Just a few days ago I read this quotation from Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin now.” I had to write it down, but it is actually one of hundreds (?) of similar messages that I’ve encountered. My students recognize my favorite quotation from Thoreau (“If you’ve built castles in the air….”). John Wooden (“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”), Wayne Gretzky (“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.), and many, many others have commented on this idea that you have to be a doer as well as a dreamer.
Obviously, I’m a big believer in this concept. Too many times I’ve watched young people in particular give up, just stop trying because they have not been successful the first time they tried something. If they’ve had good advisors in their corner, they’ve usually been picked up, dusted off, and kicked in the pants and told to keep going. Most of them did so. No, they aren’t all rock stars or movie stars or stars of any kind. A majority is simply living their lives as best they can—raising families, going to work, being productive members of society. That was their dream. OK. Some of them “settled” for that dream.
Since most of my high school students were juniors and seniors, I had the opportunity on many occasions to answer questions and give advice about life, from going to college to applying for jobs and, always, setting goals. If they were in my classes long enough, they always heard me tell them that they needed to examine themselves carefully, think clearly about their dreams, and discover the best paths to achieving whatever they wanted. Upon careful analysis, most realized that some ideas were fanciful impossibilities for one reason or another, but many of those dreams that seemed farfetched were, indeed, possible if the dreamers were willing to put in the effort to achieve them.
One intelligent youngster once asked me if my dream had always been to be a teacher. I swallowed hard and honestly answered, “No.” Every eye in the room was on me then. Whatever I had planned for the period was out the window (as it often happened). This was a teachable moment that couldn’t be ignored.
My dream had been to be a writer. I realized late, about seven years into my teaching career, actually, that I had always been a teacher and, if I do say so myself, I was a pretty good one most of the time. Whether I was teaching English in a high school somewhere or teaching future teachers, I felt good about what I was doing. I knew that I was helping my kids achieve their own dreams and, for my future teachers, they would, in turn, open doors for their students.
That explanation didn’t satisfy that group of students, however. We’d just had one of those “If you can dream it, you can become it” conversations. Why had I given up on my dream?
Well, I hadn’t. When I realized that teaching is what I am and not just what I do, I also understood that my experiences in the classroom were part of my training to become a writer. “Cop out,” someone dared. “A bit,” I said. The writing required of me as an English teacher as well as reading essays and doing research for my lessons took up most of my time, so I didn’t write much. Other authors put in full days of work at different jobs and still found time to write. I just couldn’t do it. Even during my summers, if I was awake, I was usually thinking about teaching. My wife would look at me, see the faraway stare, and ask me what lesson I was planning or what student I was remembering. Only on rare occasions did something affect me, arouse the muse, and literally make me write. If you look at the poems in my book, Dandelions & Other Flowers, they’re in chronological order. Notice the big time gaps. My teaching career was pretty intense those years that I wasn’t writing poetry.
My “apprenticeship” is over now. I am a retired college professor and high school English teacher, but I am a full-time writer. I don’t have a regular schedule, no office hours. I am my own boss. But my conscious—and sometimes unconscious—thoughts and preparations are for my writing.
Oh, I’m still teaching. My correspondence with former students continues. I’ve been asked to speak to some high school kids about writing. It’s on my time now, though.
What is your dream? Given your circumstances and abilities (be honest), if you put your mind to it and gave it the effort it requires, could you achieve it? What’s holding you back?
Just do it.