10.26.2009

on becoming a writer, part one

Work was grueling this weekend, as is the norm now, thanks to staff cuts. Every weekend further validates my decision to change careers. In the short run, school leaves me very little bounce-back time, so I have to be really careful with what little I have. This morning we went for a walk on the lake, towards Rattray Marsh, and the dogs had a little run at Jack Darling Park.

When I decided to get my Masters degree to become a librarian, the idea was to change my day-job as a legal document-production operator. Librarianship is one of the few career options (of jobs I could see myself doing) that can be done part-time and still pay well. I was thinking I would still work part-time, and write and do activism part-time, as I do now.

But even now, in my first term of school, I find myself thinking about working full-time. Having a rewarding full-time job - and having decent pay and benefits for the first time in a long time - is appealing. The Mississauga Library System starts everyone as part-time, but if a full-time opening came up at a branch I liked, perhaps I would take it. And if we want to use my library degree as a way to live elsewhere in Canada, which we've talked about, then I'm probably looking at full-time work.

Thinking along these lines, an inevitable question enters my mind. What would that mean for me as a writer? If I had a challenging and rewarding full-time job, would I still write? What form would that writing take? What role would writing play in my life?

I realize the answers to these questions - and even the need to ask the questions - are many years away. I don't mean to give the impression that I'm stressing over this or even worried. But the thoughts are floating around in my head - persistently. And after all, that's part of what this blog is for.

Many, many years ago, I made a conscious choice to identify myself as a writer, to disconnect the question "What do you do?" from "What do you do for a living?". In a sense it was the most important decision I've ever made as a writer, the choice from which everything else flowed.

* * * *

I've been writing as long as I can remember. On summer vacations with my family, from about age 6 to age 11, I wrote impressions on a yellow lined pad, my first travel diary. I wrote short stories, and bad poetry, and several times began a book, usually after reading a novel I loved.

My favourite writer was Laura Ingalls Wilder, not because I loved the "Little House" series (although I did), but because we had the same name, and she was a writer. After I fell in love with S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, I knew I wanted to write the same kind of book. A little later, Steinbeck's Travels With Charley gave me the travel bug and confirmed that I had to write.

My family - by which I mean my father, as he controlled us and attempted to direct our desires - said I was a good writer, so I should be a lawyer. So that was it. I was slated for law school.

Once in university, I knew I had to resist taking even the first step in that direction. My father would say, "Just take the test [meaning the LSAT], and see how you do. Just take it." I knew after that was, "Just go to law school. Just go." And after that, of course, just be a lawyer. A career in constitutional law, a la the ACLU, might have been an option, but then, many things were options. None was what I wanted.

I didn't know how to say, "I'm going to be a writer." I didn't know how to graduate university, and need to support myself, and simply write. Not use my writing to further a career, such as medical writing or technical writing or fundraising - worthy career choices, but not what I wanted.

I couldn't even articulate that. I just knew I had to not go to law school. My father put me under a lot of pressure, and threatened to cut off my tuition, but I already knew I was living my life, not his.

In university I started working in theatre administration, specifically marketing. I've always loved theatre and was a big arts appreciator, and it seemed like a good fit. Most importantly, it wasn't law school.

After graduating and traveling in Europe with NN, I found a theatre job in New York, and began what I thought would be my career. I did well, and thought I wanted to be a managing director, meaning run a theatre company. But only a few years later, I was dissatisfied, because I wasn't writing.

Work was demanding, requiring long hours and a lot of stress. I wrote scraps and snippets in notebooks, but I never had the focus and energy to sustain any ideas. I wanted to find a way to support myself that would leave me not only more time, but more creative energy. I thought about it a lot, and had no idea how I could make it happen.

Then a whole bunch of things happened at once.

One, I took what was supposed to be a really good theatre job, a big step up, and I was miserable.

Two, I met Allan.

And three, my roommate, a close friend, wanted us to have our own places, but I couldn't afford that.

There's nothing like a bad job to bring your options to focus. I knew I had to leave. But I also knew there'd be another theatre job, and another, and I still wouldn't be writing. But what about my career?

