Life is like driving on the freeway. Once you’re on it, you’re stuck doing the same speed in the same direction as mostly everyone else. You need to be vigilant, because you don’t want to get stuck behind someone going too slow, nor in the way of someone going too fast. You don’t change lanes often, but have to do so decisively. You’ll get abused sometimes, shown kindness rarely, but you need be in the right lane at the tight time to catch the right exit.
Now, apply that metaphor to anything worthwhile and you’ll see it fits. To illustrate, I’ll apply it to three areas of my own life. Two failures and one pending failure; and if that sounds negative, it’s not. Sometimes you mistake the offramp of life that you want, when the one you really want is a lot further up the road.
My earliest desire was to be a rockstar. I figured, all I needed was an electric guitar. Kid logic says if you can play five different musical instruments by the age of fifteen (yep) and can pick up a new instrument and play Christmas carols ten minutes later, then you’re destined for awesomeness. Not talking musical genius here, just musical aptitude. My parents weren’t oblivious to this ability, just clueless as to the direction it should take. When they asked what instrument I’d like to play ‘seriously’ I jumped at the chance to play piano. A week later, Dad comes home with an organ. ‘Near enough’ and a shrug was his response to my slack-jawed dismay. And because they’d bought it, I had to learn to play it — so for three agonising years I laboured over this horrible contraption, spitefully denying my mother’s repeated calls for covers of 1950’s Russian folk ballads, and recall it being one of the happiest day of my life when my organ tutor died suddenly in his sleep. Organ failure, I whispered. Even though it signalled the end of my musical career, who wanted a career as a fuc*ing organist? Not me. Too late for the piano now, once in a while I hear new music and still wish it was me:
Th second earliest desire was to be a naturalist. I drew my inspiration from ‘In the Wild with Harry Butler’, and couldn’t imagine a more interesting occupation than haring around the outback running over endangered native fauna in my Landcover. Later, my imagination was lit by David Attenborough, who made me think outside terra australis to all the fascinating critters I might discover beyond our fatal shore. But I missed this boat for wont of aptitude in science. I relegated myself to identifying birds in my backyard and raising cats. Not quite the same as sinking your arm into a hole in the ground and pulling out a 2m long inland taipan to show the camera. I should have registered the futility of it all when, aged 9, I presented a class project about ‘Animals of the Amazonian Rainforest’ and my teacher Mr Gates said, ‘That was an excellent presentation! You must have a strong interest in animals” and my response in front of the class was, ‘Yes, I want to be a naturist!’ Took me a few years before I understood why Mr Gates had a coughing fit right then. Just like the time I thought that ‘hirsute’ was another word for ‘therefore’. Perhaps I could have combined them both and become a hirsute naturist:
Still possible! Anyway, my third ambition is the one I haven’t given up just yet. Writing for a living. My writing life has always been characterised by intense spates of activity separated by long periods of lassitude. Perhaps it was because I had to learn the language from scratch when I arrived from the frozen Nordic wastes. The positive reinforcement didn’t hurt either — when people said “You’ve got something special there” I wanted that prophecy fulfilled. But it’s not that easy. I could be a great writer and never publish a word. I could be a shit writer (yes, you, Matthew Reilly) and vomit dozens of inane titles onto an undiscerning public. While it would be gratifying to see some nerdy chick on the bus enrapt in a paperback bearing my name, that’s all it would be. The desire to be a Great Australian Writer diminishes every year as the rest of my life becomes happier. Perhaps I’m just the author of a new first-world problem: boo-hoo, I missed the opportunity to starve for my art in a garret!
Being on tour promoting my platinum-selling album, or out in the wilds examining the spoor of some heretofore undiscovered species, or sitting uncomfortably in some studio practicing my ‘engaging author’ face while waiting to be interviewed about my latest bestselling novel — if I’d gone down that road, I might not get to sit down with my wife most afternoons with nice glass of wine! Or perhaps even a nice G&T!! In the end, with all of the benefits of hindsight, I’d choose the claret over the garret every time.