Friday, March 22, 2019

Why I Have Been Writing

I retired in 2014 after a professional career spanning 37 years. I did not plan to retire at that time, but I had health problems that prevented me from doing full time work. When you are not well enough to work and your FMLA runs out, you don't get to keep your job. If you are old enough when this happens, you get to call it a retirement. For the period immediately following this event, I had to focus most of my limited energy on recovering from spine surgery. The surgery relieved pressure on my spinal chord that was taking away my ability to walk. I never made a full recovery, as there were other factors, factors related to aging, that the surgeons could not fix. I have chronic pain that is sometimes debilitating. I walk with a cane now, but at least I can still walk.

The lengthy recovery served as a kind of buffer following the end of my working life. At the time, no longer having a job was a lesser problem than spending half the day in bed, trying (and succeeding) to get myself off opioid painkillers. Eventually, my condition improved enough that I was able to take long walks and ride my bikes again, and to do many other ordinary things that are so taken for granted by most people that they nearly pass from awareness.

I was by this time 66 years old, collecting Social Security and two small pensions. My wife, 13 years my junior, was working full time, and my daughter was in her last year of elementary school. Once my wife left for work and my kid was in school, I found myself with some time on my hands. It was not until then that the vacuum that had taken place of my career really hit me.

I was and am unfit for regular work. With a condition like mine, there are bad days, not-so-bad days, and kinda good days. I never know what kind of day I'm going to have until I'm midway through my second cup of coffee. Holding down a job requires a commitment I cannot make, even though there are days when I can do quite a number of things. It's possible I could do some kind of gig work, maybe a little programming, but even at that there are commitments.

There are always things to do, mind you. My wife and daughter think of such things daily. There are more than enough little home improvement projects I could take on, things I can do on the not-so-bad and kinda good days, but none of them can occupy my mind for any appreciable amount of time. A ding in the drywall, a leaky faucet, a drafty window – all of these things take some thought, but not much. Sometimes a chore will challenge me, compel me to learn something I don't already know how to do, but there aren't many things that take any real effort.

What I miss most about my job was that it required a great deal of thought, for lengthy periods of time. There were always many problems to solve, and most importantly, I always ended up with something that wasn't there when I started. This is the engineer's calling. Engineers look at a problem, then think about what they need to create in order to solve it. An engineer thinks about something and turns those thoughts into something tangible. I love being an engineer. I use the present tense here, because it isn't something I used to do for a living, it's something I am. It's what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I can no longer ply my trade in this world because I'm incapable of putting in the long hours, and I cannot commit to the frenetic pace of the work that I once found exhilarating. I'm certain you've all seen those movies where the hero has to defuse a bomb or solve some complex problem when time is running out and the fate of the world is at stake. Engineers live for that. The realities of an engineer's working world are, however, that there's always a bomb to defuse, the world is always at stake, and after you've saved it, you are running out of time to save it again. I can't realistically do those things any more, but I still dream of saving the world.

I still can, and I can still do it over and over again. This is possible because as a writer, I have the luxury of creating a world and saving it at my leisure. If I don't like something, I can go back and change it. If I find myself in a world that is not worth saving, I can just hit the delete key and start over again. There are some bugaboos in this process, of course. It's easy to fall into a trap where you're never satisfied with what you've created. You can find yourself in the digital equivalent of staring at a blank piece of paper, sitting next to a wastebasket full of discarded ideas.

There is a way out of this trap: it is the realization that your objective is the process of writing itself, not the finished product. As an engineer, I never had this luxury, but as a writer, I can become absorbed in what I am doing, and this is an end in itself. Indeed, I find that when I am finished with a story, when I know there is little more I can do to make it any better, I feel sad that I have to let it go. This is true whether or not I think it's worth publishing.

For so long as I still have ideas, however, the end of one project presents the opportunity to start something new. There is a magical moment during the creation of a new manuscript when you realize that your story has enough momentum to take you somewhere. Your characters take on lives of their own, and from there, they lead you to somewhere new, somewhere exciting. When you reach this point, the writing can take your mind off anything that's bothering you. Even on the worst of days, I can write a few paragraphs that I may or may not keep, but if writing can make my life enjoyable for even a few moments, I know I can keep going no matter how things are otherwise.

At the time of this writing, I don't know if I will ever garner enough fans to be considered a successful writer, by whatever standards are used to measure that success. I have two titles in print, but I don't know how well they are selling, if they're selling at all. Time will tell. Nevertheless, I will still have accomplished great things if my writing has gotten me through even one bad day. This is why I'll keep doing it even if I never sell a single book.

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