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One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus

April 28, 2010

Notable News from a Year Ago, April 28, 2009: “Good Times” artist Ernie Barnes dies at 70.

Pittsburgh 2002: My Winter of Discontent

I received the results yesterday for the New Millennium Writings Obama Contest.  Though I’d like to say that, after seven years, I’ve crossed the hurdle into the published author realm, the email notification clearly states that a woman in Pleasant Hill, California won the $1000 top prize and that three others — two women from Massachusetts, and a “Frances” from Portland, Oregon — received $100 runner up gifts.  I saw my name at the bottom of the email, alphabetically arranged among 20 Honorable Mentions so publication is still within plausible range.  But I have to say that I was disappointed to have once again jumped and, once again, missed the mark.

I thought I was getting better managing rejection and then my heart imploded reading the email.  The truth is: if I hadn’t at least received Honorable Mention then I don’t know what I would’ve done.  “How to Change the World” felt right coming out.  It felt true.  But the possibility of not receiving some kind of corroborating feedback from the universe on the accuracy of my own internal quality monitor — I shudder to think what it would’ve done to my confidence.

So this gives me two Honorable Mentions over a seven year span.  I received the first in 2006 for a short story called “The King’s Log,” an entry to Black Madonna’s first annual “Write is Might” Short Story Contest.  Now, in 2009, I receive the second for “How to Change the World.”

A song comes to my mind now and it feels right so I’ll say a verse here: One day at a time, sweet Jesus.  One day at a time.

You can probably count on one hand the number times in your life that you learn the absolute truth about yourself…

Often when I imagine myself as a published author giving advice to others (I imagine this more than is strictly healthy I believe) I don’t think about this old Christian spiritual but rather a Zen phrase: A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.  I’ve used this analogy before in reference to truth (it is, in fact, becoming one of my favorite malleable analogies) but I find it also has applications in the fulfillment of dreams, especially where advice is concerned.

Because Stephen King and every other mentor or advice-giver across all dreams, whether it is writing or losing weight or becoming president of the United States — they can point and elucidate eloquently on the moon and how they made the trip themselves — but the fact is they can’t do it for you.  For those with out-sized dreams of going to the moon there is no roadmap; there’s a finger.  You prove your worthiness by doing everything you can to close the distance, and not quitting until you get there.

“You don’t have control over how long it takes you to get there,” I see myself telling an enrapt, fictional audience.  “Your duty is to walk, to go.  That’s all you can hope for.”  Of course, I’m giving this speech from the perspective of the person who has already been to the moon and back but it’s also an accurate representation of the path I have taken.  When I get there I won’t have a Stephanie Meyer story to tell about a cool dream and over-whelming success with my first manuscript.  Mine is a story of toil, of returning to writing one bleary winter in Pittsburgh.  My story continues today with no clearly defined endpoint in sight.  If I take my own advice (and every advice-giver should do this even if it’s painful) I have to say I’m not in control of how long, or how many manuscripts, it’ll take.

In fact, my “I always wanted to be a writer” story traverses more terrain than a measly seven years, and starts earlier than at the usual age of 12 or 13.  In kindergarten — yes, I said kindergarten — I came home after my first day pissed at the high heavens because I expected, in so short a time, to be able to read.  This is family lore championed mostly by my father (I don’t remember doing this at all) and my dad is a storyteller in the great oral tradition.  There’s a certain amount of fluff you expect him to add for entertainment purposes.  But, given what I know about myself and the out-sized dreams I sometimes set, and given my own reactions to rejections and failures to place in numerous writing competitions, being pissed in kindergarten because I couldn’t read in the time frame I wanted to read in sounds perfectly me in every since of the word.

I’d like to say I underestimated the length of time it would take, but when one year turns into seven-and-counting you have to admit a certain amount of naivety in your expectations.

For the purposes of this entry, however, I’ll skip all the stuff between my first day in kindergarten and graduating from high school — how the interest became talent and then how I forsook it because of the fiscal realities of being an artist — and even the five years I spent at Georgia Tech, a time during which I wrote nary a word of fiction but plenty of technical reports — and focus instead on my return to the craft: my first year and a half working for 401K Stalwart when I realized, belatedly, that writing was a critical part that my soul couldn’t do without.

The catalyst: email.  I had written plenty emails in college but when I had a job, emailing grew in significance and there were times during my first year that, while most people hastily crafted digital letter bombs, I took special effort perfecting every word such that when I finally pressed SEND there was actually emotional content affixed to the action, a spiritual release as it was, and a snarky little voice in the back of my head often said in times like that: That felt good, didn’t it? Or: Geez, are you writing an email or a manifesto?  Just send the damn thing.

