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Tilting at windmills.

October 25, 2011

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a risk taker. Sure, I jumped out of an airplane in an Elvis suit with a parachute on my back. I jumped off the edge of a mountain in Brazil strapped to a hang glider. I zip-lined over a Virginia mountain, and I danced in ballroom competition in Ireland.

But I did those on vacations, far from home, when another person seemed to be inhabiting my body.

In my everyday life, I’m more like Walter Mitty, James Thurber’s milquetoast creation who dreams of a more fantastical existence than he actually lives. I go to work in the workings. I do my school work when I can at lunch. And in the evenings I work away on a manuscript I have to have finished by mid-December. Oh, yeah, and I eat out a lot, since that’s the focus of the book. But it’s pretty much the same old, same old. On weekends, I do more school work and more work on the book.

And what I’m writing is, in its way, the same type of journalism and research I’ve been crafting for the past 30 or so years of my life. Even the writing for my job draws heavily from the same brain areas.

But, miracle of miracles, I’m ready to jump off something more substantial than a mountain.

It started early this year, during my first semester of graduate school, when, for a final paper, my instructor urged me to take the theory we had discussed in the class and apply it to some form of creative writing. The end result was a one-act libretto for an opera based on a Tolstoy short story. It’s now in the hands of a composer, who’s facing his own class deadlines before we can proceed.

Now, I find myself in a MOOC, or massive open online course, that has been discussing creativity in ways that are inspiring me on to take more chances.

Part of this stemmed from reading “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas,” from Jennifer S. Mueller, Shimul Melwani and Jack A. Goncalo. I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement at most everything in there, because I have been hired several times for journalism jobs because people were in search of creative types and yet this was the last thing these supervisors wanted. (Is it any reason newspapers are dying? They’re boring people to death.)

But there were also ideas on the website,, which reminded me: “When we are actively working on our projects, we honor our innate creativity. We live the belief that creativity does matter. This feels better than wishing we were writing, or talking about writing, but not doing it.”

Ouch. All of those projects I have put off for years aren’t going anywhere, I know. But what can I do about it? A lot, it turns out.

I am in the process of outlining the rest of my graduate program. And, again my mentor suggested, why not try one of these as the main focus? Why not, indeed. What’s the worst I could do? Fail? Sure.

But now that I’m in middle age, I need to learn something the MOOC also stresses and I wish I had learned when I was a kid. Failing means so many different things and has so many different lessons to offer that could lead to other successes. Failing is not failure. Failure is failing to try. A syntactical argument, perhaps, but there is a difference between the two words.

Another way of phrasing it is in a lyric that I’ve been singing to myself since high school:

“Tilt at the windmill,

And if you fail, you fail.”

The song is “Everybody Says Don’t,” which is from a Stephen Sondheim show called Anyone Can Whistle. The show failed. Big. So big, in fact, that almost 50-years after its original 9-performance run, it is still being produced around the world.

Creativity takes work. It’s akin to the old adage of genius being 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I know that draft after painstaking draft will fall short. The backspace button will get plenty of exercise. Meals will be missed. Floors will be paced. Inanimate objects that move into my path will be cursed. And I have no idea if I have any gift for what I want to create.

But I’m ready to tilt. And that’s what matters.


From → #CMC11

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