Middle school was the first time someone told me I couldn’t be a writer. Thankfully, it was also one of the only times, but it still had a profound impact.
It was a teacher who said it. He didn’t mean that I wasn’t good enough; even then, I knew that wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that “being a writer” is a gamble. You might make it; you might not. Your paycheck, if you get one, will never be for the same amount twice, and until you’re J.K. Rowling, that’s going to be a source of instability, stress and hardship.
Of course, even at 12 or whatever I was, I understood that. I knew what a starving artist was and that I was probably going to be one. But I also believed I could play the game and eventually get noticed. Instead of giving me the tools to win that game, my teacher simply said, “You can’t really ‘be a writer.’”
As my friend who has never cursed in her life said, “That’s bullshit.”
Of course you can “be a writer.” It just means that, on top of writing creatively in your work-time, you also have to live and budget creatively in your off-time. To this day, I wonder how my career might be different if, instead of saying “You can’t,” my teacher had said, “It’s going to be hard, but here are the ways you can.”
Maybe, as a computer technology teacher, he just didn’t know the ways. Maybe, within the confines of the assignment, he just felt that “being a writer” was going to over-complicate things – we were supposed to be creating some sort of ten-year plan for our future, complete with a household budget, which is admittedly difficult to build on an unreliable artist’s paycheck.
But that’s exactly why I needed him to say “here’s how” instead of “you can’t.” Because I was never going to change what I wanted to do. I’ve always been good at writing, and I’ve always wanted to do it for a living. Fifteen years later, I’m still not sure how, and I no longer have the disposable time and energy I had back then for trial and error.
I’m sure my teacher wasn’t taking the assignment that seriously. I’m sure he didn’t expect any of the kids to take it that seriously. It’s not like any of us were going to actually take this ten-year plan with us to high school, college, and the distant, hazy “real life” beyond.
I guess I’ve always taken things too seriously.
For the assignment, I compromised and said I would become a journalist, silently swearing that, in real life, I would never compromise and become a journalist. But then I grew up and still didn’t know how to “be a writer,” so I compromised and became a journalist.
As I expected, there aren’t any dragons or spaceships in journalism. Instead of princesses in castles, I write about millionaires and the mansions their neighbors won’t let them build. Instead of finding water on a faraway planet, I write about finding enough water for my town to drink in the drought. Instead of evil villains, I write about politicians – which some would say is the same thing, but it’s not. Not at all.
I’m exactly as happy as my 12-year-old self, thought I would be. It’s writing. It pays the rent. I’m trying, on the side, to find the time and energy to pursue what really matters to me, but most days, it takes everything I have just to survive my day job.
Would things have been different if my teacher had seized that teachable moment and given me some goals to work toward, even then, as young as I was – back when the stakes were so low, when staying up all night to work on a story was exciting, not exhausting? Maybe, maybe not. That moment in tech class was one of many, many moments that shaped me. Most of those moments were good. I can’t, and won’t, blame this one for where I am (or am not) today.
So it might be taking longer than I thought. I might not be famous yet. Or ever. I still don’t know where I’m going or how to get there, any more than I did when I was 12. But there’s something else that hasn’t changed: I still believe I can.
I’ll take the starving; just give me the art.
This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.