I recognized even then that something was amiss but I hadn’t enough evidence yet.  I still believed there was room from me in the upper tiers of corporate America, and that was my two-year plan.  At the time I was working on a development program and I believed, because of the five years I spent at Georgia Tech, that I needed to be in a research environment.  Also, after a year I had identified Six Sigma green belt certification as a possible hindrance to my ascension, and was in the process of earning it.

By all accounts, I should have never achieved this internal certification because while a project was assigned to me, training was refused.  Since I had identified green belt certification as a must-have the absence of the required training didn’t sit too well with me, and originally I was pissed off.  But then, as it has always done when challenged, my mind started to turn and I endeavored to read the fine print.  Lo and behold my tenacity was rewarded and I discovered a loop-hole: Training, it seemed, wasn’t the requirement for certification only a complete project, 25-page written report, and passing of the written exam.  It would be harder to do those things since I hadn’t received the standard training materials, but if I wanted to achieve my goals, this was what I had to do.

So I stopped complaining and found the relevant course materials.  I trained myself on the finer statistical virtues of six sigma quality improvement.  I worked the project, which was a classic paint line setup, perfectly suited, and ended up saving the plant $85,000.  I had to relocate before I could finish the documentation and testing to complete the project, but I was in Pittsburgh where the head of the six sigma program was and I set up a visit with him, explained what I had done, and convinced him to help me tie up all the loose holes.  He agreed, so all I had to do was write the 25-page report and executive summary and pass the written exam, and he would allow me to become certified even though I never went through training.

If you can see where this is heading you are a lot better at this than I was back then.  I was just stoked by the fact that, despite the barriers that had been put in my place, I had overcome each and was close to achieving the goal I had set.  I sat down to write the report and executive summary.  I don’t remember how long it took me but I remember waking up early Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, alone in my apartment, to finish it.  It took me all day, but for the first time in the year-plus that I had been working, I was actually glad and fulfilled by the work that I had brought home to complete.

And, on top of that, I was even astutely aware of the fact that all of the work that I was putting into this 25-page report would go unnoticed and unappreciated by everyone but me.  401K Stalwart cared that I had saved $85,000 and my certification would ultimately be determined by whether or not I passed the written exam (which I did) — but me, sitting their typing happily away at my computer on a Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, I was most proud of the report, which I knew would never be read, and if so only cursorily.  Me: I cared about the art, and more strongly than I ever imagined.

Snarky voice in my head at that moment, seven years ago: Houston, we have a problem.

You can probably count on one hand the number times in your life that you learn the absolute truth about yourself, and this was one of those times.  My authorial gifts fail at this moment to find something that isn’t clichéd to explain the magnitude of that realization.  Writing.  It was what I had to do.  Somehow, someway.  I made a promise then in 2002 that I would follow where writing led, and that I wouldn’t quit until I got there.

Years have passed since that vow, more than is sometimes acceptably memorable.  I can remember during that first, cold winter in Pittsburgh, the coldest in the city in 20 years and the coldest I’d ever experienced, my winter of discontent — I remember believing that in a year, two max, I’d have this writing thing figured out and be well on my way to becoming the next world-renowned author.  I’d like to say I underestimated the length of time it would take, but when one year turns into seven-and-counting you have to admit a certain amount of naivety in your expectations.  Expecting to become published in one year is about as foolish as a kindergartener coming home after the first day and being upset because he still couldn’t read.  And who among us would expect something as fairytale as that?

But I’m still here — I’m still writing.  “Incidental Music” is still out for judging and just yesterday, having finalized my MULA plans for the week of June 8th, I submitted my application to the NY Pitch and Shop Conference.  I mentioned earlier that there would be a strange convergence in May but actually it happened April 27th.  I sent in my application to the NY Pitch yesterday afternoon and then went out and cut the grass so I’d stop fretting over it.  When I came back inside, sweating and hot, the email notification for the Obama Millennium Contest was sitting in my inbox.  I wonder what would’ve happened if I had received the notification before I submitted my application — I wonder if I would’ve doubted myself and procrastinated further — but such thoughts will get me nowhere.  The application is out there and so is a second personal essay.  It’s hard to let go of them but what happens to them is out of my control.  All I can do is keep my eyes on the moon and keep writing one day at a time, having faith that one day — some day — I’ll get there.

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