Let Go of the String — Lessons from My Grandfather, Part 2
The Name of this Story is the Kite and the Butterfly
A kite flew far up into the clouds. It played with the wind, it looked at the sun. The kite saw a butterfly far below. Look at me, said the kite, how high I am. I can see far away. Maybe I can fly to the sun. Don’t you wish you were a kite? Then you could fly to the sun.
Oh no, said the butterfly. I do not fly very high, but I go where I please. You fly very high, but you are tied to a string.
Edward Francis Dolan, Age 7
As I mentioned in my last post, my grandfather wrote more than 120 published books during a 50-year career. After he died, I found his very first story, written in a wobbly second-grade hand, and it shocked me awake. At the age of seven, he had already articulated the principles that defined his life and his writing work: Know who you are. Don’t be distracted. Claim your independence and make your own way. (He had also started to cull his subject matter. He always loved kites. When he was in his fifties, he wrote a book about them.)
When I found this story, I also felt a little shame, or perhaps it was something else, something like remorse mixed with a strong shot of gratitude. Because my grandfather, who in life never did anything but express unconditional love and encouragement toward me, was pointing from beyond the grave at one of my own greatest weaknesses.
In some part of me that I hoped I was keeping secret, I once harbored absurdly high ambitions. I wanted to be the best at everything. The problem was that if I thought I couldn’t be, I’d just give up. For years, my motivation for writing work would flame high and then, when I felt like I wasn’t succeeding well enough or fast enough, it would completely burn out. It was a lot like Charlie Brown’s poor kite, in fact — the one that caught a little wind but always ended up snarled and broken in the kite-eating tree. Then my seven-year-old grandpa called me out, and I started to change.
Know who you are. What are your real skills and interests? I came to accept and appreciate that I have multiple writing voices — lawyer voice, blogger voice, marketing voice, poet voice. They’re all me, and one is no better than another. It took a while, but I finally stopped dissing work that was less than literary. I’ll keep working on essays and poems, but I’m glad to have the basic wordsmith tasks, too, like piecework articles on legal topics. That work satisfies a part of me that appreciates order and form. And I’m more likely to be paid for it. My grandfather used to ask, “Are you getting paid for that?” He took the financial aspects of his writing life quite seriously, and he did well that way.
Don’t be distracted. To me, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t dream, play, or plan. It simply means accepting where we are right now and being sure we are doing the work we need to do today. My grandfather was not a particularly modest person. He was proud of what he accomplished and could puff himself up like a pheasant, but he never let pride or ambitious fantasies keep him from his daily goals: outlines, research, hitting his daily word count. Knowing this helps me keep my kite-flighty butt in the chair each day. Keeping a work log like my grandfather’s has been helping me follow through, too.
Claim your independence and make your own way. My grandfather was passionate about staying out of debt, both financially and energetically. By keeping things down to earth — by choosing not to “fly high” — he tenaciously protected his freedom. In the end, his daily choices about using time and resources added up to a full-time, financially successful writing career and a prodigious body of work. His Icarus-minded granddaughter may finally be learning a thing or two from that.
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