Friday, August 5, 2011

Playing for Joy

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This week I'm reading Stephen King's non-fiction book On Writing and I'll admit how surprised I am by what a great read it is. I'm not interested in King's sci-fi horror fiction, but since On Writing is about his life as a writer and the development of his craft, I made an exception. And what a fine testament his book is that good writers are good writers, regardless of their chosen genre.

One of the personal stories Stephen King shared struck me as one of those fundamental life lessons that one should keep close. It was about how his son went through a period of being intensely interested in learning to play the saxophone. So, for Christmas that year King and his wife bought the boy the instrument and arranged for sax lessons. King writes, "Seven months later I suggested to my wife that it was time to discontinue the sax lessons, if [my son] concurred. He did, and with palpable relief." King goes on to explain that while his son certainly loved the saxophone's sound, he didn't enjoy playing the music. "He mastered the scales and the notes [...] but we never heard him taking off, surprising himself with something new, blissing himself out. And as soon as his practice time was over, it was back into the case with the horn, and there it stayed until the next lesson or practice-time. If there's no joy in it, it's just no good" (149-50).

I'm pretty careful about how I spend my time each day, but I love the yard stick that this story offers. What activities, hobbies or pastimes do you simply love? When do you find yourself cutting corners or staying up late in order to have a little more time on certain projects?  And what about your kids? Are they slogging through expensive lessons with a dull matte on their face, or are they sneaking off to make extra time to jam?

Examining your hobbies as an adult feels a world away from the task of helping a child arrange their priorities and schedule. When I was in middle school I was crazy about dancing. I thought my dance teacher in Evanston, Wyoming was the most amazing lady I had ever met. But when I moved to New Jersey in high school and began the part of my life called Four Hours of Homework Every Single Day my priorities changed. I wasn't about to slack off academically, and if I continued with the dance thing there would be no time left over for a social life.

If there's no joy in it, it's just no good. Hmm...I am thinking about King's assertion here. What about If there is no joy right now, it might still be good later? I wish my parents had been a teensy bit more disapproving when I decided to drop out of dance.

But in some ways the regret I felt over dropping dance incubated and expressed itself in years to come. I've become much, much more cautious about bailing on things that might matter down the road. But I suspect many things that matter are hit and miss in the joy department in their infancy. Hobbies, relationships, jobs, and kids...the early stages can be painfully slow until our oven mitt hands become more adept.

I may be complicating King's story unnecessarily. He is right in that there may be a time for some of us to concede that our figure skating lessons ought to be discontinued. Our time is short, and it goes by fast. So I guess I'm amending his argument to say, Take a good long look into the horizon and then decide how much those saxophone lessons will matter ten years from now. And then decide what gives you joy.

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