Confessions of a Reforming Dabbler
As long as I can remember, I’ve been a dabbler.
Some kids had long-established dreams of what they would be when they grew up; I did not. Paleontologist, archaeologist, veterinarian, astronaut … I remember wanting to be all of those things, and wanting none of them for very long.
In high school, I was most committed to watching movies at friends’ houses. Brief flings with tennis, creative writing, theatre, and academic decathlon ended in boredom and, therefore, the trailing-off of effort.
In college, I made it out in 4 years after passing through the following professed and almost-professed majors:
- Philosophy (freshman year, professed)
- Theatre (freshman year, almost)
- Psychology (sophomore year, professed)
- Classics (sophomore year, almost)
- English/film studies (junior year, professed)
- Spanish (junior year, almost, finished with minor)
My career plan months away from graduation? Move to Asheville and try to write comics. Because that’s where the industry is. (I got a job in a coffee shop in my college town and applied to grad schools instead)
Even now, with a seminary degree, a full-time job in a church, and a three-child family, I find myself wanting to hare off after a new idea each week. One Saturday, I try to brush up on my Old English; the next, I’ve requested a library book of patristic Greek (which is way beyond the few semesters I took). I research learning to code, then pick up the guitar I know about six chords on. In the words of one of my favorite superheroes, I’m easily distracted by shiny objects.
Virtue or vice?
I like to think my dabbling makes me a Renaissance man: I’m great at the kinds of cocktail parties where you have 90-second conversations about church history, board games, and Pink Floyd’s politics (you know, those kinds …) Also, I’m rarely bored, because I can pretty quickly find a new intellectual fling.
But, as I’ve 1) seen my wife pour herself into goal-setting and planfulness for years now, and 2) as she’s shared her research with me, it’s become increasingly clear to me that the people I most enjoy reading - the people with ideas worth listening to, with craft worth admiring and imitating - are not like me in at least one crucial regard.
They’re not dabblers.
I do have a settled aspiration to some form of life of the mind now: my vocation, so far as I can discern it, will involve intellectual study and production. Maybe the most influential book on this I’ve read is The Intellectual Life, by A.G. Sertillanges. It was written in 1921, but has some of the same key principles that books like Grit show today. One of Sertillanges’ most cutting principles is this:
A danger lies in wait for minds that spread themselves over too many subjects: the danger of being easily satisfied. Content with their voyages of discovery in every direction, they give up effort; their progress, rapid at first, is like that of the will-o’-the-wisp on the ground. No energy continues to exert itself for long unless it is stimulated by increasing difficulty, and sustained by the increasing interest of some laborious investigation. (119)
Meaningful intellectual work, no less than meaningful other work, requires deep focus along a single line. If I want to do better with my mind than avoid boredom - if I want to explore something, discover something, make something meaningful - then I must give up my dabbling ways.
I’ve had the goal for years of writing a novel: I’ve even had a world, major characters, the first excavations of a plot. I’ve had periods of life where I threw myself into it, ran the story off the road, got distracted, got bored, then saw a shiny object and just left it. It’s made my New Year’s resolutions three or so years running; but each time, as soon as I got frustrated, I let myself get interested in other things and lost track.
I’m still fighting my dabbler self, but this year has seen a series of changes toward writing at least that have brought me farther and faster on this work than I’ve ever been. Fellow dabblers, here are a few ways I’m learning to focus:
1. Pick a horse and ride it
Wherever this comes from, that’s what I’m doing. This blog post is actually the first thing I’ve written on that isn’t my story, since March. I by no means have much time for fiction-writing at this stage of life, but (except for this favor to Allison) I’m giving every minute of writing-time I have to this one goal.
2. Imagine the future good
Dabblers live for the present: that thrill of the shiny new culture blog, the fresh story idea that you know is a winner. But if I’m persuaded that the project in front of me is good and worth producing - and my friends from point (3) agree that it is - then imagining actually finishing and producing the darn thing helps keep me going when I’m not presently gaga-eyed over it.
3. Get accountability to work, and to finish
I’m part of a working-artists group that doesn’t meet nearly as often as I’d like, but which has been a great help in focusing and keeping me working on this project. Their encouragement, which is way more enthusiastic than my work deserves, spurs me on to work so that if nothing else I can share something new with them when we meet again.
4. Let setbacks lead you deeper into your work rather than out of it
I’m fairly sure this principle is in Grit somewhere too, but I’m trying to not let my setbacks give me an excuse to quit.
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard talks about how sometimes your brain is like a foreman on a construction project who realizes without knowing how that something is wrong: he suddenly quits, or won’t go up to that most recent floor. That happens to me at least once a chapter: without knowing why I know it or when exactly it happened, my mind will just stop walking down that plot. I have to go back, find where the story is solid, figure out what about the direction didn’t work, and - the writer’s ulcer - rewrite. Blug.
Dabbler-me wants to take this as a sign the project is a dud, and I should just write about that guy who becomes quantum-entangled with a reforming kleptomaniac. But I have turned my back to dabbler-me this year, put in my earbuds, and kept working: and I have found that there really is a strong story being laid on page by page. Even with the frustrations and backtracks, I’ve got something going that I’m prouder of than anything I’ve written to date.