A friend from many years ago emailed me recently. In part of our email exchange, he talked about parts of his life I had missed in the years we hadn't been in touch. He let me know about a new hobby, and commented, "This is something I should have started thirty years ago."
Not much of the conversation stuck with me other than that comment of his, which was accompanied in my mind with the (possibly a) Chinese proverb:
"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."
In contrast to the quote, my friend's comment seemed hard to me. "Should" can be such an ugly word, especially when used with regret. It is judgemental. It is dismissive. It assumes you were wrong with a previous choice.
"I should have done this."
"I shouldn't have done that."
We are all making the best choices we can for ourselves, given the constraints of knowledge, time, and motivation at any moment. Who is to say that one choice is better than the next, even when looking back?
So, yeah, maybe my friend should have predicted the future with uncanny accuracy and known when he was five what he wanted to do for his entire life. I maybe I should be kicking myself for things I've done or left undone.
I'm not going to kick, though. Instead, I'm going to go plant a tree.
Today is the second best day to do it.
One year ago
I wrote this essay at 7:30 in the morning, while pushing my daughter in the stroller to daycare. I juggled my phone in one hand jotting notes while I pushed with the other, dodging sidewalk cracks.
I couldn’t set the idea aside until later, or else it would have escaped. And I couldn’t let my daughter idle on the sidewalk while I got it all down. I had to do both at the same time, wrestling words in one hand and the obligations of life in the other.
That’s when writing always happens, at least to me. It comes like a reflex to some unseen stimulus. Writing has rarely been something I could plan with a dedicated evening, a favorite beverage, and the right soundtrack (though I tried). It’s always been more like a summer thunderstorm, coming on suddenly and intensely, and over as soon as it began. (As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little bit better at predicting the weather, but I am no rainmaker.)
I know I’m not the only one for whom this is the case, which always gives me both comfort and amusement. Our collective attics are weighed down by unpublished chapbooks and spiral-bound short stories. Whether we were school newspaper editors, literary magazine contributors, or secret poets scrawling unseen volumes, so many of us share this writing past, this creative history, and in many ways it shapes our professional present.
For me, writing was always about searching for answers, trying to decode myself and the world around me. I was a reluctant journalism major because my practical side worried about the value of a creative writing degree, then the internet hijacked that career path. But especially early on, my heart was with poetry. I wrote a prolific number of poems through my 20s, getting a few published here and there. I flirted heavily with the idea of getting an MFA. But mainly I wrote it because I had to — it felt visceral and necessary. It took me a while to fall in love with journalism, but I was born enamored with poetry.
I once, somewhat cornily, described poetry as markup for reality. Hokey, yes, but also true. Meter and rhyme provide form, while language delivers meaning. In trying to make sense of an amorphous, chaotic world, it always helped me to pin it down in verse.
Today, as a content strategist, I do much the same. I strive to give information form and meaning, in the hopes of facilitating comprehension and action. While I rarely get the chance to work in verse, I feel like I apply my experience as a poet every day, in one way or another, whether it is crafting the perfect copy or helping to create an experience that is not just functional but meaningful, even beautiful. I feel that this description could easily apply to other disciplines in our field. And maybe not poetry for some — maybe playwriting, or short stories.
The most notable difference for us secret poets between then and now is we have learned the value of revision, critique, and collaboration. What was once a solitary act has become shared and public. The defensiveness with which we once protected our precious, perfect art has been replaced by the courage to kill our darlings in the name of making it work. We learned to look at a deadline as inspiration rather than waiting for a bolt from the blue.
In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe explained creative inspiration in a way that resonated with me.
The best songs are the ones I don’t have to think about, the ones I don’t over-think or have to craft in order to complete. I think the unthought songs, the ones that come pouring out of me, are more real: the vomit songs. Losing My Religion was a vomit song. Man On The Moon. Sad Professor on the last album. Those are the songs that are truly inspired, they just come pouring out. I don’t feel I’m a holy conduit to some bigger thing that comes dropping from the heavens. It’s just something that I truly believe is inside all of us, whether we can access it or not.
Now, I know that in the work we do, vomit songs typically don’t get the job done. But there’s something in that impulse worth retaining and nurturing — that spark, that creative reflex that likely drove many of us, down one circuitous route or another, to the desks we occupy today. There’s a place for that in our work, and it is still there whether we acknowledge it or not. That's how we are wired to create, whether it’s a poem or a wireframe. Like I said, I wrote this article at 7:30 a.m. on the way to daycare, in scraps of words and phrases in a Notes file. The (several) revisions came later.
Over the past 13 years, my career has already taken several twists and turns. But a little while ago, I realized something that gave me great comfort. In a sense, I saw the future. I knew with confidence that no matter what the rest of my career may bring, I will come back to words in the end. They will always accost me on the street, and I will continue to find ways to embrace them, even if the embrace at first glance seems more like a tussle. Technologies will come and go, but we will always need to bend words into meaning — I will always need to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, Anne Sexton, this story ends with me still writing.