You can’t go home again – keeping a journal to tell your story

“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.”             Terry Pratchett*

How do you turn your life into a story? A timeline of your social media posts might provide a hint to your narrative’s trajectory, but the best way is to begin recording what’s happening in your life on a daily basis; on paper, in a journal.

One of the best jobs I ever had was leading a freshman seminar, ‘You Can’t Go Home Again, Now What?’. At the beginning of the fall semester I gave each first year student a blank Moleskine notebook.  The direction was simple – “record your observations of people and place… keep your memories the old fashioned way – on paper. This is your personal space for your personal thoughts.”

Keeping a journal is way to establish a routine in a new environment and at the same time reflect on the unique experience of joining a new community. It’s a practice where you take ownership of your story.

“When  you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.

But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.”
Anna Quindlen**

College is just one catalyst to begin the process of recording  and reflecting. The ‘Back to School’ aisles in your local Target are full of notebooks in every imaginable shape and size, just waiting to capture your creativity.

Why a notebook and not an online journal? It’s important to disconnect and avoid distraction when you’re talking to yourself about your day. And then there’s the apocalyptic view: when we are all off the grid, we’ll still have our journals.

When we scribble a few words, we are compiling a record that simply makes sense of the day. And on those days when things have not worked out as planned, it’s the perfect place to vent, in the privacy of the lined (or unlined) page.

What happened to all those first year students and their Moleskine journals? I think some may still be in a storage bin, blank. But for many, they contain the treasure of a story of transition and change, a template for continuous, lifelong learning.

String a few years of journal entries together and you begin to see career patterns emerge: choices, consequences and course corrections.

Your journal is your story. There are no rules. You’re writing your story in real time. Don’t edit, but do read what you write.

Take care of the life of your mind while paying attention to the life of your heart.

*Terry Pratchett   ‘The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents’ 2001
**Anna Quindlen   ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’ 2000


The Saturday Read ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’ by Anna Quindlen

Do you remember who spoke at your graduation ceremony? The Saturday Read this week is for all of you who forgot, but would welcome a bit of ‘life advice’ in this season of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’.

In 1999, author Anna Quindlen was invited to deliver the commencement address at Villanova University. And then this happened:

“Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author Anna Quindlen has withdrawn as the commencement speaker at Villanova University this Sunday because of what she said were objections by a “vocal minority” to her support of abortion rights.

Quindlen, who was also to have received an honorary doctorate of humane letters, said in an interview yesterday that she did not want to “ruin the day or cast a shadow” on the graduation ceremony.”

A graduate student requested a copy of the prepared text and posted it on the Internet. (This was before Facebook, Twitter et al.) The post went viral, and the resulting essay was published in 2000 as ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’.

Seventeen years later her words still resonate. In the opening paragraphs she signals her values, and offers a hint at why she withdrew.

“My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know…Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work…The second is only part of the first.”

Real life collided with an opportunity to address Villanova’s Class of 1999, the alma mater of several of her family members. Fortunately her publisher provided an avenue for Ms. Quindlen to share her personal life experience with a broader audience, to encourage ownership and balance.

“When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.”

“But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just the life at your desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.”

“People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.”

Some may disagree that a resume is easy to write, especially a recent grad who has spent the past months engaged in the job search. A resume is limited to a list of accomplishments, full of key words designed to cut through the barrier of digital applicant screening. It’s the values expressed in that experience that define who you are, your spirit.

The recurring theme of ‘Short Guide’ challenges the reader to question commonly held definitions of success.

“You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”

“So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house.”

“Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.”

‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’ is a compact book to be kept close for a periodic reread. It’s a reminder to all, at every career stage, that “Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.”

One of those moments is revealed in the recollection of a conversation with a homeless man on the boardwalk in Coney Island, New York.

“And he stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”

Commencement is the beginning of a life of learning, sometimes from the most unexpected of teachers. Enjoy the Saturday Read, and don’t forget to enjoy the view.




‘A Song for New Year’s Eve’ a poem by William Cullen Bryant

As revelers welcome the New Year in New York’s Times Square, a few blocks away, skaters will circle a temporary ice rink in Bryant Park, named for the editor and poet William Cullen Bryant. The Friday Poem this week is ‘A Song for New Year’s Eve’ written in New York and first published in Harpers Magazine in January 1859.

