Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.
Life is short. Truer words, as they say, have never been spoken, and yet I've come to notice a note of falsity in them. Life's not short, not really. It's long, and full of false starts, and waiting, and unbearable happenings, and interminable grief and joy. If life is a series of moments, then string those moments together. Lay them out, end-to-end, and tell me that it doesn't stretch farther than your eyes can see, farther than your mind can even imagine.
When I began my journey as a writer—began taking myself seriously as a writer, that is—I knew I could construct well-written sentences, but I had no idea how to construct a plot. It was as if I had only sentences inside me, and not stories. So it was that, when I set a goal of writing a collection of ten short stories to be self-published on Amazon this past summer, I missed that goal.
It felt awful to miss a self-imposed professional goal. Worse, though, was the guilt that I felt every time I came across a particular type of meme on Tumblr or Facebook- the most prevalent kind of meme, the very kind embodied by that Kerouac quote.
Put yourself out there. Forget the fear. Push forward. Just do it. Life is short.
There was only one problem: I wasn't ready.
I knew I wasn't ready, too, which is why I began to get my hands on as many good stories as I could, no matter the media: I read Khaled Hosseini and Dave Eggers, watched The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, and took notes, dissected movies I watched on Netflix. I wanted to see how stories worked, what they were made of. There were stories in me, I knew, but I had yet to figure out how to coax them out. This was my training.
I was a skinny, scared kid trying to write a big novel. The mask I donned was that of a rhetorically airtight, extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable middle-aged writer. To write about what was really going on in me with respect to my parents, with respect to my wife, with respect to my sense of self, with respect to my masculinity—there was just no way I could bring that to the surface. I’d tried writing about it directly in short stories before I got going with The Twenty-Seventh City, and I just hadn’t had the chops to get at it, didn’t have enough distance on it, didn’t understand it well enough. So I put on the mask of a middle-aged postmodern writer.
That's Jonathan Franzen (you know- the world's greatest living novelist, by many accounts), in a Paris Review interview a few years ago, applying the gift of hindsight to his first novel. If you can't tell by the quote, the book didn't turn out exactly as Franzen had hoped.
He wasn't ready.
He wasn't ready to write the type of novel that he wanted to write. Does that mean he shouldn't have written it? Absolutely not. The fail faster mentality is one of the more necessary and productive mentalities to come from this young 21st century, perhaps best summed up by Oscar Wilde: "Experience is the name most people give to their mistakes."
But while that mentality is necessary and universally applicable, it can have its drawbacks. When we set goals for ourselves, when we dream big, those goals and those dreams often become the focal point of our lives, and when combined with the "life is too short" ethos, those dreams and goals foster a sense of urgency that manifests itself as guilt, or, worse, inferiority complexes.
While I absolutely should write every day, it's not critical that I get my collection of stories out now. I can keep that goal in mind while I develop my craft and tend to other areas, too: I can enjoy the learning, too, can revel in the dissection of a great story, can develops the skills necessary to, and take great pleasure in, learning more about myself so that I can later put that self on the page in all its nakedness. I can stand in awe of the writers who are capable of doing what I, as yet, cannot.
If I get too mixed up in the guilt and remorse associated with the fact that I haven't yet put that collection together, I can't enjoy the journey. Kerouac wants us to climb that mountain, but what he fails to mention is the preparation involved in getting yourself ready to climb: if you're a 40-something who hasn't worked out in ten years, you probably shouldn't climb the mountain just yet. You should develop an exercise routine, learn to eat better, find a great training partner. In so doing, forget about the mountain for the time being; it will keep. Enjoy the company of your training partner, the energy you develop from a better diet, the new foods you can try, the boost in your sense of self.
You're not ready, and that's okay. Don't lose sight of the mountain, but don't block out everything else, either. There is time. Life is long.
Author's note: I'm ready now. The ideas for four short stories are now in place, two of which are outlined, and the first of which is currently being written.