Let’s say you get asked to write a book about the moon. You’ve never written about the moon before, so you create an outline and do a little research before you sit down to write about the moon.
After a few chapters about the moon, you realize that you also have a lot to say about Skylab and Apollo 11. You try to focus on the moon again, but the lunar module comes into your mind and you start singing “Dark Side of the Moon” as you write about Neil Armstrong and what it might have felt like to be the first person to bounce down to the moon’s surface.
You share your work with the person who asked you to write about the moon and she tells you that no one wants to read about Skylab or Apollo 11 or the lunar module. The want to read about the moon. So you try again to write just about the moon.
But you can’t. You think the moon is limited and dull and would be so much more interesting buoyed by stories about the getting to the moon and walking on the moon. The person who wants you to write just about the moon thinks the moon is fine the way it is and so you part ways and you put away your stories and get a job at WalMart.
That’s what writing was like from 2009-2011. I tried hard to write the book someone else envisioned, but it was like acting in a play in which I didn’t know my lines. I lacked faith to write the book I wanted to write, and so I gave up entirely and went back to school to study dietetics.
I loved school, and the experience challenged me in ways I needed to be challenged. Studying nutrition and math and science got me out of the rutted thinking I was running myself over with. Volunteering at the soup kitchen introduced me to a world I’d only read about.
But school ended four months ago, and I’ve moved away from the city and the proximity of the soup kitchen. I’ve been wandering aimlessly in the guise of getting used to this new town. I almost had myself convinced that I just need more time to figure out what I want to do with my life until yesterday, when I read an article in a Minneapolis business journal about a company I worked for a long time ago – the one that gave me my first writing job. The company, general contractor M.A. Mortenson, won the contract for a $200 million expansion project at the Mall of America.
I remembered when the Mall was built and how Mortenson wasn't the general contractor, although they did their best to bid the project. Instead, they were contracted to build the parking lots. While not the same as building the largest mall in America, they knew the parking lots were important and the company put its best and brightest managers on the job. Years of experience later, they are one of the top-grossing companies in Minnesota, building skyscrapers, hospitals, and ball parks all over the country.
I have this habit of thinking and then acting on the notion that if I can't build an entire mall, I won't be happy building a parking lot. For the last five years I’ve thought, 'If I can't write this damn book (the way someone else wants me to), then I can't write at all.' This, I now know, is bullshit.
I’ve been writing all my life, even before I learned to print. From my sandbox, I’d regale the pine trees with stories of riding my trike and drinking Kool-Aid. I am a teller of stories – mine and other people’s – and I tell these stories in the space of 3,000 words or less. So rather than write one book about one subject, I will write one book with many stories; the book I’m supposed to write.
I started organizing my thoughts today and it was like walking into a room filled with overflowing file cabinets. There are coffee stains on the desk, a half-eaten sandwich leaning against the keyboard, cobwebs in the corner, and books piled on every chair. In my mind, the place is just the way I left it years ago.
It’s good to be “home.”