The Dividends of Drifting

I apologize for the late post today; I was having technical difficulties. And now, a confession: I wrote this post to justify my upcoming behavior. For the next three weeks, I’ll be on vacation: letting my mind roam at will like a free-range chicken. Doing so will make it impossible for Aunt Beulah to post on October 6 and 13; but she will return on October 20: rested, renewed, and eager to engage with her readers again.Top view of woman sitting in veranda

It’s foolish to spend every minute of our leisure time imitating The Little Engine That Could.

When our passion for golfing, painting, fishing, spelunking, volunteering, or Words With Friends begins to feel like a job, it helps to take a break, listen to ourselves breathe, and drift aimlessly — though we should never stop spending time with our families and brushing our teeth.

Because I believe a body in motion tends to stay in motion, I exercise every day, varying the vigor of my activities. I also give myself permission to abandon my exercise routine on occasion. When I do so, whether for a few days or weeks, my rested body rewards me with increased motivation and effort when I pull on my exercise clothes and go at it again.

My passion for writing makes it my most absorbing and time-consuming activity, but I regularly abandon it for hours or days at a time. Doing so allows my mind to drift, to mull over problems, to reboot my ability to create.

When I stop writing to eat Oreos, ride my bike, or scratch my head and stare, my subconscious continues to consider issues, ideas, and techniques. Then, sooner of later, while I’m mindlessly deadheading my geraniums or cooking dinner, new ideas occur: I’ll know how to rephrase an awkward sentence, reorganize a piece for better flow, or handle a tricky transition. Perfect synonyms, apt metaphors, and future topics come to me easily when I stop pursuing them.

I also like to put aside a blog post or column I’ve finished and forget it for several days or even weeks. When I look at it again, I find weaknesses I didn’t sense when working on the piece continuously. My refreshed eyes are more discerning eyes.

No matter what activities we pursue for entertainment, betterment, or fulfillment, drifting pays dividends.

And I’m off to collect a few.

The Imposter Syndrome

A friend, a professional musician, told me that sometimes, waiting to be introduced, he looked at his trombone and thought, “What is this thing I’m holding? And what do all those people out there expect me to do with it?”

He called these occasional feelings of incompetence the imposter syndrome.

businesswoman speechThinking he was joking, I laughed.

Then came an evening when I finished reading to an audience from my book and asked for questions. A young woman volunteered first: “When did you discover your writer’s voice, and how did you develop it?”

 I stared at her, thoughts ricocheting in my head: “Who’s she talking to? Me? What’s voice? Who’s a writer? I have nothing to say to these people.”

I cleared my throat and managed to choke out an answer. Then, through some miraculous act, I returned to my body. My mind cleared, and my words flowed in response to their questions.

PARKERI described how the best advice I’d ever heard about writing came from Dorothy Parker, who wrote for top magazines including The New Yorker. When asked how to become a good writer, she responded in six words, “Read, read, read, write, write, write,” and took the next question.

I follow her counsel nearly every day.

94px-Stephen_King,_Comicon I talked about a revision strategy Stephen King advocates in his book On Writing: using the delete key. Frequently. It might seem ironic, but Mr. King, a writer who publishes books as thick as dictionaries, cuts his manuscripts daily and then again by at least ten percent after he thinks they’re finished.

After studying his reasoning, I vowed to eliminate bird walks, distractions, any word that doesn’t directly contribute  to my story or message — even when they are charming words I labored over and fell in love with.

Strengthening my relationship with the delete key has also strengthened my prose. I now understand George Bernard Shaw who sent a letter to his friend ending with: “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

I also told my audience about my fourth-grade students who taught me another writing skill: reading my writing aloud to myself or others before I publish it.

In a safe classroom, most children like to read what they’ve written to their peers and, when doing so, read with conviction. Occasionally, however, a child in my class would grind to a halt, scrutinize what was written, look puzzled, then smile with relief and explain: “Oh, I forgot some words,” or, “I meant to say George did it,” or even, “That doesn’t sound good. I need to fix it.”

We hear flaws more clearly when we read our work aloud, because, when we read silently, no matter how many times, our sly, informed minds supply what is needed; and we think everything is hunky-dory.

I read everything I write aloud: sometimes the entire piece, sometimes only the troublesome parts, but always. My husband calls it my muttering phase.

As I shared with my audience the things I’ve learned by reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing, I realized I knew something about the craft of stringing words together in a meaningful way. I was not an imposter.

