Saturday, November 5, 2011

Not Knowing the Future


It is 6:28 of a dark, cold morning in Syracuse. The laundry is spinning in the room next to me as I sit in my basement office cubby typing words with little idea as to where I'm going. I have coffee, Jack Johnson music, and a quiet house in which to work, but I don't know what will be. I've realized, you see, that I'm no good at fortune telling. That's no revelation. The thing onto which I've tumbled of late is that it's alright and I'll be fine. Put it another way, whatever will be, will be.

I just sat here for a moment at the end of that paragraph wondering, okay, what comes next? Then I felt the irony in that question given what I had just finished typing and so I put my fingers back on the keyboard and started in again. I've long trusted in the power to continue when it comes to writing. I often tell an old story about my wife and I writing thank you notes after our wedding or the birth of our first child. For every card that she finished, I wrote at least three. It's not that my wife is especially slow or that I was writing shorter than she was. It was a direct reflection of our theories of writing.

My wife can't put down the first word until the shape of the entire piece had come to her. There were concerns about the process that she had to address. The card was small, we had a limited supply of them (so mistakes were costly), there was a real audience that would be reading it, the message had to be personal and different from what that person's neighbor might receive, and so on. With all of that in her head, she felt that she could easily write Dear So-and-so, but from there it was almost too confusing. And so she sat with pen poised over the card (no exaggeration--I often looked over to see her frozen in the position of someone about to write their first word) trying to see the entire message and compare it against all these constraints.

Meanwhile, I wrote Dear So-and so, and then took off with the first thought in my head. I had the same sorts of requirements on my notes along with the idea that for some of them I wanted to make the person smile or even laugh, but I figured it would come to me and that if I just started writing, the shape of it would come to me. I just had to figure it out before the end of the card. So I top-loaded the thing, saying my thank-you right away and then allowing for improvisation the rest of the way. In this way, I ran into problems once in a while as I approached the end of the card at too much speed and with too much left to say. In which case, I flipped the card over and continued on the back.

Neither method, mine or my wife's, is better than the other but my method is surely better for me. The most dangerous thing for me is to sit in the car with the emergency brake on and the gear shift stuck in neutral. More times than not, I get out of that car and leave it running while I sit inside wondering what to do and feeling like I was never meant to be on the road in the first place. If I simply throw the thing in gear, let out the brake, and back out the driveway, I'm better off. This is why I often find myself, in the first minutes of a drive, having to find a way to turn about and go the right way. But that's alright; course corrections are easy for me.

In writing, I require of myself that I put a word down and follow it with another. I've done it so often that I know how it will work. Take this writing. After the first paragraph I probably had 75-100 words of my 750. Then I paused. Realizing what I was doing (and not doing) and the danger of that, I started typing. I was worried that what I was saying wasn't going to be interesting enough, that I would simply ramble, but I kept going anyway because I don't have a better method.

And this is what I'm finding in all areas of my life. I just have to keep moving. Don't stop. I can correct the course later. I can't plan out the future in advance. There are simply too many variables. The danger is in sitting on the couch thinking that the next move will come to me if I just wait for it. To stay out of danger I just need to get up, open the door, and start moving. All the while I keep wondering where will I end up, where am I going, and finally, where do I want to go?

It ends up okay, so long as I write on.