what helps them to relax and feel contented, and it is no different when getting in the mood for journal writing. Some people enjoy having music to get them in the mood, others need total quiet, while others need the constant drone of city life to stimulate thinking. Choose whatever methods aid your escape into journal writing and doesn't make it feel like too much effort.

    • Don't fuss about grammar, spelling, or other perfection in your journal. This is your place, and if there are boo boos, then so be it. Wanting to erase errors while working through deep issues of feelings or having a wellspring of ideas can hamper your flow and also tends to suggest that you're trying too hard to control the situation you're writing about rather than to learn more about it and to find new ways to perceive it.


    Find sources of inspiration. It's often easiest to start with your current feelings. Transfer them to paper and see where this takes you next. There are no rules at all about journal writing and you may find that your starting points vary every time you begin a new entry. Sometimes it is easier to begin with a narrative about something that happened to you during the day, something that is burning right through you and that you want answers to but feel confused about. Writing down the mundane facts and events can open up a whole stream of consciousness as you're writing, leading you to insights you would not have been able to bring forth without arranging your thoughts in the journal. Other spurs to writing can include:

    • Try movies, books, or TV shows as a starting point sometimes: for example, you can consider the philosophical implications of your favorite movie, or write an essay about why you find this or that character compelling... or not.
    • Pretend you have an audience and you are the professor; give a lecture in what you want them to hear. Sometimes writing down events in your life that have taken place or writing down questions and answering them can waken the creative juices simmering in your mind.
    • Discuss something you bought or made during the past few days. Is it something that you're going to use for a new hobby, to help you complete an essay, to woo a person with, to decorate your home, etc.? Take the reason for buying or making it and proceed to write about the motivations behind it.
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