When You Can Only See As Far As Your Headlights

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going; you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Tell me about a time you lived successfully without planning ahead. If you’ve never done this, not once in your whole life, create a fictional character who does it for you.


  1. MaryAnne says

    If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

    In my business life I have found the above quote to be true. The more carefully I planned the steps I would take, and the way in which I would use my time, the more successful I became.

    This is how my planning related to business. Much of the success I experienced was during the first half of life. Everything was perfect. Life was beautiful. I had built a lasting city.


    As we move deeply into the second half of life (sometimes long before) — everything changes. Events happen. If we think that people, places and things are solid, if we think we can count on anything – and I mean ANYTHING — life will be difficult . If we think, we are in control we will be in for a shock.
    Death strikes without warning. Everything changes in an instant. Gone. Gone. Everything gone.
    The magnificent city that we built is a pile of rubble. Precious people that we loved are ashes in a box (in a pine box) or thrown into the sea.
    We discover that life doesn’t necessarily happen in the way we planned.

    • • •

    I dislike when any writer, especially playwrights, leave people without something that gives them a redemption of some sort.
    While the cities that we build can be successful and beautiful and we can certainly enjoy them, it helps to keep in mind that love is the answer to the important questions. When we love we fulfill our function and love endures forever.

  2. Lee Meryl Senior says

    I always think of Greenwich Village as a state of mind, rather than a
    location. I lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, and The Village was a
    couple of stops away on the Hudson Tubes.

    The first time I went there, I was in high school. A friend and I made the trip one evening and devoured the atmosphere; from the cofee houses, to the
    fascinating shops, to the interesting characters that abounded on the
    streets. I knew I was going to live there. It took me four years to get there. One, to finish high school, and three having my plans obstructed by my mother. At that stage of my life I was a planner. I didn’t believe in jumping into things.

    Mama never understood when I told her I wanted to be independent.
    “Why,” she would ask, “would you want to give money to a strange
    landlord, when I would take it and save it for you?” And, there was her
    favorite, “What will people think?” When that didn’t work, she would go into hysterics, once even threatening to kill herself. At that point my father intervened and informed me that I would not leave home.

    Thats when I planned my escape. And, one day when my father was at work
    and my mother and siblings were on an outing, I packed my belongings
    and left, heading for a friend who lived in the Village, until I could find
    a place of my own. I already had a potential roommate.

    It was not easy to find a place to live. We lived in rooming houses with
    mice and roaches, and shared baths. We spent months until we found a two room apartment, with a living room, bedroom, bath and a refrigerator and
    hot plate in a sort of entry way. There was no kitchen and we piled our
    dirty dishes under the bathroom sink washing only what we needed at the
    time, until one day the super came in to check the shower in the bathroom.
    Thankfully, I was not at home. My roommate had to face the embarrasment.
    After that we always washed the dishes.

    Actually, living in the Village, changed my life. I no longer planned. There was so much to see and do: To become part of the Village denizens; to sit
    in the Rienzi Coffee Shop and watch the door to see who was coming in;
    to march in a line along the streets, up and down the subway entries,
    putting on a show for the tourists; to hang out at the San Remo, Julius’s and Lenny’s Hideaway; to sit with Village old-timers, devouring the history of
    the times; to go to parties, where celebrities like the photographer Weegie
    and even Mongomery Clift, when he was performing in “The Seagull” at
    the Phoenix Theatre, showed up, while bumping into others while strolling along McDougal Street.

    I lived in the Village for two years, never once making plans – just
    letting life happen. I was young and part of what was called “kiddy crew,”
    but I learned that planning was not always necessary, and grew with
    this knowledge, taking many chances along the way.


    • Laura Davis says

      This sounds like a wonderful time in your life. I wonder how that time in the village affected everything that came after….

      • Lee Meryl Senior says

        As I wrote, I always think of Greenwich Village
        as a state of mind. After two years of living there,
        I moved to Southern California, armed with names
        from many of the Villagers I had met.
        Granted Southern California was a whole
        different world, but several of my Village
        connections turned up including a young man
        I had been dating. We soon married, had a
        child and planned to return to New York.
        When we did, we ended up on the lower East
        Side before returning to California.

