By Debbie Campbell
Last week, I’m having coffee with an old friend. We’re splitting a blueberry muffin and she’s telling me what it’s like to be a mom. We’re mid-laugh in conversation when she stops abruptly and says, “I just thought I’d have it figured out by now.” For her, figured out means the marriage thing. But whether it’s the marriage thing or the career thing or any other thing, somehow the people I care about most all seem to think they should be someplace else by now. Writing can feel this way, too. Maybe it’s the novel you said you would write by fifteen—I had lofty childhood goals—or the poem that, no matter how many times you go to write it, refuses to assemble into something meaningful.
When I was a little girl, I kept quotes in sloppy handwriting in notebooks with moons on the front. I caught caterpillars in my parents’ little garden while they planted tomatoes and green beans. I would stand on the wooden garden gate and silently recite my favorite quotes, eyes closed, soft caterpillar feet almost indistinguishable from the small hairs on my arms. My absolute favorite was from Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
In 2010, I graduated from a midsized Midwestern university, our very own UWEC. If you had asked me then, I would have told you adventure was Japan—the green grassy hill flooded with unfamiliarly large dragonflies, the young students I taught English phrases to through silly songs and program-approved drills. I would have said adventure was teaching yoga at local churches, or applying to MFA programs. If you had asked me then, I wouldn’t have, in the faintest, imagined adventure could soon mean teaching at my alma mater.
There’s an image I keep seeing recycled on social media. It says “Success” across the top. On the left of the picture, an arrow, a straight line. Below that straight-lined arrow, it reads, “what people think it looks like.” On the right, another arrow, this one a twisty turny mess. This one reads, “what it really looks like.”
Maybe this image keeps grabbing my attention because it speaks to my experiences both with writing and with teaching. Like I said, as short a time ago as 2010, the idea of teaching at UWEC would have been like a fever dream, something unattainable or unthinkable. I’m not sure anything has ever felt as strange or as exhilarating as having teachers I admired as a student become my colleagues. And it wasn’t a straight line from childhood to here, or even student to teacher at UWEC. It was a messy road I grew to love that led me here.
Writing is like that, too. That poem I’ve been struggling to assemble…well, it might not have come to fruition, but each time I sit down to write it, something messy and wonderful happens. I start with what I think will help me figure it out, take me on a straight line to my destination. Each time, every time, by the end of a mad hours-long writing session, I’ll have begun several other poems or maybe a novel. It won’t be the elusive poem I set out to write, but it might just be better, all of this surprising idea material that arises from the mess. And any writer knows, half the fun is being surprised.
There’s another favorite quote from my little girl days. It’s from an Emily Dickinson poem: “Not knowing when the Dawn will come, I open every Door…” To me, it reminds me to embrace the mess, the adventure. It reminds me that, while some days I feel like I should be someplace else by now, life, like most good writing, does not happen in a straight line.