27: A Man of Letters

27: A Man of Letters

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

A Man of Letters

Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible.

~Claude Thomas Bissell

Of all places, it began in the physics laboratory. I had been scattering photons — those immeasurably small packets of energy, those tiny sparks whizzing around — the source of all light. They were amazing particles — I knew they were — but at the time I could only think of the annoying burning sensation that they were leaving in my retinas.

It was late. My stomach hurt from crunching too many salt and vinegar chips, and my head hurt from crunching too many numbers. I wanted to go home, but as I rose to leave, my professor called me back.

“Come have a look at this, Kluftinger.”

Through the buzzing, whirring dim of the lab, I could see a scroll of paper in his fist. It was the court order for my continued imprisonment, written in my very own hand.

Last week’s lab report.

“You have some corrections to make before you go. The data is good, but the write-up is too long. Too fluffy. Give me facts, not fancy writing.”

It hit me, right then and there, as fast as one of those photons — a tiny packet of light.

I wanted to be a writer.

That was the spark. It was a flash of illumination, just long enough for me to see a better, thriving version of myself. I didn’t have to live my life imprisoned by data cells. I could have a clean sheet. Even better, I could have a pen to fill it. But the spark didn’t last.

I have to admit it. Buried in that basement, deep in the dungeon of the laser laboratory, I killed a part of myself. Taking back my lab report, I axed my own creation. I slashed descriptive words, superfluous sentences and unneeded elaborations. I replaced metaphors with metadata. And what did I have to show for it? A perfectly clean science paper. A skeleton — functional but lifeless.

That was the death. The rebirth came later. Near the end of semester — I don’t know how many lab reports later — I climbed the stairs from the physics building for the very last time. With each step I felt my body growing lighter. With each breath, that tiny spark flared into flame. I continued on, faster, until I looked up to see nothing but the clear, cold night sky. It was all wonder and sparkling light. I didn’t see binary systems or stellar dust, held together by electron degeneracy pressure. I didn’t see fourteen billion light years of expansion. Instead, I saw mystery and beauty, held together by the outstretched arms of God. To me, at that moment, the stars were something to be felt — not counted or measured.

I wrote a poem that night, and I think it had more truth in it than any astrophysics paper I’d ever written.

One year later, I graduated. I knew that it was time for me to pursue my writing. But how much time could I give? More degrees were beckoning, and the bills were piling up.

“The great thing about being a physics professor,” they said, “is that you can always do some writing on the side.”

On the side. Is that what we’re supposed to make of our passions? A sideshow?

“Become a man of letters,” they said, “it will give you security.”

PhD, MSc., MBA. It’s true, these letters do bring security. These readymade letters — little packets of prestige and success — they are good. But they are not good for me.

My letters are the ones that come together organically. My letters are driven by emotion and the un-assured, unpredictable chaos of creativity. My letters are the ones that make words, paragraphs and books. They make people remember and forget, laugh and cry. They make imaginary worlds in my mind, and real truths in my heart.

So I said no. I said no to “safe” jobs.

Thriving is not about finding time for your passion — finding secondhand seconds, hidden away between the giants of your life. Thriving is about giving time. It’s about giving the time that you could use elsewhere, the time that costs you something, and the time that might not give anything back.

If this seems too risky, then look down. Right here. This word, this page — these are my dreams. This is me, thriving, every time my letters are read and felt.

~Ryan Kluftinger

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