William Jay On Writing Memoir And Keeping A Diary

For over a decade I’ve wanted to read the autobiography of William Jay, ever since I heard the sketch of his life delivered by Iain Murray. It’s been years in the making, which includes his memoir sitting on my bookshelf for about five of those years. By the looks of it, through my pencil markings in the margins, it seems I’ve tried to read it before but only made it so far. Nevertheless, this past little while has meant I’ve devoured it and come to appreciate much of the content. With slight warning, I think it is highly likely I’ll be using William Jay as a topic for writing and speaking in coming weeks and months!

The memoir portion of this work is set out as 19 letters, written from Jay to his children. They cover much of the main elements of his life and ministry. Astoundingly, he served as the preacher and minister of Argyle Chapel in Bath for 63 years. He has much wisdom and godliness to share. And I should probably mention he lived from 1769-1853.

In his first letter Jay outlines some of the reasons for his writing such a memoir. There seems to have been a slight hesitation about it, even though he was a reasonably prolific writer on spiritual things. One of these reasons is the amount of books, memoir, and autobiography written in his day. Imagine what he’d think of these days when every person in public seems to have a biography written of them, or they feel compelled to put together something themselves.

Jay writes this,

“The present rage for biography is excessive and notorious, such is the voracity of its appetite, that it frequently waits not for the licence which death is supposed to give. It falls upon its prey, and devours it alive; and many a man may be himself the reader of his own character and history, furnished by some anonymous or even know writer.”

Evidently Jay looks down upon those who forcefully push through and write of themselves for all to read.

On the question of what to add into such a memoir Jay reflects on how biographers are a good witness of a person, but that self is the best witness for such a task. He comments on how the public wish to know the salacious details of a persons life rather than being satisfied with the content of the life.

“By a competent writer, the public life of an individual is easily supplied; but people are seldom satisfied without some insight into his more private retreats and recesses. They would know, not what he did, but why he did it. They would know, not only the direction in which he moved, but whether he was led into it by design or accident, and what retarded or aided his progress.”

And Jay also highlights the difference in where the information about a life may come from by making a distinction between memoir and keeping a diary. Jay says,

“A diary regards chiefly a man’s intercourse with God; and the variations of his religious views and feelings there recorded are designed to promote self-acquaintance, and not to divulge himself to others. Such a work is devotional rather than narrator, and will abound with much that is not proper for public observation.”

It is this final quote, with its definition of what a diary is, that I find interesting.

Keeping a diary or a journal is a great way to note down the events and feelings of a particular day, circumstance, or season. Moreover, it is a terrific way to reflect and commune with God. In a diary we can write what we are feeling about what God is doing, through his Word or through others, in a private manner. It is through a diary we can find ourselves learning more of how we are to think of who God is. And we can come to find ourselves writing in a devotional frame of mind, pondering and thinking on the things of God.

In a day and age where the temptation to think and share our thinking publicly through our social media streams this is refreshing. There are private thoughts meant only for private consumption. The ability to reflect for ourselves, and keep it private, is best for all parties–ourselves and others. While we may be tempted to share the all and sundry of our life perhaps it’s best to begin with a diary and actually work out what we think, believe, and hope.

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