Feel Like a Number by Ryan Wooley

I feel like just another, spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass in a great big field…
– Bob Seger, 1978

I am not famous yet, unless it was in a past life. And, as possible as that feels, it has no bearing this time around. When I was an English major back in the nineties, I was ready to be a writer, and I believed that I had the stuff to be great at it. I wouldn’t say that I sought fame, per se, but I saw fame as a measure of skill and success. The better I was at writing, the more people I could move and inspire. And, the more that happened, the more likely it was that I could write full time and earn a nice living at it. That was the vision.

But I was too practical, and even then, I had bills to pay. While an undergrad, I was offered a job at a local newspaper, but the salary was half of what I was earning as a full-time tire carver, which I did throughout my undergrad years and for a year or so afterward. I’ll have to explain what tire carving is in a different journal entry, but this was how my father had earned his living up until about 2004, and how I supported myself through a good chunk of my twenties. The work was repetitive and mindless, which gave me lots of mental space to churn on ideas and to reflect on stuff I was reading. For a deep-thinking introvert and an English major, it was a perfect balance to my academic life.

I knew I wanted to be a writer—mostly a screenwriter and/or a nonfiction writer—but I couldn’t squeeze it in. That has been the story ever since. I was a full-time tire carver on top of being a full-time college student.  That carried me up to student teaching, which came during my first master’s degree at age 25. Then I became a teacher, got married, started working on more degrees, and “accidentally” started a family of five with my wife. I worked full-time, always, at first, as a teacher, then as a mid-level administrator at a university. Fatherhood took over. I did finish two more degrees, including the big one, but it took me eight years. Then swim meets, coaching Little League, and the many other joys and requirements of being a hands-on parent. Throw in deeply ingrained DIY tendencies for home and car, a long commute to work, and there just hasn’t been time left for writing.

It has always been there calling me, though. “I’ll be here when you are ready, Ryan.” Actually, this thing you are reading right now is me trying to force my foot into the door crack created by my oldest going off to college. It isn’t much, but it is what I have. To give more context, it is early morning right now. I dropped off my youngest son for early morning swim practice, and I’m working on this before the day begins. Last night he pitched an entire game for his baseball team, for which I do the official scoring. We got home at 8:30. Today, baseball is off, but there is a second evening swim practice. We will get home at 8 p.m. Catch-as-catch-can.

I know that more time is coming. Preston is my youngest and he vows to start driving at 16, which is seven months away. I will gradually find more time to get in the writing. But, here’s the thing. The entire landscape has changed since I’ve been away. Book readership is down. Social media took over more than a decade ago. It seems that anyone and everyone who wants to exercise their voice is doing so, regardless of whether they have something interesting or unique to say and regardless of who is reading or listening. There is a LOT more competition for everyone’s attention. Short form is the norm. Even blog readership, which is longish in the current world of “the socials,” has been markedly declining over the past decade. It’s now Tweets and TikTok. And, the movies that I want to write and watch aren’t getting made anymore—movies about real human stories like Witness or The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. It is natural to think, “I missed the boat.” I never found the time to write, and now that I am, the forms that speak to me are deteriorating or dead.

But what boat did I miss? The one to fame? Or the one where there is an outlet for thinkers and creators? A career of educating has taught me that deep impact can be at least as fulfilling as broad impact. I’d like to move people with words and ideas. It’s not about numbers. I’m going to be me and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t have the burden of earning a living with my writing. That is the benefit of coming at this at almost 50.