This is my nephew performing in his school’s production of Our Town. He’s young, handsome, intelligent, funny and he has his whole life in front of him. Don’t you kind of hate him?
No, of course you don’t! I certainly never could because I adore him too much, but as I watched him on the stage and later hobnobbing with his exuberant drama club pals, I did feel a wee bit of envy. I couldn’t help but wax remorseful about my own by-gone youth, the wasted years and the sad “winding down” of a life misspent. If only is the refrain that haunts me in these maudlin moments. If only I’d known. Known what? That I’d get old and cranky? But I did know, and it didn’t help. Despite knowing perfectly well that life is finite, for many years I chose to ignore my dream of being a writer and followed the path of least resistance.
Yes, I have a novel published now, but, no, I’m not making a living writing yet. How can I call myself a writer when I still have to schlep off to the day job? I’m not a writer. I’m a bookkeeper. Ugh. If only I hadn’t wasted all those years. If only I’d launched straight from the stage of high school into unrestrained, fearless pursuit of the dream. I might be there now instead of resentfully watching the next generation queuing up for their turn on the big slip and slide called life.
Fast forward two weeks; I’m a presenter at a writer’s conference. Someone asks me “So how do you get to be a presenter?” I inform her that I’ve taken classes from the president of the board of directors for over fifteen years, so she kind of knows me. The person replies, “Well, I took a class from her fifteen years ago too!”
Notice the slight difference there. Taking one class over a decade ago is slightly different from “taking classes for fifteen years”. Call me obsessed, but I’ve chosen to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to learn, communicate, laugh and commiserate with my fellow writers every chance I get. So not only have I conned a few people into trusting that I can do a presentation worth offering at a conference, but I’ve made a lot of friends in this business while dragging my introverted self out of the house and out to conferences, retreats, workshops, classes, readings, critique groups and so on.
If only I was always smart enough to appreciate that. At the conference, I spent a blissful three days reveling in the craft of fiction with a group of the best people in the world, other writers who’ve suffered right along beside me, who understand the struggle, who’ve laughed in the right places and supported my work while I supported theirs. There is nothing quite like it. I began to suspect that I’d achieved a new level of accomplishment, not because I sold some books or survived another public speaking engagement, but because instead of hiding in a corner I was out there, talking, laughing, dancing and enjoying myself with my peers. In a surreal shift of attitude, I felt a kinship with my nephew standing in the hallway after the production, laughing with his friends and basking in the glow of risks shared and challenges met. Do those kids skulk around thinking they can’t be happy until they’re called up the red carpet to receive their Oscar? Ah, no.
We’ve all heard that hoary old saying “It’s the journey, not the destination that counts.” After the conference, I had an epiphany and experienced the truth of that saying for the first time. My reward for suiting up and showing up turns out not to be the golden three-book, six figure contract at the end of a shining path of blood and toil, but friends, here and now. Friends who love and support me as I love and support them. How did this happen? We barely see each other, maybe once or twice a year, but when we do, we’re putting it all the line. We’re offering up our heart, our art, our soul, and in turn we’ve earned each other’s trust.
Show up. Over and over. The dream is the journey. As we say in recovery, make sure your body and your mind are in the same place, and don’t forget to bring your heart along. Show up at the keyboard, and when opportunity knocks, show up for your life. The reward at the bottom of the slide might not be what you expect, but it will be grand.