Boxed in by dreams a mile in the sky
My sense of self and my private desires got boxed in a mile high in the sky yesterday. I almost didn’t make it through.
I was flying out to Los Angeles for a business meeting. I had a window seat in the front of the plane. An attractive and composed young woman sat in the seat in front of me. An older artsy-looking man sat next to her. A pregnant woman with a cool camouflage bag sat beside me. I was writing in my notebook. I felt pretty good.
As we got higher in the sky, the identity of each of the people who boxed me in began to emerge.
The woman next to me opened her MacBook and started typing ferociously. The first words in her file were Scene 1. There was someone named Vin. She was building the plot line. She skipped over to Wikipedia and researched coronary disease. She had a news file open to a story about a drug addict who traded her house for two cell phones. She worked intently, confidently, consistently.
In front of me, the couple worked on a book proposal. The woman was a singer named Joanna Yearwood. I googled her. She’s from London. The proposal looked like it was for a fictional autobiography. The man must have been her manager, or her creative partner, or her agent. They giggled and smiled. They worked on the proposal for a while. Then they went to sleep.
I had my computer open. I was trying to make progress on the second section of my work in progress, One Fierce Yearning. The place, the character, the story, the moment, the momentum have all eluded me for the past four weeks. I’m trying to get them back, and I’m feeling frustrated. I can hear the voices telling me that I should stop.
Those are the voices that I needed to banish so that I could start to write again.
I’m 51. I’m a certain kind of middle-aged man, flabby around the middle, the way that I see myself in my mind’s eye starting to fork from the reality of who I am. I’ve had a successful professional career, have run companies, have had moderate financial success and have experienced some devastating losses during the economic downturn.
This chapter of my life started 20 years ago when I stopped writing. Up until that point, my identity was as a writer, regardless of what else I did. Then, one day, I convinced myself that I wasn’t a writer, that I was wasting my time, and literally put down my pen. I wasn’t going to let my life-long desire to be a writer define me, I told myself. I don’t want to be the person who is fooling themselves into thinking they can be something they are not, I said.
Five years ago, T. gave me a vintage Underwood typewriter for a birthday present. She had come into my life after I’d stopped writing. The gift was an act of generosity: There is a place for this part of you in our life, she was saying. The gift was a catalyst and over the next two years, I began to work with a therapist to unwind the intense phobia that had kept me from writing.
I made a deal with myself. It went like this:
You are going to let yourself write. You are going to let yourself enjoy it. You are going to write because you learn things, and you get excited, and you find that parts of the world begin to make more sense, and because, more than anything, you love to tell stories and show people things. That is the only reason you are going to write.
The deal lets me ignore the voices that say, You’re a fake, You’re not any good, You’re wasting your time, You’re not being authentic, You’re not an artist.
I’m told that everyone hears these voices. But for some reason, my voices were so powerful and my uncertainty so strong that writing — the thing that I loved most in the world — was too painful to bear.
So, I’ve rebuilt an internal creative life. I’m cautious with it, and have kept it separate from my public life, and have shared it with only a few people who know me. I’m proud of it, and I get excited that I’m good at it.
I wonder sometimes how my life would have turned out if I’d made that deal with myself a long time ago.
Right now I’m working with a company that I’ve been part of for close to 10 years. After initial success, the company has struggled over the past three years. I am evaluating whether I can still make a good contribution to the business. That also means that I’m asking myself more actively what else I might do, what the next opportunity will look like.
This process of evaluation means bringing all kinds of questions to bear: What kind of life do you want to lead? How much money do you need to make? What kind of structure do you want to have? How will you be able to best take advantage of the skills and experience you’ve acquired and engage yourself in things that will make you feel fulfilled and excited?
For the first time in 20 years, I am considering these questions with an acceptance of my creative identity. I’m posing the questions and trying to decipher how to integrate the things that I want to do creatively with a fulfilling professional career.
The thinking is iterative and winds from moments of confusion to moments of clarity. A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with an old friend about a new business opportunity. The prospects were exciting, although financially uncertain. The role would allow me to take advantage of different skills that I have, but would require me to redefine myself in terms of activity and position. I was intrigued.
T. and I talked about it while we drove out from the city that night. “What do you want to do?” she asked. “I know that the thing I really want to do I can’t,” I said. “What’s that?” “What I’ve always wanted to do is tell stories. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
I replayed that theme in a few other conversations. I tried out the statement, “I’m really good at telling stories.” I wondered about ways that I could play out the activity of telling stories. And, I told myself again and again, that I had re-discovered my writing self, and that I can tell stories for as long as I want.
But on the plane, confronted with works in progress around me, I saw myself clearly, captured in a Walter Mitty moment. These were true creative professionals surrounding me, working with purpose and with outlets, members of industries that give them a community, a platform for talent, a reward.
I’m a man trending into late middle age, a business executive, who has rediscovered a passion of his youth.
I’m not the thing I had wanted to be.
I tried to imagine what the conversation would be like if my seat mate asked me what I was working on.
I would want to say, I’m a writer. But that would be a lie. I’d want to say, I’ve written a few novels. That would be a lie. I’d want to say, I’m writing a piece of literary fiction. That would be true, but it would be of no real consequence.
What I should say is that writing is a hobby of mine.
But I don’t want to say that, because I don’t want to be the guy who failed, or the guy who is trying too hard but doing something that isn’t very good, or the guy who’s lying to himself about who he is and what he can be. And I especially don’t want to be the guy who was a promising writer one time, but who left it because he couldn’t take it, he didn’t have the guts to keep going, to persevere.
I was deflated.
I kept working on the book while I sat there, made a little progress. Now I have to understand where this weakness comes from, why I’m comparing myself, not willing to accept myself as I am, congratulate myself for doing the things that I want to do, value the experience that I’m having. Why am I wrapping so much pride and yearning into something that I know is private, personal and valuable. Can’t I just accept the experience of the work without making the work a trapdoor to some kind of competition where the prize will always be out of reach?