        Since that time I had a second child, divorced,
        returned to school for a degree in theatre, followed by graduate school and a teaching credential, taught high school English and
        drama, moved to Arizona, remarried, became a program coordinator in the Dance Department at Arizona State University, lived there for 25 years, then moved to Northern California. What I
        experienced and learned in Greenwich Village
        I have carried with me. A State of Mind goes
        with you anywhere, and everywhere.

  3. Deb Blackmore says

    Deborah versus Delilah

    My name is Deborah. It’s a Biblical name that means “prophetess,” one who tells the future. That’s pressure, telling the future. So we prophetesses plan to prevent catastrophe. I don’t remember ever not planning for anything. It is a major character defect this lack of spontaneity.

    So, I will create a character. Let’s call her, Delilah, which means “desired.” Deborah and Delilah are struggling to prepare for a trip to Turkey in four weeks time where they will sail along the Turquoise Coast. Delilah is delighted; Deborah is desperate. Let’s listen.

    Deborah: Damn, another dreary day in northern California. I wonder if it will be unexpectedly rainy and cold in Turkey? Are they having the same dismal start to summer that we are? Maybe I should find a long-term forecast. I’ll take along my foul weather gear just in case.
    Delilah: Oh, for god’s sake. Who ever heard of weather other than sparkling blue skies over shimmering blue water in the Mediterranean in July? It will be bathing suits every day, my dear. Hot, hot, hot.
    Deborah: Every day? How am I supposed to wear the same swimsuit every day for a week? I suppose I had better get something with interchangeable tops and bottoms. Where on earth will I be able to find that without hit-or-miss ordering from every online catalog store? And what if they can’t deliver in time?
    Delilah: Then, go without.
    Deborah: Without a suit? Are you crazy? Turkey is a Muslim country. Women are expected to cover themselves modestly at all times, especially in public. I’ll need to pack layers and hiking shoes for trekking to the ancient monuments along the way. I’ll probably need a bigger suitcase.
    Delilah: Suitcase? On a boat? A carry on duffel bag is more like it.
    Deborah: Carry on? Aren’t there restrictions? This is international travel, you know. I’d better check to see if I need a visa. I suppose that will need to be paid for in local currency. Do you know where I can get Euros locally? What about liquids? Will they take my allergy nose spray away from me again?
    Delilah: The only liquids I’m interested in are local wines. Local wines served with grilled fish and vegetables on a table in the sand with a view of the sunset.
    Deborah: Sunset? How are we going to be sure to arrive in a safe harbor well before sunset? What time zone in Turkey in anyway? Will my cell phone automatically adjust and let me know the time of day? Wait! What if there is not cell phone service on the coast or my battery runs low and I can’t recharge it? A backup battery pack, that’s what I need.
    Delilah: Your head examined, that’s what you need. The sun, my dear, the sun will let you know when to rise and shine and when it’s time to say goodnight. Just follow the rhythms of nature.
    Deborah: Follow? What if I have to lead? How will I know where to go or what to see? I need an itinerary and a good guidebook to show me the way!
    Delilah: Follow your nose. Your senses, I mean. Follow what smells delicious, what sounds enchanting, what draws you into a secret cove with hidden views down the centuries.
    Deborah: Centuries?! I haven’t got centuries. I’ve got exactly four weeks and that reminds me, I need to check our flights, the transfers from the airport, our rooms in the city, the …
    Delilah: You have all the time in the world. Relax and discover what will happen. Just be patient, be flexible and be happy.

    • says

      Deb, this cracked me up. I’m still giggling. Since I’m also about to take a major trip, I could relate so well to both of your voices. I loved meeting Delilah. Can I borrow her? Can she move into my house???

