Escaping the prison of what might have been

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Tony Cohan, author of the memoir “Native State” grew up listening to his father speak about popular musicians with the awe usually reserved for gods. Cohan’s father, Phil, produced a variety show in the heyday of radio, and famous performers like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante filled dad’s heart with admiration and also put food on his table. It was natural for young Tony to want to grow up to be one of the performers his dad revered. At 13-years-old Tony played his first gig as a drum player at a high school dance. Then he moved “up” to bars and strip clubs. A few years later, his ambition took him to North Africa and Spain, where he played with the hippest jazz performers, but nothing satisfied him. No matter how far he progressed as a musician, his life remained stuck in dimly lit nightclubs, poverty, drugs, and danger.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Cohan is earning his living as a successful writer, living in Mexico with his girl friend. This explains why he felt stuck all those years. Music was taking him in the wrong direction. He wasn’t able to find satisfaction until he escaped his original goal. Empathizing with Cohan’s frustration, I turn pages, wanting him to find his true dream.

I have met many men and women whose lives started in one direction, say towards a profession, or marriage and babies, or the family business. Then they end up somewhere else. Often the change in direction leaves them or their parents confused, as if they have disrupted destiny or lost a crucial component of their own identity.

Later in life, they look back and wonder about the discrepancy between the initial story and the later one. If they describe it as they originally felt it, it raises issues of disappointment and regret, or anger and rebellion. They feel echoes of the initial confusion. All these years later, something about the transition into adulthood still feels “wrong.” And yet if they don’t include it, the story feels incomplete, as if they are ignoring major events.

I had such a fracture in my own Coming of Age. On the rare nights when dad could get away from the store to join the family for dinner, he told stories about his customers. His tone about most people was overly familiar, jocular, often condescending. But when he talked about doctors, the tone changed. As a pharmacist, he was simply fulfilling their orders. They were his gods. I didn’t want to be one of the mortals, the everyday people who became the butt of dad’s jokes. I wanted to be one he respected. To achieve that dream, I became increasingly tense about amassing knowledge. My intellectual drive constricted my view of myself and my role in the world.

By the time I was 18, I had become hyper-focused on science, math, and medicine, and becoming a doctor was the only Truth worth living for. Then, something very strange and disturbing happened. I entered college during the sixties, when cultural and political upheaval stirred my world into a frenzy. I became interested in philosophy and literature. Shaken loose from my original obsession, I started rebelling against everything, and then dropped out to pursue some hippie utopian fantasy.

I replay the events over and over. I was a hardworking and competent young man with a well-stocked arsenal of academic gifts already in place by the time I was 18. I wanted this one thing so badly. Then, like a clown stepping on a banana peel, I slipped and fell on my ass. For years, I thought my academic pratfall meant I was a failure. I didn’t live up to my own or my father’s expectations. Now as I review Tony Cohan’s story, I see my life journey from a different point of view.

When I threw myself into the social revolution and rejected everything my father and family stood for, it was not an accident. It was a choice. Math and science satisfied me mentally but cut me off emotionally from the rest of the world. Something inside me was crying out for release. Like a prisoner who takes advantage of a riot to cover his escape, I used the sixties to help me break out.

It turned out to be a messy process. Without my father’s dream, I was on my own. In the following decades, I explored a rich variety of life styles, shared my days with a far broader set of companions, pursued creative outlets in computers and psychology, writing and spirituality. The life that I actually lived is fine, despite the fact that it’s different from the one I thought I was heading towards.

For most of my life, I have tried to forget that loss of momentum, hating the accompanying emotions of failure and regret. Who wants to dwell on the crappy past? But finally, now that I apply my storytelling intelligence, I begin to see how one boy’s life played out. The events in high school and college, while seeming so vast at the time, were just the beginning of the story, not the end. In the beginning I thought I understood how life was supposed to be. And then came the decades of learning how it actually was. As I translate the fragments of my life into my life story, I develop a much deeper understanding of my own path.

In one sense, we are all “trapped.” First we are confined by the expectations instilled in us by our family, community, and society. Second, we feel trapped by what already happened. As life plays out, our past choices limit us to only a sliver of the infinite possibilities that might have been.

Yet, in addition to these two confinements there are also two freedoms. First, we apply our intelligence and creativity to make the best choices in each new moment. Second, as storytellers, we are free to interpret our past in the most interesting and engaging way. That original story of who we were supposed to be was just a springboard. Now it is our choice to craft the story of what actually happened. By exploring the past as a storyteller, we can become more accepting of this complex person, with all the twists and energy that have emerged from the cauldron of the past.

Writing Prompt
What initial story did you feel constrained to follow? Which parts did you end up fulfilling? Which parts did you not? Write an anecdote about a time when you felt your earlier dream slipping away. Write another one about an early image of yourself coming true.

Writing Prompt
Consider any regrets you might have about an earlier direction that felt like it slipped away. Look at those experiences as a storyteller, and create a positive reason for turning in the new direction. Write a story in the third person about a satisfied person who lived the life you actually lived. In your story, let this satisfied person meet a miserable person who followed the course you originally thought you were supposed to follow.

Writing Prompt
Another approach is to develop an alternative reality in fiction. By setting yourself free in the world of imagination, you can discover entire lifetimes. Write an anecdote about a key transition. Use it as a basis for a fictional story, and see where your imagination takes your character.

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

4 thoughts on “Escaping the prison of what might have been

  1. Hey, Jerry, popping in from absolute write–very nice blog with a lot of very useful info, stop by and see me sometime,
    kimmi

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Kimmi. I looked and saw your lovely site. Wow, a working author with time for Habitat for Humanity. Good going! Please keep me informed of the progress of your memoir.

    Sincerely,
    Jerry

  3. Jerry, thanks for your resources! I had been working on my own memoir for a while before having found your site and the addition of your information has been a huge motivator for me. Thanks for your comments on thanking God for my day job. You’re right, and the more I discover myself, the more I realize I don’t want to quit anything. I just want to do it all. Is that to much to ask. Not according to Barbara Sher. Thanks again for all your thoughts and willingness to share. I’m amazed at how cathartic writing is. I’ll be reading every entry, Garret

  4. Thanks for this great comment Garret. It is a terrific validation that my effort is actually helping people. I am so glad you have found value here. I know a little about Barbara Sher’s work but didn’t know she advocates “doing it all.” Since you are finding how cathartic writing is, you have discovered that the more you do it, the better you feel. That’s awesome. Please feel free to leave more comments as you find ideas that resonate, or want to add your own.

    Jerry

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