I’ve had this idea, since I was about ten, that I had to find my Thing in life. I had to find the role that would define me, that I could settle into, that would make my name known to the world. All through school I had the label “gifted.” I always took advanced classes, read at the top end of the highest reading group, had special classes and groups designed for the gifted and talented. From age ten on I knew that I had to do something in life, and that I would succeed at that choice, fill my special role in the world. I just had to choose what my Thing would be.
I thought it might be computers. Inspired by the TV series Whiz Kids and the movie War Games, when we got our first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, I set out to learn everything about programming in BASIC, and eventually write my own computer games. I bought books and graph paper and came up with lots of ideas (trying to create War Games on the VIC-20, for instance) but it proved too complicated and I gave up.
My mom bought me a subscription to Writer’s Digest, so as a thirteen year old I started reading about agents and crafting dialogue and how to research markets. I read lots of J.R.R. Tolkein and Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and I imagined penning my own novel, how I would appear on the dust jacket photo in my pinstriped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a knit tie loosened at the collar, my hair adorably mussed and overhanging my smart glasses as I posed thoughtfully in front of my trusty typewriter. But that writing never happened. I read and read, preparing for the day that the great flow of pages would begin, but it didn’t happen.
So I decided that it was not my Thing, that instead, my Thing was just preparing to go to college while having as many hobbies as possible. I built models, played keyboards, ran cross-country and track, got serious about bicycling for awhile. Those were all diversions from the Thing I sort of resigned myself to do: become an electrical engineer.
I don’t know how I decided to be an electrical engineer. I didn’t really know what they did, even after years of visiting colleges in high school. My thinking was that they did something with electronics, which seemed cool, and they made a good salary, and you had to be good at science and math, which I was. It made sense. My Thing, then was just to get good grades.
But I did really well in my writing classes too. I even went to a two-week-long summer institute in creative writing. I kept getting invited to these academic summer camps. I did one in biology and one in engineering, so I thought I would have a lark and do one in creative writing. I had a lot of fun, but it didn’t change my life. I had a vague notion about writing a book once in awhile, but like mullets and acid-washed jeans, that whim passed.
My senior English teacher, Mrs. LaMothe, took special interest in me. We college-prep kids had a capstone class called Creative Composition. Our special honor was that we could bring pop and snacks to class to help our process. Some of us actually got to write on a computer! (It was 1988.) She said to me “I wish we’d discovered this talent sooner.” I never thought I had a “talent” for English class. I liked writing, but the literature classes pained me. I could read faster than anyone, but had little patience for slowing down to tease the meaning out of a poem, or wading through page after page of the Elizabethan English of a Shakespeare play, both of which were litmus tests of the English student specialty. I fit in more on the Math/Science side (Captain of the math team!).
Anyway, I went to college and met true failure for the first time. After switching to creative writing as my major, and then earning an MFA in same, and teaching for 17 years, I still struggle to find my Thing. Mostly I need focus, and cannot garner it, unless I am taking a class or workshop. Today, for example, I woke up with the resolve to be a better poet, but I can’t decide how best to invest my time. Write new poems? Revise old ones? Prepare submissions? Read? If I decide to read, read what? Contemporary poems? Canonical? Literary criticism? Journals? Poets & Writers? Should I network with poets on SecondLife and Facebook? Apply for funds to go to another conference? Work on my oft-rejected book manuscript again? All these things seem equally important to me, and I couldn’t decide, so I read political blogs and played Angry Birds until I got disgusted with myself and started this blog post.
The thing about ADD/ADHD, at least as I experience it, is that when you don’t know you have it, you can’t understand why you have such a hard time doing things that other people do easily. Like decide what part of being a writer to focus on today, this minute. Like how to plan something and then trust yourself that you will do it.
Another thing that happens is that you finally find your flow, and say, this is it, this is my Thing, this is who I am, and it works for awhile because it is a new project or new challenge or you have some structure supporting it because you started taking a class or a workshop or joined a group or something, and everything seems focused and clear until something happens, something that taints the new Thing, a problem that you can’t resolve easily, or a drawback that you never considered, and suddenly it’s not new and exciting anymore, it’s one of the five hundred old things that you’ve discarded, and you’re lost again. The more this cycle repeats, the taller the pile of discarded selves weighing on your mind until it’s difficult to find anything to get optimistic about anymore.
So I write, and stow it away, and write some more, and stow it away. Or I don’t write and I feel bad. Writing is flow, forward momentum. When I start a day by writing—and I mean composing words, not editing or submissions or whatever—the rest of the day seems a bit more workable. When I go for a week or two without writing, I’m lost. I start to think I’ll never write again.
The formula for feeling well is simple. Do my work, write, exercise, eat well, take my supplements, meditate. All these things are easily available to me, and yet, when I’m in a funk (I have often called it a freeze, because I feel frozen, unable to move) none of these things happen. I do their opposites: stay up late, not working or writing, sit around, watch TV, eat junk. The constant way out is writing. When I’m dead and gone, if I have any sort of success as a writer, whoever’s left to examine my papers will surmise from my journals that I was an unhappy dude. I always turn to the journal when things are really bad, almost never write, “Had a good day, did my work, got a poem accepted, and paid the bills on time!” Mostly because good writing is about conflict and it’s hard to be both happy and interesting.