When I was thirteen, I was subjected to the same ‘career planning’ we subject everyone to at that age. It’s kind of messed up that we ask kids that age to start making real decisions about their future. I have kids that age. I don’t think they have the slightest idea what they want out of their lives, except to be allowed to stay up as late as they want and drink Coke every day.
I was actually the exception to the rule; I knew just what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer.
But that’s not the answer a teacher wants to hear at thirteen. It’s not ‘realistic’ at thirteen to want to be a writer. So, when I told my English teacher this, she kindly suggested to me that it wasn’t a viable option. Writers don’t make a lot of money. And if they do make money, it takes them years and years to make it.
I think she talked to me about journalism. I think I folded and told her I wanted to be a vet just so that she’d stop gently breaking my spirit.
That year I shadowed for a vet’s office and decided that wasn’t for me. Too much death for my gentle soul. I joined Jr ROTC and the school paper, still trying to figure out something I could do that would make me happy. I doubt I need to tell you that I wasn’t the military sort. Journalism was fun, but I didn’t see it being a lifelong love.
Of course, you know how the rest of the story goes. I had a rocky couple of, um, decades. But now I am, in fact, a writer. I still have a full-time day job, that’s true. But I am a published author. And I wish that I could talk to that teacher, who told me how wholly unrealistic this life would be. So I decided to write her an open letter. Here it is.
I guess that nearly 20 years is a long time to hold a grudge against someone who only meant well. It’s been a long time, and I guess there’s a good chance you don’t even remember me. You’ve had so many students come and go, I’m sure. And, in fairness, I bet you didn’t ever mean to dash my dreams.
Actually, you didn’t. You told me that people don’t make money writing, at least not for a long, long time. You told me something that I think every writer needs to hear, but maybe not so early.
I wish that you would have done something more, something better. I wish that you would have talked to me about what I could do. I wish that I’d had someone, anyone, to take me by the hand and explain that money wasn’t going to matter. That I could always make money in other ways. I wish that you, and all teachers, were more in the habit of explaining how someone achieves the big dreams. The shoot for the sky dreams. I know it was nothing personal when you told me my dream wasn’t likely to happen. I imagine you’d have said the same thing to any child who told you she wanted to be a writer, singer, artist, actor. Not the kids who want to open their own restaurants, or the ones who want to be lawyers or police officers. There’s a simple, straight path to those jobs. You might still fail, sure, but the chance for failure is significantly less. Most people who want to be lawyers become lawyers if they can afford to go to school. Most people who want to be writers won’t be writers.
And there’s not a lot of room for careers where you’re probably not going to succeed. What I needed was for someone to say, “Look, you’re not going to make a lot of money at this right off the bat. For a couple of years, maybe decades really. So, the first thing you do is that you get yourself a fallback. You start applying for grants right now, and maybe you’ll get a couple. But you might not. Even if you do get grants, they might run out before you’re making enough money writing to keep yourself fed. So here’s what you do. You find a job that you like, that pays the bills well enough. You get that job to keep a roof over your head, and then you start writing. You write every day, and you treat it like it’s going to be the thing that you do for the rest of your life. Be good at your day job, because there’s a good chance you’re going to be doing it forever. But maybe there are more important things than money. Maybe you’ll find that you really like what you’re doing, and you’re happier doing that than you ever could be doing anything else. And who knows, maybe you will make it big, and the dream job can be the only job. It’s always possible, don’t think that it’s not. But you’ll for sure never get it if you don’t try.”
Maybe you can’t say that to a kid. Maybe a college teacher could have said it but a high school teacher can’t. Maybe that’s the problem we need to be fixing.
I want to tell you that I’ve almost made it, anyway. I’m not making money writing, but I am writing. People are reading what I’m writing, which is the more exciting thing. I’m doing what I love and letting the money follow.
I want to tell you that, if you can, help the kids with the unrealistic dreams. Maybe they won’t succeed, and they’ll end up in a dead-end job.
Or maybe they will succeed.
Thank you for teaching anyway, it’s a damn hard job.
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