Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Happiness in the distance

By Tim Smith

I have this recurring bad dream, one that I can’t make sense out of. I find myself in some setting, but each night it’s a different place. I’m in an airport, or a hotel, or a parking garage, or maybe a large shopping mall. I’m trying to leave, but each time I go toward the exit, something is blocking my way. I become frustrated because there are no detour signs to get me on an alternate route, and I have to go back the way I came and start all over again. Each time, I think I’ve devised a way out, to get my freedom, to reach the outside, but something else pops up to stop me, and I’m stuck. I can see the exit in the distance, but I just can’t get there. This is usually where I wake up, and have trouble getting back to sleep.

I sometimes have the same problem with writing. I don’t meticulously plot every story, even though I typically have a beginning, middle and ending in mind before I start. I make changes to the basic plot while writing, when something comes to me that I think would make a neat twist, a detour between points A and B, something that will throw the reader off for the time being and help me to avoid an obvious ending.

Then it happens. I get to the point of no return, the one where I have to commit to a resolution, and I’m stuck. I stare at what I’ve written thus far and think “where the hell do we go from here?” This probably explains why I have several manuscripts in the unfinished stages on my computer. The ending is there, I can see it way off in the distance, but I can’t reach it. 

Does anyone remember the classic coming-of-age movie “American Graffiti”? That’s the one where the high school grads get together for one last night on the town before they leave for college the next day. There’s a running plot thread where Richard Dreyfuss catches a glimpse of a breathtaking blonde driving a classic white T-Bird (Suzanne Somers in her screen debut). Dreyfuss’ character spends the rest of the night looking for her, having been dumbstruck by her beauty and the sexy smile and wink she flashes at him. Spoiler alert: he finally talks to her on the phone but he can’t meet her the following night, because he is leaving for an out of state college in the morning. Life lesson number one.

I think we’ve all had that happen in our pursuit of happiness. I’ve experienced plenty of my own Dreyfuss moments in the romance department, and I know just how he felt in that movie—the girl of my dreams was out there somewhere, but I couldn’t find her. She’s like a faraway tropical island when I’m floating in the ocean. I keep swimming toward it, but it keeps moving farther away. Fortunately, I did reach that island of happiness several times. In some cases, I’m not sure it was worth the effort.

Sometimes this occurs in the past tense, where I look backward and think “I should’ve done that differently. If I had made this decision instead of that one, how might things have turned out?” I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, more than I should since I retired last year and changed careers. I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t really have such a bad life, and that some of my past decisions, while not always award-winning, really weren’t as disastrous as I remember. It didn’t feel that way at the time, but now I’m seeing them in a different light.  

A wise but somewhat cynical man once told me “Nothing worthwhile comes easy.” I suppose that means I’ll just have to keep swimming toward that faraway island or devising a way around those detours and blocked exits. Who knows—I might finally finish that book that deserves a happy ending.

Maybe I’ll look for my own blonde in a white T-Bird.


  1. What is it about our minds that fills our dreams with imagined problems that we can never solve? There could be worse dreams than my usual of searching for my parked car, or for the convention hotel in an unfamiliar city where i've just stepped out briefly but can't find my way back, or find it but can't remember my room number or find my key, etc., etc. I guess some writers do find revelations in their dreams about how to make their stories work, but mostly my head just seems to be spinning its wheels.

  2. I am reminded of Alice's Adventures through the Looking Glass. After coming through the looking glass, she ventures out of the mirror-image room to find herself in an enchanting garden. Off in the distance, she sees a bit of a hillock which would give her the height she needs to see the whole garden. When she sets off along the path in the direction of the hill, though, she keeps ending up back at the door where she first emerged

    Finally the Red Queen tells her she has to go in the opposite direction. Maybe that's the key -- when we can't reach that goal in the distance, to set off in a different direction entirely. We might not get to the desired destination -- but perhaps to some place better.

  3. Thanks for describing a writing problem that's all too familiar! For what it's worth, sometimes I can unstick those stuck projects by changing direction. ie, sometimes I write the end and go backward from there. That advice may or may not be any help for you, but thanks for the post!

  4. I think one of the gifts of aging is that you stop judging yourself so harshly. I've always been my own worst critic. So if you, Tim, can look back and shrug, telling yourself that it might not have been the best decision, but you made it and survived, then to me, that's the beginning of enlightenment.

    BTW, my recurring dream is always being in a classroom and there is a big test that I didn't study for. Just when I'm freaking out because I can't possibly pass it, I look down and see that I'm naked! And everyone else knows it, and is laughing at me. I don't know if that's related to the streaking I used to do in high school and early college. But I always wake up unsettled and glad it was just a dream. I've been out of school so many years...I thought this one would go away. But alas, it hasn't.


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