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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

Piece by piece

I just found this in some old files. It’s something I wrote years ago but had forgotten. I still believe it.

Colorful fabric with natureWhat if life isn’t a tapestry, a garment patterned by events, moods, cycles, and stages? Where even a slight change in weave changes the visual effect? What if life, instead, is a collection of swatches, where not the pattern, but the very fabric itself provides the illustration?

Some phases might be unbleached broadcloth. These times are straightforward and functional. Sturdy and strong, but unadorned.

Other times are more delicate, like linen. Crisp and cool, linen phases look pristine, but add a little heat, a little moisture, or a little pressure, and the fabric crumples.

Flannel phases are warm and safe, comfortable and sheltered.

Satin cycles are sleek and sexy.

Burlap patches feel rough and unhewn. They scratch and irritate, and they’re tough to break through.

Taffeta stands up, crisp and sassy.

Cotton times wear soft but true, dependable.

Nylon periods are something made from nothing.

I am a swatch book. You can get to know me by flipping through my pages, using all of your senses to understand who I am and where I’ve been. See the all colors, strident and faded and shimmering and dull. Feel the textures, smooth and rough. Smell the sweat and tears and celebrations that stain me. Hear my crackle and snap under your fingertips. Taste my life through these snippets of cloth. Find me, not in my design, but in my very foundation.

Rearrange my pieces over and over again, and my nature does not change. The elements of my life are indelible; my swatches are product of that which has already happened. No amount of reordering will produce another end result; life is not retroactive. Only a new swatch will adjust my character, piece by piece.