Friday, March 28, 2008

What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

My friend Karen has a fun discussion on her blog about kids and their career aspirations. Honestly, I don’t think I ever went through a fireman or superhero phase, although for a while I did consider a future in the NBA. The seventeen-inch legs and the inability to soar higher than two inches off the ground derailed my plans. But old dreams die hard. I’m telling you, if it doesn’t require movement, I’m your guy. I may be the greatest one-on-none and H-O-R-S-E player in America.

But here’s what I really wanted to be when I grew up: for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote after-the-nuclear-holocaust short stories on the playground in third grade. Neighborhood kids would congregate in my garage, and I made up horror stories on the spot (paintings with eyes that moved!). I wrote a poem in sixth grade that was essentially my own eulogy (yes, I was insufferable then, too), in perfect iambic pentameter, even though at the time I didn’t know that’s what it was called. The cognitive dissonance associated with writing iambic pentamenter and, say, making the mortgage payments, never even occurred to me. I just wanted to be a writer.

As I’ve listened to peoples’ stories, I’ve come to find out that just about everybody wanted to be a writer at one point in their lives. Many people still do. It’s one of those professions that has a certain romantic cachet associated with it. There is, for instance, the example of Thomas Wolfe staying up all night and pouring out his soul on the page, running out onto the streets of Baltimore at 4:00 in the morning, pages in hand, shouting “I wrote ten thousand words today!” And there is the example of Jack Kerouac pounding on the typewriter keys as he crossed the country, high on words and America and amphetamines. It turned out that the romanticism wasn’t always the ticket to longevity. Wolfe died at 39, Kerouac at 46. But they went out in a blaze of glory.

Early on the idea of “leaving my mark” also became very important to me. And writers left their marks. You could find those marks in libraries and bookstores. The writers died, but their words lived on, and for a guy who was obsessed with death (note iambic pentameter story above), this sounded appealing. And so I set before myself the modest goal of writing the Great American Novel, a novel that would be so moving and so beautifully written that generations of future romantics and beautiful hippie chick English majors would read my words and swoon. You can’t imagine how much my life was driven by the thought of beautiful, swooning, literate hippie chicks.

And so I became a writer. Kinda. Almost. Okay, I spent 40+ hours every week writing sentences like “The following table shows our current A-B/multivariate testing capabilities as compared to those capabilities needed for market differentiation.” And yeah, nobody was swooning, and it was hard to find beautiful, literate engineers. Still, it was a living, and that seesaw that has romanticism at one end and making a living at the other has been tottering back and forth for decades. I’ve gone back to school a few times since that Creative Writing degree, even though I know for a fact that I had it right the first time. And here’s about the only thing I’ve figured out: it’s a tradeoff. There’s no romantic glory in starving to death and subjecting your family to abject poverty. And the only way to combat the soul-crushing tendencies of corporate America is to do things like write iambic pentameter and to wax rhapsodic about that album that feeds your soul.

More and more, though, I find that I am identifying myself in ways other than “writer.” It’s not that the “writer” tag isn’t important to me. Anyone who knows me knows that’s important to me. But honestly, here’s who I want to be when I grow up: a less selfish jerk, a person capable of caring deeply about others, entering in to their joys and sorrows, a person who is engaged in trying to make the world I live in a better and more just place, and a person who wants to communicate above all to my wife and daughters how much I love them. I will never write the Great American Novel. It’s entirely possible that I will never finish any novel that I start. I’ve got 52+ years of a not-so-great track record. But I will leave a mark. And I will leave it on the people whose lives I encounter. I want the mark to be a good one. No one will swoon. But I hope that it will be a mark characterized by love.


Karen said...


CarolN said...

Nail on the head there, Andy. Didn't Thoreau say something about middle-aged people settling for a nice shack in the woods instead of the mansion they dreamed of as kids? If I put a shack of a book together someday, I'll be satisfied.

Curt Worden said...

Kerouac hit a raw nerve in his book Big Sur. Much soul searching and a peek into his spiral downward - always writing on the way. In a cabin in Big Sur he questioned everything.

Check out the documentary: One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur" http:www/

patrick said...

I can't tell you how much this resonates with me. I've vacillated among programmer, writer, songwriter, musician, or some kind of limp specialist for over a decade. Sometimes I feel like my 10-year-old son, who is somewhere between writer, dancer, and major league pitcher in his "when I grow up" planning. Except he writes with more discipline and vigor than I do.

But you remind me that I want to teach my kids to define themselves by who they are rather than what they do. It's a lesson I still need to work on myself. So thanks.

Pilgrim said...

If you're raising two children, you're leaving a deeper mark than a great novel would.

Sometimes you can combine love and writing, if you're willing to give up the fame part. The most gratitude I've received from anyone in the past year was for some letters written to a person in prison. Some of the highlights of our weeks as I was growing up were getting twice-weekly letters from Grandma.