  4. Lisa Bulman Taylor says

    “One day at a time”. I had been told this phrase hundreds of times, perhaps even thousands over the previous 5 years since coming into recovery from addiction. “Stay in the moment.” “You can plan ahead but don’t plan the outcome.” I tried to live my life treasuring the here and nows but I won’t lie, it was hard. Constantly, I found myself sucked into the vortex of the past or the smothering worries of the future. When I had been sober for two and a half years, my husband and I decided that it was time to have a child. After making this decision, terror would seize me by the throat at every opportune moment. “Can I be a good mother?” “Can we afford to raise a child?” “What if there are added complications?” “What if I’m not as healthy or prepared as I think I am?” So many ‘what-ifs’. This truly wasn’t living in the moment.

    Then it happened. My period stopped. The first birth control test showed positive. “Go get another one, maybe it’s wrong”, I pleaded with my husband. This was the fourth positive in a row. It was really happening. We were going to be responsible for a life. The next six months were a blur of exhaustion and nausea, trying to live my life as normally as possible while my body waged this war with change.

    It was a Monday evening. The work-day had been long and we were both tired. The dog nuzzled comfortably into my side on the couch when I suddenly felt the need to rush to the bathroom. She snorted in annoyance as I struggled to get off the couch. Too late… was I going to have to start getting adult ‘Depends’ for the remainder of this pregnancy? Three months seemed like an awful long time away. I went to bed early that night and felt horrible. The cramps came in waves doubling me over. Any time I have been in pain, I had a tendency to struggle through in silence, refusing to ask for help or sympathy. This time was no different.

    Finally, when it seemed like I could handle no more and 8 hours had passed, I shook my husband awake. It was 6:30 a.m. and we had to go to work soon. Rush hour traffic ate up an hour of every morning getting into the city. “I can’t go to work, I’m sick”, I said. He woke in a panic, “What’s wrong? I’m calling the doctor.” “Come in right away”, they said. I was in a daze. What was going on? I was only 6 months pregnant and everything had been going fairly normal, or so I thought (with my life, there never was anything to measure normal against.). I was sure it was just a stomach flu or something that we didn’t need to bother the hospital with. The drive into the city was a whole new level of stress. My husband raged at the traffic, his fear showing in great bouts of anger. My physical discomfort increased. Pressure in my pelvis forced me to try to raise myself off of the seat. The hour dragged on in horrible ticking moments.

    Once at the maternity hospital, I was whisked upstairs. The cramps came fast and furious. “We’re just going to check to see if your water broke”, assured the intern on duty. Things were starting to come together in my mind but I refused to believe that this could be happening. It was only six months along. The only thing I learned at the pregnancy course the week before was the name of the person sitting next to me. How was that going to be useful?

    She raised the gown and sheet to expose my splayed legs. “Oh my! We have a foot!” What??? Excuse me? There were no feet down there the last time I looked! I looked into my husband’s eyes and was dismayed to see his fear. Suddenly, the room was filled with people preparing me for emergency surgery. The nurse assured me my doctor was on his way. They were going to have to put me under anesthetic. All access to control in my life was over, I was in their hands now.

    When I awoke, my husband was sitting next to me. “Welcome back,” said a nurse I had never seen before, “your son’s birthday is today.” I struggled to beat back the haze of confusion. “No it’s not, it’s in March”, I argued.

    Wheeling me down to the intensive care unit, my husband kept his hand supportively on my shoulder. This wee little child in the incubator was inside of me yesterday. Today, his life was dependent on i.v.’s and sensors and breathing apparatus. He was 3 and a half pounds. I examined his little foot, black and blue from being exposed prematurely. He had a cleft in his chin already, just like his daddy. He seemed so vulnerable and so separate from me.

    After a week, I was released from the hospital. Our son was doing well but I had yet to do more than put a sterilized hand into the incubator to rub his back or hold his tiny fingers. I became very aware that he could be taken from us at any time. Although we had begun this journey into parenthood with visions of him growing from a baby into a boy, then into adulthood, ultimately we were faced with the clear truth that we really don’t have any control of the outcome. Every day, I went into the intensive care unit unsure of what I was going to face that day. There were a few serious scares and many tears but ultimately I was called to stay in each moment and treasure every second I could be with this child.