“In 1884, Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park, to honor recently deceased Romantic poet, longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, and civic reformer, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). Around this time, the city approved designs for the New York Public Library, submitted by architects John Merven Carrére and Thomas Hastings. The Beaux-Arts building was completed in 1911, with a raised terrace at the rear of the library and two comfort stations at the east end of Bryant Park.”

Bryant began his career studying and practicing law. He wrote poetry from an early age and continued this passion in parallel with his legal career. Later, as editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post, he exerted considerable influence in local, state, and national politics.

“When Bryant appraised his prospects after leaving Williams College in 1811, his passion for writing poetry appeared to be utterly without promise of a remunerative career. Except for Benjamin Franklin, no American writer had managed to support himself and his family with his pen, however meanly, and verse was patently an occupation for idlers. But in 1836, when the Harper brothers took Bryant into their publishing house, he was a most valuable asset. Numerous reprintings of his books spread his popularity still further, and the firm’s generous royalty made him the richest poet in American history.”

“No line of his poetry survives in the consciousness of his nation, and none of his editorial pronouncements still resonates from his five decades with the New-York Evening Post, yet William Cullen Bryant stood among the most celebrated figures in the frieze of nineteenth-century America. The fame he won as a poet while in his youth remained with him as he entered his eighties; only Longfellow and Emerson were his rivals in popularity over the course of his life.

On this final day of 2015 let’s revisit a once revered national figure and his poem for New Year’s Eve.

A Song for New Year’s Eve

Stay yet, my friends, a moment stay—

Stay till the good old year,

So long companion of our way,

Shakes hands, and leaves us here.

Oh stay, oh stay,

One little hour, and then away.


The year, whose hopes were high and strong,

Has now no hopes to wake;

Yet one hour more of jest and song

For his familiar sake.

Oh stay, oh stay,

One mirthful hour, and then away.


The kindly year, his liberal hands

 Have lavished all his store.

And shall we turn from where he stands,

 Because he gives no more?

Oh stay, oh stay,

One grateful hour, and then away.


Days brightly came and calmly went,

While yet he was our guest;

How cheerfully the week was spent!

How sweet the seventh day’s rest!

Oh stay, oh stay,

One golden hour, and then away.


Dear friends were with us, some who sleep

Beneath the coffin-lid:

What pleasant memories we keep

Of all they said and did!

Oh stay, oh stay,

One tender hour, and then away.


Even while we sing, he smiles his last,

And leaves our sphere behind.

The good old year is with the past;

Oh be the new as kind!

Oh stay, oh stay,

One parting strain, and then away.

William Cullen Bryant   1794-1878




The Saturday Read – J.K. Rowling and Anna Quindlen

When the jacaranda trees are in bloom in Los Angeles you know spring has arrived in this seemingly seasonless place. You notice SIG Alerts on the freeways at odd times of the day until you see groups of folks in gowns and mortarboards being trailed by family bearing great loads of floral bouquets. Commencement time has come and with it, the famous, to deliver advice and receive honorary degrees.

And sometimes, the words spoken at these events are shared across social media, eventually catching the eye of a publisher. In 2000, it was the speech that was never delivered to the Villanova University graduating class by Anna Quindlen that found its’ way onto book shelves two years later as ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’. Last month J. K. Rowling‘s 2008 Harvard speech, ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’ has been published as ‘Very Good Lives’.

There was a time in my career when I worked in a building just north of Coney Island in Brooklyn. My favorite part of Ms. Quindlan’s book is the story at the end:

“I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island many years ago, it was December and I was doing a story about how the homeless suffer in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the boulevard when summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amid the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides. 

But he told me most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox?

And he stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”

And every day, in some little way, I try to do what he said. I try to look at the view. That’s all. Words of wisdom from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I am never disappointed.”

I first saw a video of J.K. Rowling’s address with a group of students one evening at a black women’s sorority event. These were Ms. Rowling’s first readers, the women who waited in long lines with their parents, some in costume in anticipation of the newest Harry Potter release. Here was J.K.Rowling who appeared on lists of the wealthiest and most successful. On that spring morning in Cambridge she shared her personal story of failure and imagination.

