For years I’ve waxed and waned in my effort to keep a journal.  For most of that time, I was afraid to mar the page, pristine in its beauty.  The commitment required to leave an indelible mark on the unblemished parchment required a courage I didn’t feel I possessed.  (I felt the same way about marking my flight logbooks with pen, and to this day, I maintain an electronic logbook instead of a more traditional, bound volume, its paper pages marked with ink.) I also felt that the trifling thoughts I could muster were not worthy.  A final, insurmountable difficulty was the simple cost of completing such a project once undertaken—I was afraid I would not finish. Thus for years, I refused to undertake the common habit of recording my thoughts in written word on the page, a practice modeled by so many before us.  Perhaps, at least subconsciously, I viewed the task like laying bricks in the wall of a majestic cathedral—one does not begin such a project without a grand vision and a detailed plan for its completion.

Sometimes, however, writing is more like gathering stones from a field.  We have all encountered a country wall made of fieldstones, pieced together from rocks gathered over time.  In this sense, writing can be more like searching for these stones.  One picks up and examines rock specimens, and discards those that, for whatever reason, do not suit a fancy.

Some days what we write is like discovering the perfect stone for an existing project. Other days we place a stone found at some other time and saved for just such a serendipitous moment—it finally dawns on us that it would fit here. Maybe there are hours spent laboriously removing stones placed in what was thought to be the perfect position. Each stone is unique in both its size and its shape.  Incomplete ideas may be just as valuable as complete thoughts, and large, well-organized pieces serve a purpose, as do the small ones.  The lesson for each of us is to keep collecting these stones.

In recent years, I have changed my ways.  First, I’ve learned patience—I’m much more willing to endure the investment of time required to fill the pages of a journal.  The second change is the acquisition of a simple technique that gives me some freedom in my writing, something I call “just a thought.” Its unoriginal name comes from the three words I write at the top of the page, a kind of disclaimer on the content that follows.  On journal pages marked with this header, I make a few notes, recording a main point from a book chapter or article I’ve read together with an idea about how to apply it.  On some such pages, I draw arrows, boxes, or lines, and fill them in with words that may be related to the shapes surrounding them.  There’s freedom in those free-form scribbles that simple words cannot convey, and sometimes, there are ideas in those arrows that words cannot capture.  The purpose of these random thoughts, these unorganized journal pages, is like the intent of a stroll through a field on a sunny day.  Perhaps, I will find something curious, beautiful, or just plain strange.  

For the flight test engineer, these notions about writing are relevant. They are similar to a thought I shared in the early days of my editorial tenure:

I think there are two kinds of news “data.”  The first is what I will call “test team comments.” There has been a place on almost every test card created for qualitative observations made by flight test crews in the heat of the moment, a comment about air quality or workload or whatever else seems relevant then and there. These kinds of observations are just blurted out, and the exigency of the situation demands a way to capture and communicate these data. The second kind of communication is the flight report and ultimately the flight test report.  In this case, some synthesis and analysis have taken place. This step take more time, but we could not come to meaningful conclusions without this deliberation. [FTN 14-10]

I’ll close with this reminder from FTN 16-10: “You have a story. We all do.  Sometimes the stories are wistful and touch our hearts.  Other stories teach us, impressing their details on our minds. In both cases, it’s important to remember.  Sometimes we don’t know why or even if the stories will matter. In that case, I prefer to think of them not as stories but as observations, simple data points in the journey of life.”  It’s just a thought…

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