    We have been given so many blessings with this child. He is now 6 years old and taller than everyone in his class. He is healthy, smart and funny and shows no evidence of ever having had such a tumultuous start to life. He constantly reminds me to stay in the moment and never to plan the outcome.

    • Laura Davis says

      I love birth stories! Thanks for sharing yours–sounds like it’s been a birth for you as well.

  5. Careen says

    Janene and I have known each other since we were tiny little girls splashing water in my pink Minnie Mouse wading pool. Best friends through thick and thin! Even when Jenny Jensen moved into the neighborhood and tried to steal Janene away from me, I just patiently waited out that stupid interference and eventually Janene and I were best buds again!

    Last year Janene’s youngest son graduated from High School. We were 46 years old and all of our children had graduated High School. We felt a huge sense of accomplishment WE made it! Janene called me and said, “Hey, We are going to celebrate! Don’t worry about a thing, the weekend is one me! I don’t know what we are going to do but it is going to be AMAZING”! “I’ll pick you up in a bit”.
    We started driving…North. Listening to great music from “our” time Tina Turner, Journey Mmm…Mmm just enjoying the day! About an hour away from home, still feeling relaxed and like we owned just a little bit of the world we exited the freeway and drove onto a small very rural road leading to, as far as I could tell, nowhere special.
    I’m bringing down the house with “Proud Mary” when Janene stops the car in front of what looks, kind of like, a very VERY large metal garage. I look around and pale when I notice the “SKYDIVING” sign! What the Hell! I looked at Janene in shock! The look on her face is determined, “oh ya, we are so doing this” it says!
    All I can say is I followed her. I numbly went through the quick half hour training course, allowed the helpful young girls to put the necessary equipment on me and marched with the rest of my small class onto the plane. As the last person on the plane, I secretly thought I had a chance of talking the instructor, who was attached to me to letting me fly down with the plane.
    Standing at the door of the plane as the wind blew my hair back like a “Vogue” model, I turned to this cute man to tell him my plan, ‘I could not jump’, just then he pushed his knees into the inside of mine and out we both fell from a perfectly good plane! I prayed through my scream!!!
    My cute instructed yelled into my ear, “breathe”, and I thought “what”? …”Oh that”!! Once I started to breathe again, (and realized I hadn’t wet my pants) I couldn’t believe how wonderful it felt! I was flying! I was FLYING! It felt better than I imagined in my dreams!! And I couldn’t believe I’d almost missed this chance by being afraid! I felt so alive!
    The rest of our weekend was filled with new wonderful adventures that neither of us had ever tried. Granted none equaled in excitement to SKYDIVING! But the new tastes we experienced, the different shows that we saw, the new people that we met, the new feelings we allowed ourselves to feel could not have happened to us if we had planned it. We would not have dared to “Plan” that weekend, no not in a million years! And now no matter how hard or scary life gets we can think to ourselves…”It’s probably not as scary as Skydiving” and we Mastered that!!!!!
    This is an annual weekend now! No plans, no maps, just ideas and very vivid imaginations!

  6. Tempered Ashes says

    The most successful time in my life I planned everything. Now, I plan nothing and I am a mess. I guess planning has its advantages, but not planning has none–except that you don’t have to be held responsible since you didn’t plan it. hmmm, I wonder if that’s the beauty behind my planning-don’t want to be held responsible anymore–for anything. I was such a responsible girl. And such a responsible teenager. And such a responsible young lady. And now? well, responsibility’s pretty much been through out the window–along with everything else. And you know what?? I love it!! No responsibility to breathe–or not to breathe. No responsibility to do the laundry (that’s why I have 10 extra pairs of those cheap Hanes underwear!) No responsibility to dress up. No responsibility. hmmm, what a ticket!! so, when you say to me, look 2 or 3 feet ahead–I say to you (very proudly)–hell no! 2 or 3 inches? um, yeah still no. a centimeter? you’re not getting this..
    no responsibility!
    this is the stuff of dreams

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