If you’re like most of the writers I know, you’re not getting paid much to do what you do. You’re sitting up late at night or early in the morning. You’re writing between meetings and brainstorming quickly in the elevator on your iPhone while you rush off to make money until the day you can turn in your notice, put on yoga pants, fire up the coffee maker and not move from your desk until you have to shower and leave to accept your nobel prize. (Is that just my fantasy?) But I think it’s important to remember that what we’re doing isn’t for nothing, even on the days that it feels like no one will ever read our sad little stories but a few friends and family or whoever stumbles across our blog.
On a recent trip home to Georgia my Grandpa who is over 80 and sometimes forgets that I have two children and a husband, asked me the question he’s asked me every time I’ve seen him since I can remember.
“Have you found anything to bleed for yet?”
Grandpa likes to tell the story of how he dreamed of flying before he’d ever seen a plane. While my cousins and I helped him sweep up the garage or clean fish he’d tell us about how he decided to be a pilot one day when he was fifteen and from that day forward carried on as if he was one. His mother said he couldn’t fly, his father laughed at him, but he called an airfield anyway and asked how much fuel cost and how much it was to hire a flight instructor then he began to find odd jobs around his town to save up money. He said he gave up everything for flying, he said he missed dances and skating on the pond in the winter with friends and trips to the lake in the summer.
The stories he told made us laugh when we were little, imagining our grandpa sweeping floors for flight time that he wasn’t sure he’d get. He told us that as the months went on and everyone saw that he was serious, his brother made fun of him and his parents smiled in that pitying way that makes children angrier than a wet cat. He hated how people made his dream seem like something that would only ever exist when his mind wandered on the long walk home from school, but he said that it made him work harder. One day when he got mad enough about his friends going to a movie without him because he refused to spend his flying money, he got on a bus and found a pilot willing to teach him. From then on he flew almost every day of his life, excluding the days he was in the hospital because of injuries due to crashing. (Thanks for that WWII)
My cousins and I would talk about Grandpa together after we left him. Each of us wondered if we’d ever love something so much we’d let the world think we were stupid, because that was the biggest point he wanted to drive into our heads. Everyone he loved thought what he was doing was ridiculous but he did it anyway. He was a poor kid in a farm town. His family didn’t have money to spare for flying; they’d just been through a depression. They told him he was lucky to have food and that all he should want was a quiet life and a job. He told me the story again when I was fifteen and the only thing I loved was a boy who didn’t love me back. Grandpa said that if I was lucky one day something would cut me open and I’d be happy to bleed for it.
On my trip home I was able to tell him that I had found something that made me look incredibly stupid to all the friends I have who are doing important things like saving lives in operating rooms or risking theirs overseas, and even more so because I’m spending so much time doing it and getting so little back. I was annoyed when he smiled at me, and I wondered if he’d forgotten his own story and his own struggle. He chuckled a little, hiding his mouth under his hand, then removed his glasses, cleaned them with his shirt, looked at me and said, “It’s the best feeling in the world, isn’t it?” I was confused for a moment, wondering if he was a writer in secret.
“Writing?” I asked and he said, “No, finding something that lights you up from the inside.”
It clicked for me then, why he’d told us that story so many times. He might have wanted to give us a lesson about how working hard can pay off, or about how sacrifice is necessary if you want anything great from your life, but mostly I think he wanted his freckle-faced grandchildren to find something greater out of life. He wanted us to find magic, to write poetry with words or across the sky.
My wish for each of you who reads this is that you join me in bleeding and looking stupid, and that you revel in your labor and realize that even if all your writing does is sit in your notebook or on your blog with a view count of 1, the victory is in the struggle, in breathing life into your story, whether it is read by one or thousands.