April 26th, 2007 - Cheryl Wright-Watkins
Sitting at my desk, staring at a blank computer screen, catching glimpses of smoky contrails crossing the sky outside my window.
I've been retired for one-hundred-thirteen days, piling up like pages flying off a cartoon calendar. I have little to show for all those hours except for the realization that, for me, air traffic controller wasn't just a job title but my identity.
A radar scope refreshes six times per minute; every ten seconds targets sweep ahead to show the aircrafts' forward progress. Here, in my post-ATC world, I have no gauge to measure whether I've progressed, or whether I'm still fluttering in the shadow of my old life. Some days, I regret leaving behind the only job I knew how to do well. I've retired early to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a writer, but I don't know how to begin, and I'm afraid my words will never be good enough. To take flight, an aircraft's lift must overcome gravity and its thrust must overpower drag. I'm stuck, grounded, unable to break through the weight of self-doubt and the friction of fear. So here I hover, without a map to guide me.
For twenty-five years, I'd lived inside a rectangle of airspace on an aeronautical chart, rules clear and simple: five miles or a thousand feet, "keep 'me apart and out of the dirt." But, writing has no mantra, no formula to memorize. Though happy to flee the chaotic control room, grueling shift work, bone-aching fatigue and stress, the discipline propelled me, kept me on course. Outside that world of rules, procedures, and absolutes, I'm stuck in the scud. I have all the tools I need to be a writer: a room of my own furnished with a desk, laptop, books, fountain pens, notebooks, but I worry that I'll never be more than a pretender.
I fill pages that I'll never share, acknowledge I'm afraid of failing, as I have been in every endeavor in my life. Sometimes at work, a gnawing dread would tear at me, dread that a situation would arise I wouldn't know how to handle or someone would ask a technical question I couldn't answer. Psychologists call this "imposter syndrome," a common problem for people in high-stress jobs. I no longer work in that maelstrom, but now I swirl alone in self-doubt, wondering if I have anything worthwhile to share or if I'm just wearing the label "writer" like an ill-fitting uniform.
Ten years ago, I didn't know that I'd attend the 2010 Writers Symposium at Brown University and the professor I'd work with would refer me to Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I'd read and work with brilliant writers, feeling woefully inadequate and utterly untalented in their wake. Now, four years past graduation, earning an MFA hasn't given me the confidence to overcome my fears of being exposed or of failing, fears that haunt me still like a long, encroaching shadow.
Ten years ago, I couldn't have predicted the trajectory from fifty-year-old me, three months and twenty-six days into retirement, to sixty-year-old me, still struggling to call myself "writer," hoping to find words that catch air and take flight. It turns out writing, in its way, is as stressful as air traffic control, and I still struggle with imposter syndrome. But, every day that I sit alone and create a contrail of words on paper, I break through another layer of fog and attempt another liftoff.
Cheryl lives with her husband, Jim, and their Labradoodle, Jobie, in Collierville, TN. Having sold their house and bought a motorhome, they'll soon set out to travel full-time, which she'll blog about at cherylwrightwatkins.com.
She recommends you consider donating to the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association in Memphis, at mifa.org, whose mission is "Supporting the independence of vulnerable seniors and families in crisis through high-impact programs," including Meals on Wheels.