I suppose all of us who work at something we’re passionate about can fall prey to self-doubt and a loss of confidence. Fortunately, it’s usually fleeting.

Is It A Hobby or a Passion?

A young woman with impeccable posture rat-tatted decisively on stiletto heels toward the waiting area where I sat. Pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head, she sat, checked her watch, sighed, and turned to me.

Weary, travel-stained, not wanting to talk, gulping a salad I had purchased as I galloped toward my connecting flight, I avoided eye contact.

“Have they offered an explanation for the late departure?” she asked.

“No.”

“I have an important meeting I simply can’t miss. I hate this airport. Why are flights out of Denver always late?” foul weather

Resisting the urge to point to the windows and the raging spring blizzard obscuring the runways, I shrugged my shoulders and returned to my salad. Undeterred, she said, “I’ll bet you’re going to Reno to gamble.”

Wondering if her assessment had been influenced by a stray bit of spinach caught in my teeth, I replied, “I’m doing a book reading in Carson City tomorrow.”

“Oh, you write? Good for you! How nice it must be at your age to find something to keep you busy. I always thought writing might be a fun little hobby; maybe I’ll tinker with it some day.”

Well, thank you very much: in addition to being as irritating as the United States Congress, Miss Hoity Toity, you just helped clarify my thinking about hobbies and passions: two concepts I’m prone to ramble on about as though they were identical twins.

I think I might have been looking for a hobby — an enjoyable activity — when I enrolled in a memoir-writing class after I retired. But the joy I found in writing quickly caused it to become a passion — an object of intense emotions and enthusiasm.

Writing engrosses me, challenges me, rewards me. At times, I also feel disappointed, frustrated, or discouraged. But, invariably, I wake up the next day eager to tackle the problems that defeated me the day before.woman using laptop on the bed

Deep in these thoughts, I munched my salad, ignored my self-important neighbor as she bossed people around on her cell phone, and wondered what separates one person’s hobby from another person’s passion.

To me writing is a passion and knitting is a hobby. I’m compelled to write or revise nearly every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes; but I can go long periods of time without feeling the need to knit one and purl two.

It could be the other way around. I could be immersed in patterns and yarn and learning new stitches every day, feeling engrossed, challenged, and rewarded, telling others that knitting is my passion.

So the difference between a passion and a hobby seems to be an individual choice based on the level of commitment, fascination, and reward that any activity from chess to fly-fishing to dancing offers its adherents.

Thanks to Miss Highfalutin and the chain of thought she motivated, I now understand that though I have many hobbies, I have only one passion. As Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Wishes and Daydreams

Unknown-1 Some time ago, the hospital in my small town ran an ad in the local newspaper to introduce the community to a recently hired doctor. In it, the doctor answered questions about his life, training, and experiences.

When asked about his interests, he explained that while growing up in Oklahoma, he developed an appreciation for working the land and outdoor activities. He then added, “Some days I think all I want is a really nice tractor.”

I suppose all of us are susceptible to daydreams: crossing the ocean in a canoe, being a horse whisperer, owning a tractor.

I like to imagine what strangers long for: Does the lady in the supermarket line picture herself dancing the Nutcracker? Does the teenager riding his bike by my house imagine himself scoring the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl? Is the politician working the crowd thinking about the songs he’d like to write some day?

My mother sometimes voiced her daydream: “I wish I could have one day, an entire day, when you children could get along. Just one day!”

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Dad longed for something grander in scope. He wanted to pack us all up in the questionable vehicle of the moment and move to Alaska.

I, too, had a dream. For forty years, as I helped others become writers, I fantasized about sitting with an introspective look in front of a typewriter in a quiet, bare space — like photographs I’d seen of Ernest Hemingway during his Paris years — and writing whatever I could find inside me.

I never imagined fame and wealth. I never thought, “I’d like to write novels or poems or maybe messages for greeting cards.” I merely thought about a quiet place where I could give myself to the act of writing.

I don’t remember Mom enjoying an argument-free day when my siblings and I were young; but, as adults, we frequently found our way, singly or together, to her home, where we visited with the woman we loved and never once quarreled.

Dad never lived in Alaska, but his daughter Barbara made her living in high school classrooms in Anchorage and Homer; and Dad visited her often.

I don’t know if the doctor has a tractor.

images-5I realized my daydream. Though I don’t look like Hemingway and my home doesn’t resemble his Paris office, I retired and began to write, losing myself in it as he did. And every time I sit quietly with my computer to do so, I’m grateful.

It’s never too late for your dreams to come true.