October 2, 2012

Question 4: Nice work if you can get it

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Were there other careers that you seriously considered, or that you still consider? (Also, why can I never remember how to spell career?)

I don’t know why you can never remember how to spell “career.” Of course, I was well into my twenties before I learned how to spell “separate.” I still cannot handle the numbers of Cs and Ss in quite a few words, and the I before E except when they feel like it coming after thing is baffling to me. I’m a crappy speller, and I like to think that’s a sign of genius. Unfortunately, no one else seems to think so.

My senior year of college, I applied to two sets of graduate programs: those in secondary education and those in playwriting. I was a playwriting concentration at Penn, studying under the legendary Romulus Linney, who thought I had the chops. However, the two top-tier graduate programs to which I applied did not seem to share his opinion. I did, however, get into several graduate programs in education, and so that decided me: I’d be a high school English teacher.

It’s not as though the two careers were ever mutually exclusive. Yet, I had known I’d be a writer for as long as I could remember. My grandfather was a writer. He was only moderately successful, but he had talent and he believed in me. I have no doubt that I got my facility with language from him, just as I know Zachary got his from me. It’s an interesting vein to trace and one that fills me with happiness for my son because I know how much joy language has always given me.

At any rate, my grandfather encouraged me to write poetry from childhood, although my stepmother and then my aunt liked to tell me I had no ability and I’d never be a writer. It’s the most devastating thing you can do to a child, this dashing of dreams, and it’s to that that I attribute my lack of confidence when I graduated college. Rather than try many routes to becoming a writer, I thought, “Well, if I don’t get into the very best programs, I obviously don’t have any ability and I should become a teacher.” I knew I’d be a good teacher, but to turn away from a deep immersion in language was a wrenching out of a part of me.

An interesting side note – the writing I did in high school was creative nonfiction, long before I realized there was such a genre.

I taught high school for three years. Yet the force was strong in this one, and I had to delve further into literature and language. I simply couldn’t teach The Great Gatsby for the next four decades without coming to hate Fitzgerald, which is a fate worse than death. I applied to graduate programs in English. I think my aunt and stepmother might be discouraged to learn that after all their efforts to make me feel like a lame-ass, I applied to TWENTY graduate programs, determined to do this thing for myself. I ended up at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I learned what Homi Bhabha was talking about, why the sky is Carolina Blue, and how to write strong prose.

But I didn’t want to be an academic by the time I earned my Ph.D. It wasn’t the right kind of writing or teaching for me. I cast about for other opportunities, and as luck and a few well-placed emails would have it, got an interview for a job as a speech writer. I didn’t get the job, but the man I interviewed with recommended me for a different contract job, which I did get. I discovered I loved writing speeches.

Long-story somewhat less long – I realized that my combination of teaching experience, a doctorate, and writing ability made me uniquely suited to writing for academic institutions, and I’ve been lucky to happen upon several wonderful editors who support my work. I’ve built up a nice freelance career of articles, profiles, and speeches for universities. In addition to paying pretty well, it has helped me define myself as a writer, given me purpose, and allowed me to use my abilities in ways I know are positive for the world.

I don’t think I’ve walked away from teaching for good, but any teaching I do will remain partnered with my writing. I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel that I have this thing I love to do that pays me and allows me to still be there to pick my kids up from school, not to mention highlighting and supporting the work of some amazing people.

Also, when I was eleven, I wanted to run a Wizard-of-Oz-themed bakery while simultaneously serving as leader of the free world. That one didn’t pan out so well.

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  • Reply Anjali October 2, 2012 at 12:59 am

    I love hearing stories of how people come to writing. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Reply Lilian Nattel October 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    That sort of negative “encouragement” haunts me to this day, and makes me a slower writer than I would otherwise be I suspect. I’m glad you de-spited them. Lucky thing btw that you aren’t Canadian, no “ou” words to contend with!

  • Reply alejna October 3, 2012 at 2:03 am

    Wow, this was a really interesting and in-depth answer. It is entertaining and deeply personal, like everything you write.

    I think it’s so cool that writing has been your calling for so long. And so amazing how far you’ve come in spite of those fuckers who discouraged you. (Sorry. They piss me off so much, they make me swear. And I normally try not to swear in other people’s comment sections.)

    I love your writing, and am so glad that you have found ways to turn your passion into a career. (Still had to think about how to spell that.)

    (I also admit that I asked the question originally because I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, and often wonder if others close to my age feel that way. I used to think I wanted to be a writer at some point, but got discouraged. But then again I have also wanted to be a diplomat, a pilot, a teacher, a stand-up comic, a musician, an artist and a social worker. There are remarkably few job descriptions that fit all that.)

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