When I was a kid, I was labeled “not sporty.” I was also never described as “adventurous,” that I can recall. Ideas of sporty and adventurous in my culture were limited to things like basketball and Lewis and Clark. As I got older, I realized a few things about that: one, sports are not limited to group sports; two, I am fairly good at solitary sports; three, I have always been and will always be adventurous.
Why bring this up? I have been thinking about (as usual) what it takes to be a successful author. Among the ingredients it takes to be remarkably successful (at just about anything, especially in the creative fields) is a healthy dose of gumption. And by gumption, I mean the definition of “courage, spunk, guts.” Fortunately, I have this in spades.
How do I know? I have a very long history of biting off more than I can chew. In a more literal sense of the phrase, I can remember being disciplined as a child for frequently heaping giant portions of food on to my plate and then not being able to finish it. Likewise, my parents still talk about how I liked to order the strangest thing on the menu and sometimes refused to eat it all (and sometimes discovered something new and exciting).
I like challenging myself, doing things that are at first uncomfortable or impossible. At five, I was attending overnight camps, of my own volition. By six, I was starring in the school musical. At eleven, along with attending three summer camps, I signed my parents up for an informational meeting to host a French exchange student and send me to France for a month. It took some convincing, but it worked. Just like it worked for them to let me join two groups to travel around Michigan every weekend of high school, study abroad in Israel (that was a hard sell), or marry a guy I had been dating for two weeks. My husband’s turning thirty?: think I’ll throw a self-catered, three-course dinner for eighty people. Every time my kids have another birthday, I go way over the top. The examples extend to the large things (entrepreneurship, international volunteering) and to daily life. Let’s just say, people are often balking at my plans.
Recently, I was in a conversation with someone at an event that I had catered, cooking for 120 people out of my galley kitchen, and the conversation extended to our “Summer of Camping.” This summer, Kevin and I with the kids are taking four camping trips, from the ocean to the mountains, from local to New York, from backpacking in to driving twenty minutes down a two-rut road. Then the conversation led to the word “adventurous,” and long after I had been called elsewhere to relate my recipe for Sweet Potato Bites, I was still thinking about Benjamin Franklin.
I suppose that, although I have never put it this way, Franklin is one of my personal heroes. Likewise, Leonardo da Vinci. I really admire people who constantly push the limits of themselves, their culture, and continue to bite off more than they can chew. Of course, part of what I admire about very successful people, too, is their ability to focus. This is something I don’t come by automatically, except in the moment of creativity. I am working on it. And yet, it seems that people like Franklin and da Vinci didn’t need to have too much focus, because they were so very, very intense. Maybe that’s the word I’m looking for.
Of course, admiring intensity begs the issue of sacrifice. Like Stephen King, who I have noted over the years as one of my heroes. I often have flashes across my inner eye (facilitated by what he shares in On Writing) of the young King walking in the front door of a fluorescent-lit, old, ranch house, dropping his keys and coat on the hall table, and continuing up the hall as children run yelling and laughing and threading in between his advancement, until he hunches down into a torn, itchy chair at his desk which barely fits into what should be the coat closet, and picks up a sheet of paper and threads it into his rusty typewriter. Then my internal image moves in fast-motion, as King runs hands through his disheveled hair and pecks at the keyboard, kids keep running through the scene behind him, now in pajamas, his wife glances around the corner as she wipes soap bubbles from her hands, and then the scene darkens except for the avocado-green desk lamp shoved into the corner of the closet casting a ring of light around King and his ever-pecking fingers. This is what I imagine a life of both gumption and focus is like: intense and sacrificial.
And yet, most nights I just can’t manage to do anything but read after the kids are in bed. And I also can’t help but wonder if there is something of a gender difference to deal with, both culturally and biologically. Being a mom is, indeed, a horse of a different color, being female is an ice cream of a different flavor. And being a normally functioning member of society may just be in converse stance to being one of the truly great, super-producing creators. Was Franklin a good father? A good husband? Did da Vinci feel conflicted? Does King have regrets?
Because while I think I have gumption, and even though I have lofty goals and work really hard, I’m afraid that my lack of focus and my desire to please other people has sabotaged my brilliant career. So far. There are plenty of artists who got a late start, and I am working on my focus, if only I could figure out what I am willing to sacrifice. And will it be enough? And can’t I just excel in several areas, like motherhood and volunteerism and cooking and painting and writing and publishing and photography? I know plenty of people would tell me not to be so intense–to stick with what I do best and aim lower–but I admire people who have been that intense and changed the world. If they aimed lower, where would we be?
Illusions of grandeur, much? Nah. I think that part of being a healthy adult is integrating the things from childhood that were good into the things about maturity that are good. It’s easy to slough off such things as wonder and curiosity and hope when you get hit square between the eyes with a mortgage and bad customer service and sick children. But what if I can keep my dreams, even as my life turns from its peak and moves toward its inevitable end? What if I can start each new day expecting my accomplishments and my work to grow bigger and better, even as they change? Can I be both thankful and peaceful and have gumption? Can I be thankful for my gumption, and embrace a life that may not be the easiest but will at least be rich and will be mine? And can I accept all my striving if it seems to go unnoticed? In other words, will answering the siren call of my own drummer (alone) be enough to justify my actions?
To an extent, all writers need to answer questions like these, or make the decision of not making a decision. What I mean is, succeeding as a writer takes gumption, focus, and sacrifice. Plenty of people just let their writer dreams die, or give up when the going gets tough (or too long), or never hone in on their specific goals (or carry them to their conclusion). And to make it from here to your golden city, you HAVE to do all of the following:
- Make specific goals and dream big. Deadlines help.
- Root out expendable things in life that are distracting from those goals.
- Don’t give up. Even after what seems like a long time. Even after someone tells you you stink.
- Keep improving. Keep learning.
- Cling. Like bad static.
- Finish projects, make them relatively perfect, then air them out for the world to see.
I have long been intrigued by Olympians (like the modern sportspeople, not the ancient Greeks). Their lives are so other from the rest of us, at least while they are of a certain age. From the time they are little children, they are dedicated to a gumption, focus, and intensity that could easily match Franklin or King. But at what cost? A great one, I suppose. But is it really just that their choices are more stark to us, since they are so other? Put it this way: we’ve all got only one timeline to fill–an exceedingly limited one–and every decision we make, every day, is at the sacrifice of something–everything–else.