We are about to enter the season of heightened expectations and goal-setting, so I’ll offer a story which I hope you’ll find helpful, then draw some lessons for the writing life.

Years ago, I was overworking and missing my kids with a ferocity I found almost frightening. I’d drop them at the sitter’s and go to the hospital with a pain behind my breastbone, and wouldn’t experience relief until we were together again.

The ToolMaster wasn’t faring much better, so we talked and developed a powerful fantasy: we’d buy a tent trailer and become one of those families.

We’d camp most weekends of the summer. As a result, our kids would grow comfortable with nature. They’d roam their adopted communities on bikes, acquire a posse of buddies. Our site would be a nexus of music, laughter, and a specified quantity of homemade fudge. (One pan of white-chocolate- peppermint and one of dark-chocolate-cherry for those who wish to know.)

Perhaps that dream would have come true if we stuck with the tent-trailer part of this plan, but when we entered an RV showroom and spotted their display of travel trailers, we allowed ourselves to be diverted. Hours later, we left with lighter pockets, an unnatural high, and in my case, a gut that was already clenching.

The first reality check came when the welder refused to attach a hitch to our van, citing concerns we’d blow the engine. Seems our salesperson had overestimated its towing capacity.

Now, had we been thinking, this would have been a contractual “out” and our cue to recommit to our original vision. But when you are tired and want everything settled; and when you’re going to be working anyway, so what’s a few more payments for years of guaranteed bliss? And when the trailer has bunk beds so the kids don’t have to sleep together and you won’t have to settle fights about who first poked whom, you don’t reconsider.

You ignore your gut. You push down your screaming values. You invest in an SUV. And three years later, when a towing bar breaks on a rural highway, the trailer moves from resented object to lethal threat.

I’ll leave the second-person narration here, peeps, to simply say we were lucky. Many people don’t walk away from a rollover accident at 60 miles an hour. (I know this because after our accident we did research and found a then-emerging body of evidence that our SUV-trailer combo was dangerous.)

For our purposes, what lessons might this story hold for the writing life?

1. Life is not infinite, so consult your gut before you take on another writing commitment. The mind is easily fooled by ambition and external influences. Not so the body. Is that the fire of genuine passion warming your belly, or the stirrings of irritable bowel?

2. As an extension of #1, have you taken on a writing-related responsibility that depletes you though it’s theoretically “smart?” Are you stubbornly compounding the error because of inertia, shame, or other reasons? If so, welcome to the human race! Now do what you can to change it.

3. Protect your health. (See #1.) The ability to write is predicated on a functioning brain, and what’s good for the heart is good for your nervous system.

4. When you consume the news these days, I know things aren’t feeling very safe. There are few heroes and it seems people go out of their way to routinely hurt one another. But at the level of the average person, when there’s a crisis, that hasn’t been my experience.

Not counting our families, we had no end of help — from the white-faced, shaking trucker who helped free us, to the RCMP officer who gave us a ride in his caged back seat, to the wonderful insurance company clerk who settled our no-fault claim in record time.

Writing lesson: be prudent in your business dealings, but don’t brand a whole class of people as unethical or parasitic because some individuals fall short. Be willing to extend trust.

5. The expression “dying to see a man in uniform” does not have to be taken literally. In fact see that? See what I did just there? → I used my powers as a WU blogger for good so you could skip the experience of hanging upside down in a ditch and move right to seeing an RCMP dress uniform. Feel free to gaze upon the Canadian actor, Paul Gross, on the set for Due South.

6. Lastly, they don’t lie about a close call’s ability to provide clarity. For weeks after our accident, the most basic of comforts would pierce me with pleasure: the scent of sweaty, uncrushed children on an August day; the ToolMaster’s embrace; the first gulp of ice-cold root beer in a frosted glass; the creaminess of fudge, which miraculously escaped damage though our trailer and SUV were totalled.

You’ll notice, of course, that I didn’t have to have an accident or go camping in any type of trailer to savor these things.

Similarly, in the world of writing, no matter what the numbers or critics proclaim, we have access to the most basic of joys – the ones that pushed us to craft stories in the first place. Let yourself revel in a goofy pun, the scratch of pen on paper, the shape of a lyrical sentence.

Now I’d love to hear about you. Have you had a sobering experience that you use to calibrate goals and set priorities? Have you identified a writing activity you need to discard so you can pursue more affirming plans? Have you decided on writing goals for 2012 or are you playing it loose and enjoying the process? Finally, what is your position on fudge — peppermint or otherwise?

 

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.