When I was six year old I told my mother I wanted to be a writer.
"Don't be silly," she told me in an instant. "Writers don't make any money."
It is only now I understand that those words came from a place of compassion. Rosemary Fitzgerald Dugard was a proud descendant of Irish immigrants. She bristled when recounting tales of "Irish Need Not Apply" signs in Boston's storefront windows next to "Help Wanted" advertisements. No mother wants to see their child suffer, whether emotionally or financially, so the grit and hustle — the unknown — of the writer's life was the last career she had in mind for her oldest son. Years later my mom would recommend that I run away and join the circus. That's how bad it was: the guaranteed paycheck of being a carny held more promise than being a writer.
Some words you never forget. Of all the arguments and instructions we hear in childhood, most are forgotten. Yet through some trick of the mind, some are exceptional enough they stay with you forever. So it was with that simple admonition.
Writing was off the list. Forever.
I still read voraciously. In elementary school I was fond of writing little "books," four to five pages in length, handwritten in pencil on lined paper, stapled together, with a title page. But as the years passed and that inevitable day we all face to choose a career approached, writing remained permanently off the list. Even when a high school English teacher suggested I consider publishing an essay I'd written for her class, I gave little thought to becoming a writer. On those rare moments when I did allow myself to imagine that dream, if ever so slightly, writing felt illicit and untouchable, a guilty pleasure that must never be discussed aloud, like masturbation — but worse. Because more than anything, those thoughts were foolish, and in that way shameful.
Two decades passed. That decision about career choice was never far from my mind. It became so strong when I was in college that I would drop out for semesters at a time, seeing little point in finishing my education if I didn't know what I wanted to do with it. Most days I went to 16th Street in Newport Beach with two bottles of Molson and read books — Hemingway and Thompson mostly. That should have been a clue as to what I really wanted to do.
I took a "real" job one of those semesters, working in a small corporation that did something or other with military defense. My first day I showed up in a suit, carrying a briefcase, thrilled to finally be legitimate. The lost semesters were set aside as I sat down to launch what would surely become my new profession in data entry.
"Is this all there is?" I thought fifteen minutes later. It all seemed so mundane — cubicles, whispered office gossip, the Tupperware containers in the communal refrigerator next to the microwave in the break room.
"Is this all there is?"
What if, after finally graduating college, this was all that awaited me? Where was the adventure? The wonder? Was this how I was supposed to spend the rest of my life?
Apparently, yes. I ran away from that job, quitting without notice and boarding a plane for Chicago, intending to continue on to France and join the Foreign Legion. But I came crawling back, calling my Dad to borrow money for a plane flight home because I never really had the guts to become a mercenary, even in my wildest dreams. So it was that three years later, college finally accomplished, I took another corporate job. I was married. Calene and I wanted to have kids and a house and all the other dreams that come with having your whole life waiting to unveil its wonders.
This time, I knew what I was getting myself into — the suit, the briefcase, the cubicle. But more than that, I had the right attitude. I knew there would be long periods of boredom. I knew my movements would be restricted, watched closely by my fellow employees to see if I was doing what I was told, when I was told to do it. I knew there would be gossip, whispered private phone calls, Tupperware.
I was ready.
Fifteen minutes later I was still eager. But two days later, those words came back: "Is this all there is?"
I didn't quit. Not this time. But I went home at night and complained. On and on, night after night. Finally, Calene had enough. A good friend had given me the number of a career counselor. We could not spare the $350 it would take for the appointment, but Callie demanded I do it anyway. She wasn't mad, she was tired. My wife saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. It was time I saw it too, even if a stranger had to figure it out for me.
So I wrote the $350 check and prayed it didn't bounce. The counselor's name was Pam, I think. She administered a series of written tests and told me to come back in a week.
Those seven days were a time of great curiosity. I'd been open and honest with Pam, knowing the money would be wasted if I pretended to want a career that didn't set my heart on fire. I thought of all the jobs I'd had since I began pinballing my way through the working world. I could count more than twenty before the most recent corporate gig, starting with summer camp counselor and ending with bartender. Somewhere in between was disc jockey and that lone day in Amarillo I worked in a Pizza Hut while hitchhiking across America.
I was early. Pam had a pile of papers and handwritten notes in front of her. She looked across the desk, explaining the methodology of career counseling, and why each test mattered, overlapping with the others to get a fairly definitive take on what my future would look like if I had the courage to take her advice. Finally, the moment of truth.
"Have you ever thought about being a writer?"