Nona was a calm bulwark of a woman a couple of decades older—and wiser—than myself. After I’d recounted this nightmare, she sat silent, head down, reading over the dream I’d typed out. “So, that’s it for your writing,” she said, looking up, with an unusually steely note of reproach threading her voice. “In your fury over this rejection, you’ve flushed your work down this abyss. And now it’s gone.” I was stunned, and also a little ashamed. “But, but. . .how else am I supposed to feel?” I stammered out, deeply stung. If therapy wasn’t the place where I could give vent to my darker emotions, I continued, my face flushing with anger, then what was it for anyway?One of the things I’d always admired about my analyst was the way she never lost her composure. Now, true to her self-contained character, Nona didn’t flinch. “Isn’t there another way for you to look at this?” she asked. Thrown by her question, I had no idea what “other way” there might be for me to look at what I could only see as a failure. After a long pause she finally answered the question herself, exclaiming, “You’ve lost your sense of adventure!”
My analyst’s words and her confrontational attitude—more like a knight throwing down a gauntlet than her usual stance of compassionate listening—had an instantaneous effect. Released from the grip of a critical and self-destructive complex, courage, warm and fierce, rose up inside me. Looking back, I’m thankful that I accepted Nona’s advice. For as almost every writer and author knows from experience, the writing way is potholed with rejection and without this piece of wisdom I would have turned back long ago for safer and more secure paths.
Indeed I’ve returned to this analytic encounter, so pivotal in my personal development and in my work, countless times. My analyst’s challenge has served as a kind of pilot light, and the memory of it has repeatedly re-ignited the bold, free-spirited attitude that inspired me to become a writer in the first place. It was the motto “Why not?” in fact, that spurred the Danish author Isak Dineson to craft her first short story—a motto I’d also claimed for myself. “Why not?” I’d thought at the outset, become a freelance journalist? “Why not?” strike out into uncharted territory, and seek out thinkers to interview, and sculpt dimly perceived ideas into fully formed articles and books?
I was recently reminded again of the wisdom and universal appeal embedded in the archetype of adventure while reading David McCullough’s biography, “John Adams”. Of all the Founding Fathers, Adams may be my favorite: for never owning a single slave; for the extraordinary relationship of intellectual equals he shared with his wife, Abigail; for his brilliance constructing the legal foundation for American democracy; for his physical courage throughout the Revolution (if we’d lost the war to Great Britain, he’d likely have been hung for treason); for his enormous personal sacrifice to the cause of independence, often spending years away from his beloved Boston farm, and his wife and children; and for his humility and sense of humor. For sure, Adams had his faults: he could be stubborn and vain, and he had a temper. And yet somehow he stayed the course through an epic and tumultuous period in this country’s early beginnings.
At what many saw as the “crowning pinnacle” of Adams’ long career of service, he succeeded George Washington as second president of the newly minted United States of America. Yet in this passage from McCullough’s book, it seems that Adams likely didn’t see it that way:
“So much had happened in John Adams’ life—he had done so much, taken such risks, given so much of himself heart and soul in the cause of his country—that he seems not to have viewed the presidency as an ultimate career objective or crowning life achievement. He was not one given to seeing life as a climb to the top of a ladder or a mountain, but more as a journey or an adventure, even a ‘kind of romance, which a little embellished with fiction or exaggeration or only poetical ornament, would equal anything in the days of chivalry or knight errantry,’ as he once confided to Abigail. If anything, he was inclined to look back upon the long struggle for independence as the proud defining chapter. In this sense the presidency was but another episode in the long journey, and, as fate would have it, he was left little time to dwell overly on anything but the rush of events and the increasingly dangerous road ahead.”
I take inspiration for my work where I can find it. And if John Adams, who, despite all he’d sacrificed for his country, and who was frequently subjected to criticism, betrayal, and ridicule—from journalists, the citizens he’d helped give liberty to, and even from his revolutionary brothers, including his friend Thomas Jefferson—could step back and view his life as a journey, then certainly I, too, could view the tempests and setbacks I’ve faced along the road of writing, and will no doubt continue to face, not as insurmountable obstacles, but as the inevitable twists and turns of an unpredictable, eventful, but mostly incredibly interesting and engaging adventure.
After my therapy session, my sass and spunk renewed, I went home and rewrote my query letter to GEORGE. This time, it was accepted. As it happened, “All Politics is Loco,” (a light-hearted title for a serious piece about how psychologists handle political topics when they come up in therapy sessions) would appear in the last issue of GEORGE. While I was deeply saddened at the loss of such a unique publication, I also felt grateful for the opportunity I’d been given, and continued on my way.
And so as it did Adams with politics, seeing writing, with all its chance-taking and ups and downs, as an adventure and a journey has served me well over the decades since I first set out. It is an approach that has sustained me over the long haul. It has lightened my attitude, allowing me to experiment and take risks without falling victim to the fear of losing or being seen as a failure. Writing as adventure was the foundation from which I was able to write the intimate, soul-baring story of my Greatest Generation father’s American life, and to share our father-daughter relationship and his struggle with alcoholism and his dying last days in my memoir, “American Icarus.”
For that’s the other thing about adventures. In the end, we don’t know where they will lead. Yet wherever they take us, there can be no failure when, no matter how seemingly ordinary or mundane, we heed the call to set forth when it comes: to create, to serve, to challenge prejudice and the status quo, and to dare our own limits by fulfilling the outlines of our larger destinies.