Field Notes For Life: Why I Journal


Everyone wants their life to be a meaningful story. A story worth telling. One of scaling great heights, of overcoming adversity, of changing something for the better. But every great story begins with a call to adventure. And from my standpoint, the biggest adventure you’ll ever embark on falls squarely into the genre of mystery – the story of trying to crack the code and understand yourself.

My journals are how I try to make sense of it all. I started on the advice of a beloved and brilliant University of Rochester English professor named James Spenko, with whom I was studying Hemingway.  “Who ARE you?” he said with great drama one afternoon in his dusty, book-packed office. “You’re like the mystery girl…and you need to find something, and I think it’s you,” he said, leaning in for emphasis. “I’m telling you, you have to start journaling,” he said. “Just do it. Someday you’ll thank me.” So I did. (Hey, no one, especially me, would dare to not take a piece of Spenko advice).  And sadly, I never got the chance to thank him. Because journaling has become one of the most profound practices in my life. The gift is there every time I open to a new blank page and throw it down, trying to unpack (for the millionth time) the mystery of being me.

I never could have known how much I would come to need these field notes to myself. Need this early morning ritual of writing whatever comes to the surface. Trying to chart the course, to map out my stories – the ones happening to me, and the ones going on within me. Never could I have imagined filling black hardcover sketch book after identical sketch book with #2 pencil scrawl about the mundane everydayness of my life as well as the huge ‘ahas’ in between.  That I would come to trust the voice of intuition that sometimes speaks to me as I write.  And that one day I would actually be grateful to have a record of the days when I was frustrated or resentful.

You write in a journal to not forget the random person you met one day who turns out to be your greatest mentor.  You write to remember the time you had a gut feeling it was time for a change of friend, or a change of place – and you were right. You write when it’s boring, when it’s sad, when it’s joy.  You write when the writing itself feels like a siren’s song – sad beautiful notes you have to get down on paper even as they pull you into some deep dark cave where painful drama and hurtful people circle around. But you write to get through it – pouring your wounds on the paper, and then, pages later, you write about trying to love the scars you have that tell the story of your resilience.

So keep your field notes. Do it for no one but you, and the you you’re trying to become. Every page leaves another dot – another clue – behind as you venture further into your own mystery. Keep notes so you can look back and see how the dots all finally connect – leading you like a trail of breadcrumbs safely through the forest and back home to some new understanding of you.

Write in a journal so that one day you’ll look over at a bookshelf filled with notes, and realize you’re finding your voice. That these notes string together into a song that no one but you could have produced. You’ll have written a beautiful record – and it’s the soundtrack to your own becoming. And that is a story worth hearing.

Debra Walsh