What's my (through) line?
When I was a kid I had a favorite TV game show.
A panel of savvy pundits quizzed a special guest, in order to figure out his or her line of work.
The panelists were blindfolded. But we could see.
From the woman who tried on girdles all day, to Salvador Dali, who presented himself as a “self-employed artist,” the show proved that there were a bazillion honorable ways to earn a living. It was the 1950s and 1960s and every worker, from dental nurse to bill collector, conflated what they did with who they were.
And we loved it. What’s My Line was the longest-running TV game show of all time.
By the time it went off the air—or was I watching reruns?—I had given up on being a cartoonist. I couldn’t draw very well, but I could create pictures by stringing words together.
Becoming a marketer meant spinning those word pictures into stories that would persuade. At the meta level, writing was my day job. Even as I did less and less of the kind I loved.
Last week my friend Beth rediscovered (and sent to me) an email I'd written in 2009. Her cocker spaniel Molly had died unexpectedly, and—not yet ready to talk—she'd shared the news by email.
Hoping to console, I wrote about gratitude for good years with a loved one, and about having missed the deaths of both of my parents. I wondered whether the dying ones make their exits to spare us, or if some other power decides who gets to be where.
I wrote about the sweet smell of a new puppy’s breath. And I shared a few requisite words of Jewish wisdom: in that case, Gam zu l'tova, which has to do with making lemonade out of lemons.
Though I don't remember writing the email, the core beliefs were unmistakably mine. They are the same ones that drive me today.
Every story has a “through line”—the driving force that propels a character forward. Rereading that email, I saw mine.
If our "line" is just what we do, then our through line is who we are.
Through this lens, leaving full-time employment and starting a business and a blog doesn’t mean reinventing myself. It means reconnecting with the through line—the spine—of my life story.
What could be more natural than that? What could be easier?
Ah, but there's a catch! We first have to find and grab hold of that through line. And trust it.
When we are floundering—especially when we are floundering—how can we find and follow the through line of our lives? How can we get in touch with the force that propels us forward?
Maybe we do it by looking backwards.
My writing teachers have said that a character’s future behavior is rooted in her past. The same is true with real-life people.
To remember who we are, we can look back at our childhoods: our early passions, the choices we made, where we attached meaning. We can listen to the music we loved. Reunite with high school friends. Connect with our traditions as we gather for holidays.
We can reread emails we wrote and remember the TV shows we loved.
Everything we need to know is there.