An instructor in a short story workshop in college once advised my class, “Write stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends,” and I remember walking out of the building laughing with classmates about this startlingly obvious tip. I wondered if you could avoid taking it.
Like so many scenes I’ve replayed, however, I see it differently now.
Some tasks begin and end. Some tasks cycle indefinitely, perpetually, repetitively. As I get older, more experiences fall in the second category.
I value limited tasks and unlimited ones. Each has a place. How could you be good at anything if you didn’t practice to maintain your skill? The instant you stop, your skills begin to atrophy. On the other hand, how can you live without coming to a satisfying end? No one likes life on a treadmill.
My tolerance for familiar tasks seems to shrink every year. I find my attention drifting. I think less and less about excellence. I question to the point of sabotage. This? Again? Why?
The trouble, of course, is future rewards. At the gym some mornings, I imagine a stationary bicycle with a vista before me. I’d start in the same place each time I sat down, but peddling would bring me to new locales. The longer I exercised, the more dramatic the landscape I’d encounter. The assurance that I see something new might keep me pedaling.
Is that life? For five years, I wrote a haiku a day. Coming up with a haiku was my first thought in the morning, and the day didn’t really begin until I’d found the germ of an idea to become those seventeen (or so) syllables. Composing so many haiku made me a more resourceful, flexible, economical, and—most of all—practiced writer, but I stopped about a year ago. I kept asking, “Am I reaching new landscapes really? When does practice become habit? Have I forgotten what I’m practicing for?”
In my twenties and thirties and into my forties, I ran nearly every day. At one time I was running 50 or 60 miles a week, and I kept a map on the back of my closet door and added-up the mileage, marking how far I would have traveled had I been headed east. I ran, according to the highlighter, from New York to San Francisco, but on the return journey, I broke down in WaKeeney, Kansas. I spent at least one imaginary month there. I don’t remember why, but I suppose I had an injury. I was certainly psychologically exhausted, stuck at that exact spot where the arms on the wheels of a train engine can’t move: I hated standing still, I wanted to stand still.
Now I can’t even think about running 30 miles a week, and say, “What was I complaining about? Isn’t being able to run a gift?” But when I left WaKeeney, I didn’t have that perspective. I imagined taking my leave of the barber and the grocer and the guy who was always just ahead of me at the diner counter. My imaginary question was, “When is it okay to stop?”
I might have asked him, “How do you find WaKeeney?” or I could have said, “How have you learned to live without striving?”
My beginnings and middles always have to lead somewhere. I’m still following my instructor’s advice…still wondering if I have to.