The Third Something

084 / Birds And Words

Continuing a summer of guest letters, Jess shares a personal story from their career in the military.

Continuing a summer of guest letters from the Third Something community, today I’m excited to share words from yet another second-career artist.

(Publishing letters from two second-career artists in a row, I should say, is an accident - but one I find inspiring. You are never too old, it is never too late!)

Jess, who writes as JYB, is a writer in Brooklyn, a path they began after a career in the U.S. Navy. Here’s their story.

What I learned about writing by failing as a Naval Flight Officer

One of the things you learn from being in the military is the power and necessity of hard work.

So when I began to take my writing seriously, I latched onto the advice that espoused hard work and diligence. Getting up before dawn, churning out words day after day - that kind of discipline wasn’t new to me.

After a few months, though, a stagnant feeling was weighing me down.

At first, I thought I just needed to work harder. So I woke up earlier, logged more hours, basically fell back on what I’d always done before.

But it wasn’t until I recalled my time in naval flight training that I realised that there was more to “hard work” than I had originally thought.


Every flight is preceded by a pre-flight briefing.

It’s a straightforward affair: you and your instructor go over the flight plan, rehearse any tricky areas, make last minute adjustments, then head out to the plane.

When I was going through flight training in the U.S. Navy, there had been one instructor that everyone dreaded. “Mack” was his callsign because he was as hard as a mack truck.

And of course, I was assigned to him for my final qualification flight.

The night before that flight, I stayed up late — memorising as much as I could, stuffing checklists and procedures into my brain, practicing radio calls, and quizzing myself on every dial, switch, and gauge in the cockpit.

I went into the pre-flight briefing confident in the hard work I’d put in. But Mack didn’t ask about any of those things. Instead, he spent the better part of an hour picking apart my flight plan. He questioned every calculation I’d made, dug into the way I placed my hands on my tools to plot the winds. “Are you sure? How do you know? What if - what would you do - why?”

It was the most brutal hour of my entire time in the Navy.

In the end, I didn’t even make it past the briefing. “I’m not getting into a plane with someone who only knows how to memorise checklists,” he said.

I still remember fighting back tears as I carried that pink probationary slip to the quarterdeck.


It wasn’t until ten years later, as a civilian working on stories rather than flight plans, that I finally understood what Mack had tried to teach me that day.

Mack had torn everything apart to drag into the light the processes and assumptions I had built.

It wasn’t that memorising checklists was bad — it was the thinking that had led me to that conclusion that was the problem.

In my writing, I’ve been exploring the slice of life genre as a way to share stories that give reprieve and encouragement to people as they endure the hard work it takes to make lasting change in their personal lives.

So in the course of this exploration, I’ve returned to Mack’s lesson, rethinking not only my writing process but also the so-called “truths” that I’ve grown up with to get to the core of what I believe about writing and art itself.

The same is true of any creative endeavour.

Yes, getting your butt in the seat to do the work is important, but so is taking the time to ask: is this really necessary? How can I test to make sure, to make it better?  

It’s looking at everything from the physical instruments you use and how you’re using them, your “run-up” sequence before you “take-off” into your work; it’s analysing the time it took to get to each of the “navigational points” on your flight plan; it’s questioning how you even built your “flight plan” to begin with.

Above all, it’s putting in the hard work to find out where working hard is worth it. And every now and then, not being afraid to take a mack truck to everything and start anew.

Thank you Jess!

Their letter makes me think how easily we can conform to what we think is the right way to do something, the correct process.

What is the “right” way to tell a story? Or the “right” way to draw a gesture? I’ve spent a long time believing an objective truth on these things exists; now I think there’s only the right way for you.

But, as Jess says, you have to dig hard to find it.

Until another Sunday soon,

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