Monday I’m taking the One train downtown for a meeting on Wall Street. I know very little about the NYC Metro system and even less about the stock market, but here I am.
I don’t belong there, but I am doing my best to blend in. Wear your black winter jacket and knee-high boots. Don’t make eye contact. Walk fast, and with a purpose. Don’t let them get a whiff of your insecurity. Answer your emails with one hand and sip your overpriced coffee held by the other.
No one notices that I’m ten thousand miles away from my comfort zone.
Tuesday I’m writing a short story in a coffee shop tucked somewhere between my hotel and Times Square. Just start with a sentence. Write fast and with a purpose. Brush off the impostor syndrome that sits with the devil on your left shoulder. Scribble notes with your right hand and sip your overpriced latte held by the left. I haven’t taken a class or written fiction in years, but here I am.
Nothing marks a fresh start quite like a new notebook. Clean lines, a stiff spine, and endless possibilities are tucked away in unmarked paper waiting to meet its pen.
It’s no secret to you, but I’ve been struggling to tighten up my writing habit. To sit down every day and scratch my pen against the eager pages.
My grandfather used to write in a journal every day, and some of those pages recently landed in my lap. I was young when he died and know him mostly through stories my Dad and my Gram Sara tell. Each time I turn a page, I can feel myself getting to know him better, even though he left us over 20 years ago. Some days are boring– recounting the weather and what he ate for lunch. But others describe his grief when his niece died in a car accident and when they lost the family dog, Meg. I feel tethered to him through turkey sandwiches and trips to the bank. Through family dinners and long walks. Through stories about my dad and uncle. Through grief and uncertainty and bouts of unbridled happiness.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? We are connected by the profoundly ordinary.
Most of us don’t live flashy lives. Our days are strung together by fleeting moments of love and pain and mailing the water bill.
I have been making this much more difficult than it needs to be. I don’t need to dream up a new story to tell. Perhaps our own stories are interesting enough.
A torrid college love affair, I thought he was the one. Some things, some people, seem so perfect until you take a closer look. Hindsight is a bitch like that. Looking back through the pages of that old story, it certainly needed editing, a red pen slashing through the ugly parts. There were a lot of ugly parts. The tone was harsh, the characters didn’t have any redeeming qualities, the scenes were redundant and painful to read. Not a protagonist to be found.
I eventually rewrote that story for myself, and it wasn’t easy. I was just so attached to the last one and I was scared to let go of the codependent characters that I learned to love and loathe. This new story is filled with new adventures, arcs and ebbs and flows, both demons and heroes – a tale that doesn’t end when the book cover closes.
It took me a few shitty drafts to get to the story I’m living now. In fact, I haven’t stopped writing them.
I’m learning to sit with the messiness of those first tries – even though I’m programmed to aim for perfection without practice. I want to poach an egg without the yolk breaking, PR my Snatch without working up to it, and write a book without actually writing. The practice, the drafts, are much too painful for someone who likes things that are shiny, consistent, and grammatically pristine.
I want to motherfucking win at everything.
Before you go an label me as so millennial, I’m not expecting a trophy for my participatory delusion. While I want to win without practicing, I’m very aware that it just ain’t gonna happen like that. If it did, I wouldn’t have to make a long list of revisions to the book chapter I’m co-writing or improve the class I’m teaching every single semester. I wouldn’t have to re-poach the eggs, hulk out at the gym, or rewrite run-on sentences. I’d just be genetically awesome.
But alas, not everyone can be Queen Freaking Bey.
I’ve been sitting down to write THE Thing and I keep staring at the cursor blinking back at me. That white screen looks just perfect the way it is, and I don’t want any crappy sentences to dirty it up. So I quit. Not because I want to, but as a favor to this perfect, blank canvas.
This is just one of the lies I tell myself.
That is, until the day that my lunch dates ditched me for more important things like inbox zero and meetings that should be emails. So I pulled out my notebook in the middle of a loud cafeteria. Somehow I found myself writing about that old story where the hero is missing and the characters can’t seem to get their shit together. Ten pages of handwritten, ugly scribbles later, I realize that the shitty first draft from my past will make a less-shitty second one, but on paper and in the past tense this time. It’s the story I need to write before I can get to The Thing. It’s the story that holds the keys to the connections and themes that are locked somewhere deep in my twisty brain.
None of it is perfect. Most of it won’t make the final draft. But all of it is necessary.
We all need draft phases – in job searches, in writing projects, in love. You can’t just want your way into winning – you have to work for it.