Join me now as we travel back in time to our high school graduations. There we all stand in our caps and gowns, waiting for our names to be called. The future stands before us, and all the world lies at our feet. So many possibilities…so much uncertainty…so much fear. Whether you graduated back in the day (like I did – back before the advent of the phrase “back in the day”) or just last year, the feeling remains the same: Gulp…now what?
Suddenly, a tiny traveler from your own future materializes before you and gives you a comprehensive list of everything you’ve done from high school graduation until today. Some items on this list don’t surprise you much. (Which ones?) Others astound you. (Again, which ones?) On my list it says that I went on to graduate from college and bum around Europe for a summer. Given who I was in that time and that place, these things were to be expected. On the other hand, I also learn that in 1990 I’m going to win a world gold medal in the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. That would certainly have surprised me on graduation day. After all, I was voted in high school least likely to complete the fifty-yard dash. I became a gold-medal athlete? In a sport I’d never heard of? How did that happen?
Even more astounding, I turned out to be a writer. What? No way? I’d never be that brave. I could never take that risk. Sure, I’d fooled around with creative writing in high school, and yeah people thought I was pretty funny and clever, but making a living with words was about a million miles away from my thinking back then. I thought I’d end up as a lawyer or some other sort of white-collar professional. That’s what my script seemed to call for, and I hadn’t yet lived long enough to know how far from the script I could – or would – eventually veer. If I had seen on this list, “You will write seven novels,” or even “You will write one novel,” I would have dismissed the idea as a beguiling fantasy. I mean, it sounds good, but seriously, no way.
What was beyond the realm of your comprehension that you’ve since gone on to achieve? You don’t have to guess: The evidence is right there on your list. Maybe it’s something as quotidian (yet critical) as having a family or finding love. Maybe it’s getting your first agent or publishing your first short story. A cursory examination of this magical list will reveal a whole host of life experiences that would have seemed not just unlikely but literally inconceivable to your high school self. Here’s one from my list that would have flabbergasted young me: that I’d end up running the writing staff of the Russian version of an American situation comedy.Impossible, I would have said. I didn’t know the first thing about situation comedy. And weren’t we at (cold) war with Russia? Yet it happened. It happened more than once.
What’s one from your list that would have flabbergasted high school you? What’s another?
[pullquote]Caught up in the day-to-day struggle to be the writers we want to be, we tend to lose sight of the fact that we already are these writers [/pullquote]
There are a couple of reasons for pursing this little thought-experiment. One is just to help us see how awesomely awesome we already are in our lives, our experiences, our evolution, our careers. Caught up in the day-to-day struggle to be the writers we want to be, we tend to lose sight of the fact that we already are these writers – with numerous tangible achievements that would have dumbfounded, yet deeply pleased, our younger selves. The other is to demonstrate how much raw opportunity yet lies ahead. Frustrated by your lack of readership and recognition? Hey, me, too. But guess what? Life is long. As long as we’re still breathing in and breathing out, we have ample opportunity to accomplish wondrous things. Myself, I’m 58 years old, 40 years out of high school. My record of achievement includes two dozen books, countless (okay, countable) television and film scripts, and the privilege of having taught writers in 30 countries on five continents. I still have another ten, 20, 30, 40 years go to, plenty of time to write more, teach more, and deepen my understanding of what I call “the isness of it all.” Plenty of time, in other words, to continue my ongoing graduation from the person I am into the person I will become. Surely something of what I experience between now and the end of the line will come as a jaw-dropper to 58-year-old me. Or let’s put it this way: I’d be disappointed if it turned out otherwise.
Back in high school, I could never have imagined these things. It’s not that my imagination was that impoverished; rather, it’s that fear censored my desire. I could never dare to dream so grandly as to publish even one book. How could such a monumental thing be done by little me? Of course I didn’t stay “little me.” I grew, the way every writer grows, every person grows, step by step and day by day. I mastered sentences, paragraphs, chapters, outlines, drafts, notes, revisions, and all the other tasks that go into writing a book. I mastered them one at a time, and I didn’t master any of them all at once. But that’s the part that my high school self wouldn’t understand: Nothing happens all at once. It all happens in pieces, over time. I became a writer like we all do, a word at a time, learning and growing in my craft as I served my years-long apprenticeship.
If you’re a tyro writer serving your apprenticeship now, know that wondrous things lie ahead. You don’t have to take this on faith; you can see it in the wondrous things you’ve already done – things that would certainly have seemed incredible to that younger version of yourself. If you’re a well-tempered writer like me, who has enjoyed some success but not superstardom, take great heart in the successes you have had. Your life, and mine, are already richer than our teenage imagination could ever have conceived. What comes next is really just gravy.
(A tip of the cap to Steve Jacobson for the genesis of this thought-experiment. www.jacobson4president.com.) Okay, share with me, campers. What’s on your list of future passed that would have made your high school self say, “No frickin’ way”? Isn’t it amazing that it already has come true?