Allan wasn't from New York. He had no career. He didn't ask me what I did or talk about what he did. He talked about what he loved - music, books, baseball. He was a college-radio DJ - not a paying job, but something that helped define him.

In our very first conversation ever, I heard myself say, "I always felt I was a writer. But I'm not writing now."

His face changed. "Writer, really? I used to write."

We were both writers, and neither of us were writing. Within months of that meeting, we were both writing again. We helped each other find it again.

Meanwhile, my roommate introduced me to her close friend and boss, who needed someone to take care of her home and do steady child-care, in exchange for the rent on a separate apartment in her house. Another friend needed to find freelance proofreaders for a publishing company.

In October 1985, I turned my life upside down. I started taking care of M, continuing my long-distance relationship with Allan, and began writing my first young-adult novel.

And I decided I was a writer.

My father said, "I didn't send you to an Ivy League school so you could be a babysitter." But my mother said, "I'm so happy for you. Let's go shopping to get what you need to move into your own place." By this time I was only listening to what helped. It was the beginning of the end of my relationship with my father.

* * * *

New York City is a place where people are identified with what they do for a living. But I made a conscious choice. I insisted that my identity was something else.

It started out as a very practical matter. When people asked, "What do you do?", if I said, "I'm a proofreader" or "I'm a babysitter," I ended up answering questions I didn't want to answer, about boring stuff I didn't want to talk about. But if I said, "I'm a writer," people would ask what kind of writing I did, and what I was working on. Questions about something that absorbed me, questions about things I cared about.

Soon it became more important than conversation. It gave my writing top priority.

New York City is full of people doing work that is different from who they are. My friends were a photographer (postal worker), an artist (stay-at-home dad), director (fundraiser), dancer (fundraiser) actor (word processors, proofreaders, temps), musician (personal assistant), and on and on. So it certainly wasn't unusual to be a proofreader and babysitter who was also a writer.

But deciding to call myself a writer, to identify myself that way to myself and to others, was liberating - and so focusing. Writers write. So if I was writer, let's get writing.

Around this time, I also resumed the pro-choice activism I had done a bit in college. Working at home, it was a great way to meet people, and a necessary antidote to the Reagan years. I quickly realized that freelancing gave me more time and energy to be myself.

My work in theatre, which I thought was going to be My Career For Life, became merely a stepping stone. It kept me from law school. It got me out into the world. I met lots of interesting people, established my independence, and figured out what I wanted to do. Which was write.

[There may be a sizeable delay until part two.]

5 comments:

MSEH said...

Love this post. And, hi! It's been too long.

Amy said...

I also loved reading this. It's fascinating to learn how people get from Point A to Point B. Resisting law school was a wise step, I am sure (although I bet you would have been a good lawyer, given how well you write, reason and argue a point).

It is also fascinating to me because it's like reading about my what if life---what if I had NOT followed the safe path to law school? I also loved writing as a child---always writing stories, poems---and took every lit course I could because books were my escape. I thought (and still think) that writing something moving and beautiful is one of the most noble and enriching of human pursuits. If I had been pushed too hard by a parent (I wasn't at all---it was my own risk-averse choice), maybe I also would have refused law school and found a more creative way to use my talents and pursue my interests.

The one part of this story that leaves me wondering is---how DID you meet Allan if he was living in VT and you in NY? But I guess that is a post on a different topic altogether!

L-girl said...

Thanks, both. I didn't expect anyone to enjoy this post, so you've given me impetus to continue the story.

The one part of this story that leaves me wondering is---how DID you meet Allan if he was living in VT and you in NY? But I guess that is a post on a different topic altogether!

Indeed it is. I promise to write it before Opening Day 2010.

Amy said...

I look forward to part two.

And to the Allan & Laura story. I have it in writing, so I will hold you to it. :)

johngoldfine said...

Didn't expect anyone to enjoy this post???

You think we come here for the pix? Not to push the point but you're a writer! Your writing is interesting! Sheesh.

Peter O'Donnell said this was the best advice he ever had on writing and being a writer:

Demobbed, he took an office above El Vino's in Fleet Street, and began writing for women's magazines, comics and newspaper strips. Once, when he asked an editor for pointers on a story, the man replied from behind the Racing Post: "You're supposed to be an author: f*** off and auth."