Make the Most of Your Wilderness Years

Back in my twenties, when I’d just graduated from college and was working at my first (and then second) job, I don’t think I did any writing worth talking about. Did I even write at all? I feel like I must have, but I would have to go page through my old journals to confirm that.

Well, heck, why not? Let’s step into the wayback machine!

Picture from paper journal from 1993

My epitaph: “He had such nice penmanship.”

OK, a couple observations: 1) Wow, my handwriting was a lot neater twenty-two years ago. 2) Wow, my life was boring. Apparently, the biggest news of the day was my Lyle Lovett CD had a scratch, I’d just adopted a kitten, and my adult cat was playing too rough with him. Gripping stuff, I tell you.

I’ve come to think of that time as my years wandering the wilderness, writing-wise. Things were kind of a muddle for me back then. (Right, as if they still aren’t.) I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I’d been “practical” and gone to journalism school instead for my undergraduate degree. (Trust me, it seemed practical at the time.) I knew all about the inverted pyramid and Associated Press style, but I don’t think I knew anything about telling a story apart from keeping it short and hitting the five W’s—which is not bad advice, even if it’s incomplete.

But then I came across this line, toward the back of the notebook: “I want the people in my stories to be like the people in an Edward Hopper painting.” So maybe I was thinking about it a little bit.

Still, there were months and months at a time where I wrote nothing. It seems like I wasn’t working on anything, and I remember why: I thought I had nothing to write about.

That’s probably true, if that one snippet from my journal is any indication. I didn’t have a lot of life experience to draw from. I hadn’t gotten any tread marks on my heart (yet). I hadn’t bought a house and adopted a dog and run a marathon and hurt my back so badly I thought at some point I probably wouldn’t be able to walk (oh yeah, my thirties were going to be just awesome).

On the other hand, I think now about how much time I wasted, as if I had limitless amounts of it ahead of me. (Hey, I was in my twenties, and I think that feeling sort of goes with the territory. So, even if you’re reading this now and you’re in your twenties and I tell you—Guess what, that thing you think about how you have all the time in the world? Well, you don’t—that’s totally going to fall on deaf ears and I think it’s supposed to. Anyway! Moving on.)

I have little doubt that most of what I might have written at that time would have been just awful. I was timid in so many ways, I have no doubt that would have been the overriding tone in anything I produced. Do I regret not writing more back then? Yes and no. No, because it wouldn’t have really resulted in anything I would have been happy to show someone else. Yes, because that so wouldn’t have been the point.

I could have really used the practice. That’s what you’re supposed to do in the wilderness: Explore! Turn over rocks, run your walking stick through the weeds and see what you find. Even if I had nothing to write about, I would have been training myself how to write. I could have been writing to find out what I did have to say (even if, at the time, it was not much). I think it would have been a worthwhile effort, even if it produced nothing I could have called a story.

Eventually, I had to spend time in the wilderness hacking away at words, trying to figure out the lay of the land. Instead of going at that in earnest during my twenties, though, I put off most of it until my thirties, when I realized the urge to write wasn’t going to leave me alone. By that point, I’d started wandering through the underbrush and hadn’t even realized it until I was well and truly lost.

We are way too good at convincing ourselves we shouldn’t bother, and it’s hard to turn that off. We put so much pressure on ourselves that everything we do has to be perfect or publishable or going somewhere, when maybe just the doing of it is the point.

And today isn’t a bad day to start, either.


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