We drove Bud’s cramped sedan to a gravel parking lot in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, and with his blessing I gunned the engine.
The car lurched forward and we built speed until Bud hit the extra set of brakes on the passenger side. We swerved wildly and I spun the steering wheel, trying to straighten our path.
As we swerved, I fixed my eyes on a single tree on the horizon, steering toward it, blocking out every distraction. This was what Bud had counselled me to do, believing it would help keep us from spinning out of control.
Our path straightened as the car slowed. We did not spin out of control. We did not die. We would live to drive another day.
“That was cool,” I said when it was over, high on adrenaline. I hoped Bud would match or at least validate my enthusiasm, but he seemed a little bored.
“Yeah, most people like it,” he said.
He added something about how I had done well, and how I had passed this portion of my driver’s education.
We put the car in gear, drove out of the gravel parking lot and moved on to the next driving exercise, not saying much and not showing much emotion.
This was just another day at the office for Peter “Bud” McGuffin*, driver’s education teacher extraordinaire. I tried to act as if it were nothing special to me either, but of course it was.
If you took driver’s ed in southwestern Ontario in the late 1990s, you likely had an experience similar to this.
You know hitting the brakes in loose gravel was meant to simulate the effect of hitting the brakes on a patch of icy road in the dead of winter.
It was a controlled environment that provided the chance to prepare for a potential disaster, to save lives and save property.
You picked a point on the horizon and steered toward it. You stayed calm and brought the car to a stop. You were careful and conscientious, and if you were lucky, no one would get hurt.
I often think of that day in the parking lot when I am unsure about what to do with my life. So many times, I have felt unfocused and spinning out of control.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer until I discovered writers don’t make any money. I floated around, directionless, until I discovered journalism and began working toward a career in that.
As a teenager I discovered journalism was harder than it seemed, and I was no longer sure I wanted it to be my life’s work.
A crisis ensued and I did not refocus until university, when I decided journalism was the only thing I was likely to be good at.
I became hyper-focused on getting the grades I needed to get into journalism school, then getting through journalism school, then getting a job.
When I got a job, I realized what I really wanted to do was write books, so I spent two years doing that. Then I published, and my book sold a single copy in its opening weekend.
So much of my life went into that project, so much emotional and physical energy. The sentences were carefully pruned, the thoughts vigorously refined.
This had been my dream for so long, and it had come to nothing.
So now what?
What would I do with myself?
I decided to do what I have done ever since that day in the parking lot: Pick a point on the horizon, and steer toward it.
Writing is still the thing I want to do more than anything else in the world. It is hard work, but it gives me joy. It’s the thing I believe I’m meant to do with my life.
I know it likely won’t make me any money, and I know it will be demoralizing at times. But I’m going to stay at it, trusting that I will get better as I go, and hoping the words that matter to me will connect to an audience willing to receive them.
When we pick a point on the horizon and steer toward it, we find peace in what would otherwise be a world spinning out of control.
We simplify our lives and focus on what really matters. We’re able to shut out distractions and move forward, possibly panicked and worn out and demoralized, but also hopeful and full of purpose.
A life spinning out of control is scary and dangerous and full of potential for disaster.
But most lives can straighten out, even if it seems like they’re messed up beyond repair. We simply need something to aim for, something that brings clarity to our mess.
If you’re a writer, the point on the horizon might be your next book project, your next blog post, your next poem.
You must know, as I do, that it’s possible only a handful of people will read it. You must know there is inherent value in the work. You must know it’s possible to beat the odds and sell a million copies.
Be honest with yourself about what you want, and move toward it. You’ll find clarity and purpose. It will help keep you from spinning out of control.
It might just save your life.
*Not his real name