When I was young and just getting a foothold in college, someone read something I wrote and told me that it was good. Of course that supported my secret idea that I should be a writer. But, as with practically every other human pursuit, writing takes more than talent. As Between the World and Me author Ta-Nevis Coates says, it takes perseverance. That quality is necessary not just to get your work published, but to actually produce the kind of writing that you might dream of doing. But instead of persistence, I had fear—that I didn’t have what it would take to succeed, that the road would be long and all uphill.
And so, instead of beginning the trudge up that road, I took a side path and became a teacher of writing. I continued to write here and there, never pushing myself much, but if I squinted enough, I could imagine I was pursuing my dream.
Somewhere near the end of that nearly 30-year writing-related career, I was struck by the fact that the desire to sit down and actually pursue the craft seriously had not left me. I am realizing now, as I talk to other retired folks, and even those who are still in the workplace, that many grew up with dreams, interests, hobbies, and skills that might have been challenging to pursue, but even more difficult to let go of completely. Because so much of our 20s, 30s and beyond are spent earning a living, many of us set that interest in photography or baking or sewing on the shelf and figured there was no room in our grown-up “responsible” lives for something so self-indulgent and seemingly unimportant.
But I haven’t been able to let it go totally. When I was 60, and still working in education, I returned to college myself, to a low-residency MFA program, to study writing again. It’s still no easier for me to write something as eloquent as it sounds in my head, but I feel a commitment to it that I didn’t feel when I was willing to set it aside in my 20s. Writing has been a loyal but very annoying friend all these years, poking at me to pay more attention to it, to quit ignoring it. I was successful in feeding it small bits here and there, but its tenacity is truthfully kind of amazing to me.
I love a thing that This American Life host Ira Glass says about creativity and sticking with it when you can’t do work that meets your standards. “A lot of people never get past this phase and they quit," he says. "We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
So here I am, at almost 65, fighting my way through as if I were 20 again, but with much more persistence. I barely have the 10,000 hours left in my life that Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell says is necessary to achieve mastery at something, but I don’t really care. When I think of the thousands of hours I devoted to doing my very best work in my career, it makes me know I have it in me to push past roadblocks and barriers. So I’m challenging myself to do the writing, to follow the long-ago dream, to make my words sing on paper as they do in my head.
And, just so I’m not alone in this, I’m challenging you, too. What was your fantasy, that thing you used to imagine yourself doing or that thing you did, but not as well as you wished you could? Drag it off that shelf where you hid behind those old shoes. Dust it off and start it up again. Reacquaint yourself with this thing you loved and let slip away. It may be an uphill trudge for all of us, but I'm convinced it will lead us to parts of ourselves we will all be so happy to meet again.