Picture college graduation day, a long time ago, and me sitting in the heat under my cap and gown, feeling surreal terror. Spencer, our valedictorian, said that only by committing could we feel fulfilled. I smiled, because he was a friend, and I liked the woman he had recently become engaged to marry. But walking away from this milestone in my life, all I could promise was that I'd try harder to pretend I knew what I was doing.
There were so many directions to try for, and so few clues as to which were worthwhile. I knew very little about what strengths I possessed, if any, and even less about what I really held dear. I understood that life was tough. At the age of 21, I'd experienced a lifetime of complicated, confusing situations with disheartening outcomes. My expectations weren't very high.
But I had to get a job as soon as possible. In my family, the notion of living at home was too absurd to be discussed. You worked. You succeeded. And you made the family look good. All problems could be solved with one universal fix; work harder.
I felt like an animal stepping into a plow harness, knowing I'd have to sweat, but clueless as to what crop would grow. I wasn't afraid to step forward and push. But what was the point of any of it? In order to think your life choices are meaningful, you have to feel your presence is significant. And I didn't. If there was one thing my turbulent childhood and teen years had taught me, it was that terrible loss could befall me and the world would go on, as sunny and unruffled as that May day in Walla Walla.
Of course, as adults we learn that the placid exteriors around us hide all manner of human misery, suffering, and loneliness. Not that it makes a person feel better that others are hurting, but we are never as alone as the world's facade would imply. I think I became a writer because the discrepancy between surface illusion and hard experience always held me fast; I am fascinated by the murky truth that simmers under the brave front.
The most valuable gift of coaching for me has been the great honor of glimpsing beneath a person's careful facade to the living soul hiding under it. That exchange always felt powerful, for both of us. It has convinced me that being ones' true self - even if only for a moment - is essential to happiness. I don't mean the kind of living large where you put on a costume (though if you want to, I support you completely). I mean knowing who you are even when others don't.
So for me, that means writing and offering up my work because I think it has merit. Quite honestly, I have had to come to accept that perhaps no one else in the world will agree with me. But, as Spencer predicted, my commitment to the craft protects me from that painful possibility. If I separate being a writer from the way others may feel about my work, then it's simple. Work, hard work or fun easy work, is the only goal.
When I tell people I've come to a point where I embrace the possibility of utter obscurity, they sometimes think I'm feeling sorry for myself or asking them for sympathy. I'm not. It feels great to let go of the idea that somewhere out there, an equation exists where my hard work will result in guaranteed success.
If I write with complete integrity, my chances of being embraced by agents (not to speak of publishers) actually goes down, because my voice is weird, my ideas a bit odd, and my preoccupations not strictly mainstream. (I write about aliens and post apocalyptic dystopias where soldiers telepath with the enemy and the afterlife is real. Sometimes these stories are written in an epistolary style. In other words, I'm not hitting the checklist of marketable factors. Not to say I never will.)
So to be candid, if I really commit to my voice, I'm facing down a future where I am unlikely to get paid, publish, or hear applause. Happy to say, it doesn't matter. I know what I want to write. I hope others get something out of it, but I can't promise they will. The only commitment I can keep, is to do my work my way.
And owning that is incredibly peaceful.
What commitment would free your energies to do what you really want to, today?