Here’s how I came to give up on my parents’ American dream for me, the one they had worked so hard for. Since I was three, I had thought of myself as a writer. I was a prolific creator of “books”, which were stapled-together pages I had illustrated and “read” to family members as I turned the pages. My parents told me I recited them the same every time, and sometimes they transcribed or tape-recorded my words. I think the first book I actually wrote was when I was around five. It was a Nancy Drew mystery about a kidnapped judge, or as I wrote, a “Nasey beroo” mystery about a kidnapped “juj”. The judge was a woman, and I drew this picture of Nancy peeking through the kidnapper’s window and seeing the judge lying on a bed. It was a little racy because I had drawn her with her judicial robe open to reveal her bra, but I was a bad enough artist that nobody realized that. I got a lot of praise for this behavior from adults, that I would create stories with no prompting. I either loved it or I was just messing around. Before long I loved the praise.
I was praised by teachers for my writing all through school, even after I ditched the illustrations. It was part of my identity, and I was seized with anxiety during the increasing stretches of time in high school when I wasn’t writing. Aren’t I writer? Don’t writers write? During a long stretch in college I decided I needed structure to write, couldn’t do it on my own. One of the later writing classes I took in college was a fiction workshop, which would surely give me direction and motivation, I thought. I cried during my first workshop.
My first piece hadn’t received the generally glowing response I was accustomed to. Even with the praise I had always received, I was actually always very self-conscious of my abilities, whether they’d hold up in the real world. What propped me up was the feedback, knowing that so many others believed in me. Suddenly my feedback was predominantly critical with a couple glimmers of positivity when it used to be the reverse. In anticipation of the criticism, I began to write for them, my classmates and my professor. I heard their voices as I typed, judging everything that came out:
Nice word choice, idiot.
Lazy description. Show, don’t tell.
Writing wasn’t a joy. It was a chore, filled my head with voices that made my writing stilted and strange. Then I started wondering if I ever enjoyed writing. Maybe I had just enjoyed the praise. Maybe this “writer” identity was something that others had put on me. I don’t think I had ever been actually good, just good for a second grader or a seventh grader or a twelfth grader. And now I could barely hold my own in a college-level workshop of nonprofessionals. If I wasn’t even the best in the class, how could I make it as a writer in the real world?
You see, writing is a glamour profession. That means that it’s so desired, comes with such a coolness factor that people are willing to write professionally for free. They’re willing to pay to be a writer, as is evidenced by the numerous “become a writer” scams as well as full-time unpaid internships in expensive cities. Which is another kind of scam, in my opinion.
Just before graduating college, I asked my honors project adviser, a real writer, for advice on becoming a real writer myself. You know, just in case.
He suggested I stay away from MFA programs. To write, you needed a job that allowed you the time and mental space to do so. A serving job, an admin, a barista. The overachiever in me didn't like this.
“Writing isn't like physics,” he told me, “It's not time sensitive. You won’t lose your abilities as you get older.”
I talked to him about my career anxiety, told him I was also interested in social justice. I maybe wanted to work for an NGO.
"My wife does that. It's much more noble than holing up in your room and writing stories all day."
I told him I was going to Japan with my boyfriend.
"You're in a relationship?” he said, “That will endlessly complicate things."
I came to the practical conclusion that writing could never be my livelihood. I needed to find something else with a structure and a paycheck, but I had no idea what. I went to Japan as a teacher, but planned along the way to become fluent in Japanese, save some money, and figure out what to do with my life. Have you ever heard that saying that used to be on bumper stickers: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
If god were real, he would have been laughing.