(Photo Credit: Reilly Drew)
When I moved recently, I brought a plastic bin of all my journals with me. As a child and throughout high school, I wrote avidly to myself, dumping all my tween angst and late bloomer frustration into the pages. But there was a big break during college when I let it go — maybe I was too preoccupied with writing papers and drinking in dorm rooms. After some time apart, I began journaling again the summer I started writing songs.
On my 23rd birthday, I got an unexpected phone call. Months prior, I went to this big audition where you do a 90 second monologue for an auditorium full of casting directors. Acting had become like this: a strange and uncomfortable cattle call where you had a short amount of time to make a BIG impression. I wore a bright pink shirt.
The phone call was from a small regional theatre in Indiana that was offering me a spot in their summer season. It wasn’t an earth-shattering opportunity, but it would be a paycheck and I would be acting every day. I accepted immediately; it was a chance to get out of the Chicago acting grind of pandering and rejection, out of my parents’ condo, out of my stagnant relationship.
It was a tumultuous time. Only a few years out of college, I felt the constant pressure to figure out who I was, what I was doing. I felt that I needed to succeed, and fast. On top of that, somewhere between Chicago and Indiana, I managed to start a whirlwind relationship with an older man, an ex-coworker. It electrified me and made me sick, that kind of relationship. It was technically an affair so it eventually blew up in my face.
It was a lot to process. At times I felt insane. So I took to my journal. It acted as a therapist: nonjudgmental, neutral. A journal entry was like a deep breath, oxygenating the anxious blood that was coursing through my veins. It tethered me to a version of myself that I could sympathize with: someone who was going through a hard time but was figuring it out. Soon thereafter, I bought a guitar from a shop in a neighboring town.
After 10 weeks in Indiana, that job ended and I was on the run, not wanting to face anything or anyone in Chicago yet. Luckily a friend posted a Facebook status about a teaching job in a beautiful small city in Mexico. I had the luxury of saying yes to everything. I didn’t have to pay for health insurance.
For part of the time, I lived in a studio apartment across town from the school where I taught. It wasn’t much bigger than a hotel room (I could open the fridge while lying in bed). I still remember it as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever lived. There were French windows that opened into a courtyard. There was a little roof where I would sometimes go and smoke cigarettes when I was bored. I only taught a few classes, so I had a lot of time to think.
I tried to find a journal in Mexico at some of the tourist or artisan shops, but nothing was big enough. So I took a bus to the Walmart in the town over and bought a big stupid red spiral notebook with a glossy cover and a million pages. I wrote several times a day. The entries took different forms. There were some starry-eyed optimistic ones about trying to stay present and admiring the possibilities of my future. There were some anxious, harried rants about what may or may not be going on at home in my absence. There was heartache and hope. Some days I just screamed into the pages. And then I would practice guitar, writing songs as I learned the chords. The journal and the guitar worked in tandem, both interpreting what was going on. One colored it with the tones and dark progressions that mirrored my aching or sadness. The other lent the words, connecting ideas and images from the swirl of stimuli I was taking in.
During my time in Mexico, I traveled to other beautiful cities and beaches, I went to parties at friends’ aunts’ houses on Mexican Independence Day and Day of the Dead, I had a fling with the owner of the town’s one craft beer bar. But I remember just as vividly my time spent alone, in coffee shops, in my tiny apartment, big stupid red journal in hand, writing about how despite how my boss was crazy, or how I would maybe never get back together with my absent lover, I was in the midst of a great and important change. It was a change that allowed me to see all the parts of myself: the scared, strong, hopeful, and vulnerable parts. And then there was my guitar that I lugged from Indiana, ready to distill those parts into songs that maybe other people would hear, would understand.
(Photo Credit: Elizabeth Smarz)