As a side gig, I write articles for a local magazine. As much as I enjoy it, it’s like exercise: the hardest part is getting started. I’ll sometimes spend hours–yes, hours–agonizing over the title. The computer screen never looks blanker than when I stare at it waiting for inspiration.

It isn’t that I don’t know what the article will be about. By the time I sit down to write, I’ve already done my research, interviewed the subject, and loosely outlined the content. Piece of cake, right?

Wrong-o, at least in my case.

Even if I know all the pieces and roughly how they’ll fit together, I still need a hook. I need to nail the title and the subhead because that’s what sets up everything else for me. When I serve up a wimpy title, the article that follows fights hard for its rightful place in mediocrity. But when I create a strong lead, it becomes my jumping off point for what comes next. That’s why I’ll spend hours looking at a blank screen while I turn over possibilities in my mind. I have to start strong.

Life’s like that. I need to pick a direction, set a goal so I can take off. I need to know where to go so I can get there. For a long time, I simply followed “the” formula: go to college, get a job, work hard, get married, start a family, keep working hard, hopefully get somewhere. But where? It isn’t enough to just work; you need to work toward something. If you don’t pick your own goal, you’ll just follow the tide of your circumstances. You’ll likely end up somewhere far from where you had imagined yourself or simply adrift.

As I write, occasionally I find that the title I’ve chosen has taken me in the wrong direction. Maybe I’ve uncovered information and nuances along the way that I hadn’t considered. Maybe I stumble on a better story. Maybe I didn’t fully understand my subject at first. Maybe I just got it wrong. 

You know what I do then? I change the title and set off on a new path. It’s never too late.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.

Yogi Berra

Time machines

Back_to_the_future_timemachineMy ex used a lot of aphorisms. (I could have written “sayings,” but I thought “aphorisms” would make me sound smarter.) Although I’ve tried to forget many of them, one will sometimes pop into my head when the situation is right.

Scurrying to work this morning, I was putting increasing pressure on my gas pedal when I heard a voice in my head say, Your car is not a time machine. Doggone it. I wish I didn’t have to attribute occasional snippets of wisdom to my ex.

He’s right, you know. My car can’t make up for the extra time I spent checking my email or the five extra minutes I lay in my bed in a fugue state refusing to get up. It won’t compensate for all the stuff I decided to do instead of getting on the road when I had planned. A car is a car. It moves me from place to place; it’s not a vehicle to make up for past sins.

Whether it’s a car or some other object, process, or person, I think we all have a tendency to expect more┬áthan something is┬ádesigned to do when we fall short elsewhere. We lean on it to correct or save a situation, when really we just need to own up to our actions.

Which, of course, leads me to another aphorism the ex liked to use: a lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on my part.

Dang it.