“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” (Henry David Thoreau)
It’s mid-January and, depending on your personal tolerance for masochism, you may already be hearing the crack! of those New Year’s resolutions. You know the ones I’m talking about: eat less, exercise more, eliminate stress, organize your closet/house/universe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these goals. The problem is they quickly drain enthusiasm because they address our shoulds but not our dreams. No one lives to lose ten pounds. So, before we get much older, let’s make a pact and declare 2016 the year we embrace our dreams. Go all out. Lay the foundations for, or continue building the life we really want, the one that speaks to our true selves.
Everyone harbors dreams. Listen to kids. They can invent a million dreams on a summer afternoon. But by the time we’re adults, that equation has shifted to a million reasons why we can’t pursue our heart’s desire: How can I become an artist/dancer/open my own B&B when I’ve got student loans to pay down/ three kids to feed/am past age 50? It’s true, there’s a world of responsibilities at 40 you never imagined at 10, but there’s also a lot more fear: What if people think I’m crazy? What if I try and don’t make it?
You can drown in reasons and argue with your fears forever. Nothing untried can be proved or disproved. So I will repeat here the best piece of advice I ever got from a writers’ conference: Leap and the net will appear.
As a college student in the Midwest, I used to hitch rides with kids driving home to the NYC area on semester breaks. Arriving in Manhattan, I’d rent a student room for $6/day on the upper floors of a Madison Avenue hotel and walk. Everywhere. I just needed to breathe in that “center of the world” energy and hope because it was my energy and hope, too. After college, I landed a job as editor at a publishing company in Michigan, and traveled the country learning the ropes of the apparel trade while writing how-to-succeed articles for women’s retailers. I met a lot of good people, but it wasn’t my dream. So, I turned in my resignation, loaded up my VW Bug, and drove to Boston where I signed a lease on a small apartment. (I figured it was easier to be poor in Boston than NYC.)
I leapt and—miracle!—the net did appear. For me, it was the offer my company made to continue my editorship on a contractual basis from my Boston home. It was a great and unexpected gift, saving me the hassle of looking for work, but if it hadn’t happened, I would have waited tables or manned the Slurpee machine at my local 7-11 to support my writing. Sometimes, someone else holds out the net. Sometimes, we have to weave it ourselves. Usually, it’s a combination of both. But mostly, it’s about wanting something so much and believing you are capable. When you see with the eyes of a dream, you begin to spot opportunities outside the range of normal vision. (Don’t worry, it’s not all Shangri-la. I’m going to fess up to some BIG mistakes before we’re through here, and I invite you to laugh long and loud or shake your head in despair of me. I just want to illustrate that nets do appear, and you often have to leap before you see them.)
So, I moved to Boston, wrote my first novel, revised it a bunch of times, and tackled a few short stories. Doing my old job outside an office gave me a lot more hours to write. (It’s amazing how much time gets wasted in offices.)
It’s true that when you’re young, you don’t worry so much about stepping outside the conventional. You’re not particularly dizzied at the idea of beating your own path. Indeed, unless you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, what else can you do in your early 20s? But, I don’t believe our dreams vanish with age. More like they get shoved into some dark corner and silenced in the cacophony of our busy lives. Doubts creep in, grow up around them, cut off their oxygen. We must fight this silencing. A Facebook friend, Jo Anne Shumard, recently posted this: “Doubt is like being afraid to color outside the lines. Do it anyway.”
What happens, though, if you make a mistake, maybe many mistakes? Well, you will. Obstacles arise. Things fall apart. Failure lurks. That first novel I referred to earlier? After typing THE END, I mentioned it to my hairdresser. She had a sister whose college roommate had become an assistant editor at what is today a division of one of the Big Five publishing houses in New York. Cut to the chase: I had lunch with the sister. She recommended me to her editor friend. I sent off the manuscript and the editor loved it. Yes! I thought, I’m on my way! The catch was that as an assistant, she needed her boss, a senior editor, to read the book. A second letter arrived three months later. The senior editor liked my book, but had a list of specific changes he wanted to see before making an offer. Still great, right? Except I was so young and so clueless about the industry and had yet to meet other writers, I thought this meant I had bombed. I put the novel in a drawer and went off to Europe. (I know. I know. I can only offer this example as one that perfectly answers the question: How dumb can you be?)
But doubts don’t kill you. Mistakes don’t kill you. I continued writing and had kids and paid the bills by doing freelance articles for business publications and newspapers. From there, I broke into feature articles for women’s magazines and got a regular gig online. I made and still make decent money editing college texts. But I never gave up fiction. I went to writers’ conferences, joined critique groups, and just kept learning my craft. And now I’ve got a novel I’m shopping and another I’m writing. Life is good. Hard sometimes, but good. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of how she revised and revised her novel The Help while getting rejections that would have crushed a lesser soul (“There’s no market for this kind of tiring writing.”), BUT the 61st agent she queried said yes. The Help enjoyed a long ride on the New York Times bestseller list, sold more than a million copies, and was made into a movie. Seriously, read her story here. She will inspire you to never quit.
Yes, luck definitely plays a role. There are so many things we don’t control. But I’ve always liked the quote by humorist/writer Sam Levenson (on the struggle up from his immigrant tenement childhood): “I discovered that the more I hustled, the luckier I seemed to get.”
What happens, though, if you go for your dreams and they don’t materialize in the way you imagined? Well, what does? If you strive for your dreams until your last breath, and that last breath finds you still striving, you will have lived a life pursuing what you loved. There are worse epitaphs. As business magnates are fond of telling us, all opportunity carries risk. But you can’t really do a risk assessment on your dreams without asking: What do I risk by not following my heart?
So, as we launch out into 2016, I wish you a year—and a lifetime—of dreams. Remember that John Lennon was once dismissed as “hopeless” and “certainly on the road to failure.” Stephen King worked a drudge job in an industrial laundry while writing Carrie. Even Albert Einstein was told he “[would] never amount to anything.” All they had were their dreams, a fierce belief in themselves, and an unquenchable determination.
So, keep leaping. And maybe pack a few bandages.