by Thom Barker
"You should really have something to fall back on in case that doesn’t work out."
Chances are if you’ve ever had the dream of pursuing a career in writing, you’ve heard words to that effect. The parents, guidance counsellors or friends who utter them are, for the most part, well meaning. But well meaning or not, the implication is that you don’t have the talent to "make it" and even if you do, they — the people who care about you — don’t want to see you struggle in obscurity, die young from alcoholism and only achieve celebrity after you’re gone, as the age-old cliché predicts.
But it’s really just a defeatist attitude cloaked in helpful pragmatism that’s hard to ignore since most of us already possess enough self-defeatism that we don’t need anyone else’s help to fail.
Self-defeatism starts with ego. You need to have a strong one, if only to endure the inevitable rejection, but by the time we’re adults, few people have a strong enough belief in their talent to negate the perception of what a long shot it is to achieve success in their creative field of choice.
At the end of elementary school, we’re still dreamers. Every time we step onto the church stage for the annual Christmas pageant, it’s the stage at Carnegie Hall; every time our mom hangs on the fridge a drawing we’ve completed, she’s a curator at the Louvre; and every time we put that final period at the end of a short story, the very next thing we think we’ll write is our acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature.
But by the end of high school, we’ve started to buy in to the myth that we should maybe have something to fall back on just in case our dreams don’t work out. A D- here, a C+ there on writing that we thought was Pulitzer material, four or five years of being put down by jocks and gentle urging by well-meaning authority figures have us looking for a compromise job in a "safe" profession.
But that too is predicated on a few self-defeatist misconceptions, the first of which is the definition of success. The approach we take in our fallback careers is a tried-and-true process. You get the training you need to qualify you for an entry-level job. You work hard and learn the ropes so you can get promoted. You put in your time, pay your dues, rise through the ranks and consider your career successful if you can manage to raise your kids, afford a comfortable life with a few perks and are able to look forward to retiring with enough time and energy left to know your grandchildren, travel a bit and play some golf or whatever strikes your fancy.
The kicker is that those things don’t need to be conflicting desires. We would never dream of defining success in terms of the overnight fame, fortune and critical acclaim we apply to our writing careers.
I spent five years getting a University degree and another nine garnering experience to become a senior-level project manager in the high-tech business. Conservatively, that’s somewhere around 30,000 hours, not to even mention a lifetime developing all the other skills that it takes to make it in that business.
That’s the problem with dreams, though, they tend to gloss over all that-in between stuff and demand a quantum leap from talent to stardom. And maybe on some level we realize that, so we don’t immediately buy in to the "something to fall back on" myth. Maybe we go out and struggle with our art for a few years and when we discover we can’t make the leap it’s because we’re misunderstood or unlucky or, heaven forbid, maybe we really don’t have what it takes.
But it’s not a matter of having what it takes; it’s a matter of doing what it takes. Michael Ondaatje did not spring forth from the womb generating award-winning fiction. When The English Patient won the Booker Prize in 1992, he was 50 years old and had been studying, teaching and writing for at least 30 years.
I’m not suggesting that anyone who has ever been born has the same capacity for literary accomplishment as the Ondaatjes of the world. And my own ego is certainly not so overdeveloped as to compare myself with him. But I have to wonder what might have happened if I had put 30,000-plus hours of my time, energy and talent into developing a writing career instead of a career in high-tech project management. Today, I might not be helping to adapt my Booker prize-winning novel into an Academy award-winning motion picture, but I’d probably be making a pretty decent living doing what I love to do.
Then again, maybe we never bought into the "something to fall back on" myth. Maybe we never lost the conviction that we do have the talent. Maybe we did work at it, read everything we could get our hands on and wrote every day, yet we still didn’t get anywhere. It’s easy to get disillusioned, start doubting, blaming, resenting. Maybe publishers really do have their heads up their asses. Maybe the reading public really is too ignorant to recognize our inestimable genius.
Or maybe, just maybe, we forget that it’s a business just like any other business. Yes, it’s competitive. What business isn’t? Yes, it’s a lot of hard work. What business isn’t? Yes, there is a certain amount of insecurity. But in retrospect, the only security we ever really have comes from putting in the time, working hard and knowing what we’re doing. Yes, it requires a bit of luck but the funny thing about luck is that the harder we work, the luckier we get.
In an ironic twist of fate, I recently found myself needing something to fall back on from my fallback. A year ago I made the decision to leave my high-tech job and return to Canada from Texas for family reasons. It couldn’t have been at a worse possible time in the high-tech industry. Despite all my qualifications and experience, it seems my luck had run out. Try as I might, I could not find a job. And, having been out of the country for close to six years, I didn’t qualify for any employment or social benefits.
It’s amazing how self-defeatism goes out the window, when survival is on the line. Fortunately, I’ve been writing all my life, starting with superhero comic books when I was seven. In high school I fancied myself a budding poet and novelist. This led to song writing in my twenties and a novel that I keep threatening to rewrite for the third time. I worked for my university newspaper in my junior and senior years, and dabbled in the periodical market after that. I even started in the high-tech business as a tech writer.
After all of that, it turns out I’m a halfway decent writer. I’ve been working at it full-time for the last eight months and it’s been paying the bills for the most part, sometimes even on time. But that modicum of success has had very little to do with actual writing. I spend maybe 20 percent of my time writing — including research, interviews, and so on. The rest of it is doing the business part of the business. And, for every thousand words I publish, I’m probably producing 20,000. Who knows how many millions it took to get here.
So, my life is not a whole lot different now than it was when I was in the high-tech business. I work full-time and write part-time. The only difference is that the work is in support of the writing and the writing has some financial benefit. It has come back full circle. What is behind the dream? Why do I want to be a writer in the first place?
Why does anyone do it? One of the worst things that another writer ever wrote about me as a writer was: "Thom uses the medium to express himself, to clarify how he feels." I hated that because it somehow seemed to negate the validity of what I do. Or did it? Maybe I just hated it because it’s true. This essay is the ultimate reflexive exercise — writing about writing to make sense of why it is I write.
But whether it’s for emotional clarity, fame and fortune, entertainment, to influence or inform, isn’t it, in the end, a quest to find meaning in life? Isn’t that the goal of all human endeavours, even the mundane task of making a living?
It’s really not such a long shot. The biggest problem with following your dreams is not being successful: it’s defining what success looks like; understanding what the dream really means; knowing what it is that we are truly seeking. The rest of it is just time, a lot of hard work, some luck and a little talent.
Thom Barker is a creative schizophrenic shunning specialization in pursuit of the perfect bittersweet irony. He is a writer, musician and visual artist squandering his B. Sc. in Ottawa. You can reach him at http://www.thombarker.ca
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