Thursday, August 11, 2005

Back Home Again

I flew home this morning, even though Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter hadn't launched yesterday. My boss offerred to let me change my tickets to come home later today (the launch window was from 7:50 AM to about 10:00 AM EDT). My work for the mission was done, and after four days on the road, I was really ready to get home and see my family, so I decided to head on home as planned. As it turns out, the ship didn't launch today, either, so I definitely made the right call. My wife had emailed me and said that my daughter was crying at night because she missed me (I'm usually the one to rock her to sleep) -- a very strong motivation to get on home, as you might can imagine! Life is about balance. You need to feel productive (notice I did not say you had to have a paying job -- as a former single parent, I know stay-at-home parents have one of the toughest jobs there is). You also need time with your family. You need time to play, alone and with others. You need time to think, time to dream, and time to relax. If any one of these areas overshadow the others, then your life will suffer in ways small and large.

I think the same is even more true of the writing life. We are, after all, self-employed (even if we hold down a "real" job). No one is going to make us sit at the computer or at the writing desk. On the other hand, there is no time clock to tell us when it's time to go home, either. Being a professional writer requires a level of maturity that many people don't have (and to be fair, haven't really needed). This works both ways. Someone who goofs off all the time and never actually sits down to write will never succeed. I'm reminded of the ad exec in She's Having a Baby who talks about when he quit his job to write a book. He built (I forget exactly) nine birdhouses, watched hundreds of hours of TV, and finally went begging for his job back. Of course he didn't succeed! He never even picked up a pencil! The flip side is that you also shouldn't write to the exclusion of all else -- no matter what many very famous and successful writers may tell you. We've all heard about the tortured and driven novelist who writes incessantly, ignoring his wife, his kids, his health. I challenge you to point to even one of those authors who can honestly say they are happy. Let's assume you've got the talent and dedication to succeed as a writer. If you achieve fame, fortune, and a guest slot on Oprah, but the rest of your life is miserable, what have you gained? In my mind, "success" in the traditional sense is not the goal. Fulfillment -- which only arrives from a proper balance in all things -- is the ultimate goal to strive for. The educational psychologist Maslow would describe it as "self-actualization." Even some of my collegues in the education world have forgotten this important truism. It's not just writers.

On a different note, I met a very friendly family on the flight back to Phoenix. The mom and dad were extremely devoted to their children, and the boy (6) and girl (2) were sweet kids. The two year old is, of course, in the "terrible twos," so when she woke up fussy on the plane, she was initially in danger of a major melt-down. Fortunately. both her parents and I knew that the art of caring for a two year old lies in the art of distraction. And a goofy stranger who can make quarters and rings appear out your ears while making funny faces the whole time makes for quite a distraction. She was a riot. I was struck, though, by how little they knew about the space program (he didn't know, for example, that we had ever sent spacecraft to Mars at all -- but we've been doing it since before we went to the Moon). It certainly wasn't due to any lack on their part; I can only assume it just hasn't been something they've gotten much exposure to. The dad was certainly genuinely interested when he found out what I did, and asked very intelligent questions, so I guess space flight just wasn't something that was in their worldview -- it didn't affect them much, so they hadn't had an opportunity to hear much about it.

What was eye-opening for me, though, was how different their experiences and worldview were from mine, even though on a social level we were all completely compatible -- had we lived in the same city, we could even be good friends. It just goes to show you that as a writer you can't assume that everyone will see things in exactly the same way as you do -- in fact, you can just about guarantee they won't. I think part of what makes a successful writer is the ability to transcend your own worldview and write in such a way that appeals to wide range of readers -- a way that reaches us on a human level. I think this is where psychology can play a big role in writing, yet I never hear of psychological theory being applied to writing. I think someday soon I'm going to do an in-depth exploration of the "psychology of writing" and publish it, either here or in printed form. I think it's a subject that could definitely use more exploration and would be useful to all of us as writers!

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