I was looking through some old files and found this essay from 2006 that I wrote for “Business First.” It’s a good reminder for me. Maybe it is for you too…
I recently attended the funeral of a cousin who had been a big part of my youth but had slipped to the fringes of my adult life. She was fifty-two and left a husband and three children between the ages of nine and twenty-five. Her death was sudden and terrible and brought the extended family together to mourn and remember.
At the service, I sat in the back, and as the preacher worked his way through the message, I watched the family and friends gathered there and wondered what they thought. I also wondered about my cousin, her regrets and what they might have been. After a while, I turned the question on myself and gave it serious thought.
About a year ago, I made a leap of faith and acted on a desire that I’d been putting off for years. When I was in my twenties, it was easy to avoid things – there was always tomorrow – but the back end of my thirties had left me with some looming regrets that were getting harder to ignore.
The biggest of these was an unfulfilled desire to write, to tell stories about things that were important to me. I grew up telling stories and dreaming about having them published, but feared the vulnerability that comes with putting thoughts to paper. I had made a few lame attempts, but retreated to my books and journal at the first twinge of exposure.
The pangs of regret were slight, at first, and easy to ignore, but they persisted and grew to the point of distraction, until my fear of regret overcame my fear of being judged and goaded me into action.
There were many false-starts. After a lot of shuffling around the house, I realized I couldn’t work there. The distractions were too much. Evenings were the same. The intrusions on my schedule forced me to consider other options, and I ended up at a local coffee shop, hanging out for a couple hours each morning before work. I hated to give up sleep, but it was the best option.
Those first weeks were spent reading and thinking about writing. I didn’t put a single word to paper. I didn’t know where to begin, so I read how-to books by Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and John Dufresne, as well as countless pieces gathered from the internet. I pored over each text with a red pen and yellow highlighter, looking for clues and gaining some much needed discipline.
One morning, a few months later, I showed up, as usual, but when I grabbed the book I’d been reading, I felt weird. I opened it and struggled to get through a single page. I couldn’t focus. I tried again, but my mind kept drifting off to a story idea. I couldn’t shake it, so I put the book away and took out a legal pad and started writing. Within moments I was drawn into an alternate reality and became so focused that I was late for work. I went back to the story at lunch, that day, and couldn’t wait to pick it up the following morning. I was on my way.
A mentor encouraged me to keep busy and produce as much work as I could, believing that a high volume of output would help to speed up the learning curve. He also believed in the pressure of deadlines and suggested setting fake ones until real deadlines came along. I followed his advice and soon found myself juggling four deadlines with the stuff I was doing for myself.
There’s a quote by Woody Allen that goes, “80% of success is just showing up.” I love that line and repeat it often. I have great faith in the idea behind it because, after showing up at a coffee shop every morning for more than a year, reading and thinking and staring out windows, I finally had a breakthrough. I put a word on a piece of paper, and then another, and then another until I had many legal pads filled with words. It’s difficult work and I still worry about what people will think, but I’m having too much fun to stop now. My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.