figuring it out

however long it takes

“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” — William James. 

I read once that the average meal at a fast food restaurant takes 11 minutes. That’s 11 minutes from walking in the door to ordering, eating and back out to the parking lot. There is a way of approaching life that can be similar to eating at a fast food restaurant.

Fast food restaurants are not about savoring.  Not the food. Not the experience of eating. Not even a peaceful moment to oneself to pause in the middle of a busy day. The process of gobbling down a double cheeseburger with special sauce, large fries and 24 ounces of soda is like swallowing experiences almost without chewing. With no reflection, the mark an experience might leave–and the opportunity for awareness–is minimal. With no reflection, experiences are like the drive through where one orders to fill immediate hunger but fails to feed the soul.

With no reflection, experiences are like the drive through where one orders to fill immediate hunger but fails to feed the soul.

I listened today to an interview with a Scottish crime novelist who is about to publish her sixth murder mystery set in the Shetland Islands, a subarctic archipelago northeast of Great Britain. Ann Cleeves was a 24-year-old college dropout when she first came to the Shetland Islands. As she explained in the NPR story she worked as a cook in a bird observatory. She knew nothing about either cooking or birds.

Cleeves had already written twenty crime novels, one a year for 20 years, without any notoriety by the time she returned to The Shetlands with her husband and became inspired by a scene of black ravens standing on crystalline white snow. The scene became her first book set in The Shetlands, Raven Black. There is now a BBC Television series based on her books.

For me the important part of Cleeves’ story is the 20 years she spent writing unheralded novels. Now that she is on the cultural radar, Cleeves’ success might appear to be overnight, like JK Rowling’s with The Harry Potter Series, or Steven King’s supernatural novels like Carrie or

But to focus on just the most recent celebrity is to miss the bigger story, akin to going only to the drive through for meals. Rather than being instant, success for Cleeves and many others is the culmination of a process that has a beginning and repeated, continual efforts over a long time, interspersed with little failures. In The Rise, Sarah Lewis describes how many creatives believe their works are never finished, despite the labels of “genius”, “innovation”, “masterpiece” others place on their work. She tells a story of how Cezanne only signed about 10 percent of his paintings because he didn’t believe them worthy of being called finished. William Faulkner re-wrote sections of The Sound and the Fury after it was published.

Malcolm Gladwell famously dubbed the time creatives spend developing their abilities the “10,000-hour Rule.” His research shows it took any number of people viewed as successful today at least 10,000 hours of continual effort to master their crafts to create the opportunity to succeed. People like Steve Balmer and Bill Gates. Mozart and a host of artists, dancers, writers, and other creative types.

I have been writing for 34 years, ever since I started in journalism as a junior in college. Writing has not always been my sole focus, something I did everyday or nearly everyday, except for my time as a newspaper reporter. Yet I have always yearned to write, either as part of my work or as something I did on the side. But for a long time I felt if I wasn’t serious about writing–as in earning income from my work–then I should be focusing on more important things. It used to be for me earning a dollar from writing was the only gauge of its value.

Rather than being instant…success is the culmination of a process that has a beginning and repeated, continual efforts over a long time, interspersed with little failures.

When my daughter Paige was born I got more serious about journaling. In the 17 years since, I have kept a continuous journal as a reflection of what is going on in my life and in the lives of my kids and those around me. Though there are gaps in my writing history, periods where my self-reflection was limited or where problems I encountered didn’t need to be worked out in my head and on paper, writing has been an important part of who I am. It’s like an ongoing dialogue with myself to figure my way out of challenges. Other times, it has been simply to brain dump and feel better.

Inevitably, my writing has been a way to learn about life. I like to think in many ways it has made me a better person. To reflect upon my thinking, my choices, and the dilemmas I have faced offers me perspective on how I can do better.

This morning’s NPR interview reminded me that reward for any worthwhile endeavor is always out somewhere on the horizon. It is the doing that is most important much more so than reaching the end. Ann Cleeves couldn’t have known that her trip with her husband to the Shetlands would yield six books, a TV series and success as a writer. She toiled for 20 years writing middling crime novels only few bought and certainly no BBC TV executives. But it is precisely this patient practice through all those years that set Cleeves up for success. Just as all the hours upon hours of programming Balmer and Gates did as teens and early twenty somethings helped them create a software giant.

Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use. ~Earl Nightingale

My “toil”, if it is even fair to call it, is more private and less public. I have no novels, not even a published short story. The blue couch essays have been a shortcut to get the sense of being published and having someone read my words. It is not the” thing.” The “thing” would be the published book. It is the purpose upon which my life has been built.

All the other “work” I’ve done has been distraction, superfluous. Powerful though the distractions have been, they really amounted needless ambition to keep up with former colleagues in a meaningless chase for some sort of ego boost. I was bent on being liked and accepted into the club, like some tightly knit cross-country team from high school.

Through the years I got inklings my ladder was on the wrong wall but I was either too ignorant or too intoxicated by what I was doing to see.

Through the years I got inklings my ladder was on the wrong wall but I was either too ignorant or too intoxicated by what I was doing to see. Pulling into a Best Western or Holiday Inn and with my American Express Card with Nike Corporate on it made me feel important.

Writing is the more difficult path. It is the one with fewer obvious rewards. It is also the one harder for others to understand. Yet it has always felt more authentic. What scared me away was the practical equation that gets almost everyone:

work = money = security

The truth is that work never means security, just the illusion of security. Once one is fired a couple times the idea becomes clearer. Each time I have been fired, instead of pausing to decipher the real meaning, I jumped back onto the Habitrail of job seeking and interviewing until at last, I gave my security to a new employer.

And while I’ve tried to become less encumbered by material things as my awareness of their lethal nature to my freedom has grown, I have not run away from them altogether either. I have a mortgage and a car and child support and health insurance. Some things I can’t get rid of, like kids with desires and needs. I still buy clothes, although more deliberately and when anything comes in, something else goes away.

But I haven’t yet solved the work = (enough) money = security equation. I’m not very efficient at converting work into money if it doesn’t involve a salary.

Spending so much time pondering this equation drains energy that would otherwise be devoted to creative endeavors, like writing.

I don’t care about many things more. My wife and my kids above all. Then my close friends. I come last. In each day I have to take care of each of them first before I get to me. So I have gone to work deliberately for 20 plus years knowing that it was this obligation underlying   getting up and going on the road. I was attracted to the work at times, even intoxicated by it.

But I’ve learned also that when one takes a long view, one that spans over time, you begin to see patterns and values. The effort of doing the simple thing daily as part of an as yet unrealized and unbroken chain toward a vision of the future becomes less drudgery and more meaningful. It’s as if sitting down everyday at the typewriter, er, keyboard, and writing a few hundred words that might become something nearly worthy of publishing is more important than the destination itself.  Like skipping the drive through and preparing lunch yourself.

In achieving anything meaningful, it is repeating the mantra, “however long it takes,” quietly over and over again.



please let me know your thoughts.