No Instructions

I was visiting my brother a few years ago in Los Angeles and decided to watch some TV while he was working out. I didn’t have cable in my own home at the time and was unfamiliar with Comcast’s immense, standard-issue remote. I looked for instructions, but could find none. I began pushing buttons. Nothing happened. I pushed more buttons. Still nothing. I became angry and pushed the same buttons again. More nothing. I gave up, and awaited my brother’s return, whereupon I explained my dilemma. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “You’ve just got to . . .” He pushed one button, and the screen came to life.

“Give me that stupid thing,” I said, and began surfing for something to watch. It was a relief to be flipping through the channels, even though I couldn’t find anything I liked. It was easy to answer the question, “Does this look interesting?” Much easier, in this case, than, “How does this work?”

Sometimes figuring out how something works is simpler than knowing what you want to do with it. It’s just a puzzle. Plus, if you lose interesting in figuring it out yourself, you can find someone else who has figured it out. People love to help one another—sometimes, maybe, a little too much.

Life is not some vast, immensely complex remote control. At some very critical point, no matter how much others would like to help us, we are all on our own. We are all looking at a blank screen and wondering what we would like to see across it. Thankfully, no authentic instructions exist for such moments, including the advice in this column. At best I can remind you of what it feels like to enjoy that moment of choosing, of remembering that you cannot be wrong when you find what you love.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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