“I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Most of us don’t remember who spoke at our graduation. Some of us didn’t attend. But all of us can reflect on the words in both speeches and find a kernel to motivate and inspire. For me, it’s paying attention and never closing a door to a conversation that could resonate for a lifetime. It’s the thing that makes us different, empathy. And it’s the stories, always the life stories, where we find wisdom.

Why experience is better than perfection or how to avoid “permanent curvature of the spirit”

You know that question they ask in celebrity profiles: If you could invite anyone to dinner who would it be? I would invite Randy Pausch and Anna Quindlen. At the end of the meal I would be so clear on my goals, brimming with self-confidence and ready to break though any obstacles in my way.

Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who delivered the ‘Last Lecture’ to faculty and students in September 2007. The title of his lecture was ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’. Anna Quindlan is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist who delivered the 2009 commencement speech at Mt. Holyoke which was later published as a small book, ‘Being Perfect’.

Randy’s lecture takes us on a journey fulfilling his childhood dreams. No matter how out of reach each goal seemed, he figured out a way to achieve it. And then there were the times he encountered ‘brick walls’, which were usually people, not buildings. And he learned: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

Not get what he wanted? Only at first. And that’s when the learning took place.“Brick walls are there for a reason…not to keep us out…to give us a chance to show how badly we want something…the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop other people…”

Anna’s essay frames her story within the pressure to be perfect. Arriving as a freshman at Barnard College in 1970 she had a plan for perfection that was disrupted by her reality. “Being perfect was hard work, and the hell of it was, the rules kept changing…it was harder to become perfect because I realized at Barnard, a place populated largely by terrifyingly well read women who all seemed to be elevating intellectual perfection to a high art, that I was not the smartest girl in the world. And eventually being perfect became like carrying a backpack filled with bricks every single day. And oh, how I wanted to lay my burden down.”

She continues with one of the most striking visuals to illustrate her point: “So if this sounds in any way familiar to you, if you have been trying to be perfect, too, then perhaps today is the day to put down that backpack before you develop permanent curvature of the spirit. Trying to be perfect may be inevitable for people who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But on one level it’s too hard, and at another, it’s too cheap and easy. Because all it really requires of you, mainly, is to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be and to assume the masks necessary to be the best at whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires. Those requirements shape-shift, sure, but when you are clever you can read them and come up with the imitation necessary.”

At my imaginary dinner, I can hear Randy respond with a quote from his lecture: “When you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up…Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.

Critics are good. They remind you that perfection is irrelevant. Learning is what’s important.

Both Randy and Anna were smart enough, early in their careers to realize what matters is not the external influences but the strength of individual spirit and conviction. And in their respective stories we find an alternative model for success. It’s not about meeting the expectations of others, it’s about living up to your own.

Anna concludes: “… nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations. What is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

This Is Your Life

Who is telling your story? Take a minute to think before you respond. It’s so easy to get caught up in the expectations of others that we often lose track of our own narrative, and after time it’s so buried beneath the voices of others that we need a team of archeologists to sift through several layers to find traces of our original thoughts.

It’s a basic question of ownership. Anna Quindlen describes it as “custody of your life” in her 2000 book,  ‘A Short Guide to a Happy Life’:

“When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.

But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.”

At the beginning of a freshman seminar each fall I gave each student a simple black lined Moleskine notebook. The idea was that they would ‘write’ their life in ‘real time’, scribbling snippets of their new adventure in college and hopefully initiate a practice that  would catalog their days long after commencement. I did not want this to be an electronic record, but life captured in the written word with pen and paper with time for reflection.

There was no expectation tied to the gift of the notebook, and I’m not sure how many students continued the practice of keeping a journal after the first few weeks. What I do know, is that keeping a written account of our days allows us to return and read our story as it evolves. If we have captured our hopes and dreams on paper, we can watch them emerge over time and even pinpoint when outside influences begin to redirect our path. And that awareness will inform our decisions.

You are the only person who can write your ‘true’ story. Keeping a journal, writing your life in real time, is one way to claim ownership of your career and your life.