When I was six I told my mother I wanted to be a writer. "Don't be silly," she told me. "Writers don't make any money."
My Mom denies ever saying this, but I remember the moment quite well. It was the well-intentioned advice of a mother who doesn't want her son to know poverty and rejection.
But I've never been good at taking advice, preferring to butt my head against a wall until I find a solution all my own. I've been doing this writing thing for almost thirty years, and am pleased to report that it's made for a more interesting life than the corporate dungeon in which I was dwelling in the late '80s. I'm pretty sure that if I was still working in that cubicle I'd either be dead or a grossly overweight version of myself — most likely drinking and smoking off the deep depression I felt every day I went into work.
I mention this for two reasons. The first is that twenty-five years ago this week, a single phone call changed my life. It came from out of the blue, completely unexpected, taking me off that dream-smothering track and opening up a whole new life that had nothing to do with cubicles or briefcases or the itchy woolen suits I used to wear every day. A stranger named Mark Burnett (yep, that guy) called and asked if I wanted to come to Madagascar to write magazine stories about his team as they competed in a two-week adventure race known as the Raid Gauloises. He'd read some of the pieces I'd published in magazines and liked my stuff. I took the leap, with great encouragement from my wife. And here we are.
The second reason I mention this is because I spoke to a high school creative writing class today. The timing was coincidental, though fortuitous, allowing me to reflect on all that has happened in this last quarter century. It was meant to be a time for offering advice on the writing process. Instead, it became a stream of consciousness soliloquy about putting words on the page. The forty-five minutes were like therapy, affirming once again why I love what I do. It felt like I was proselytizing for the writing profession, trying to sway would-be believers into the fold.
It's not an easy sell. On the list of jobs that most guidance counselors never ever ever ever ever discuss with a high school student, I have the feeling that "writing" is near the top. There's too much uncertainty. Too much belief that it's a profession for layabouts and dreamers. If I had a dollar for every time someone encouraged my wife to make me give up writing to get a "real" job, I'd have a whole lot of dollars. It's just not one of those jobs that engenders automatic feelings of security.
I get that. But I also believe that life is very short. If an individual is passionate about a creative profession, willing to hustle and risk, there should be no condemnation about what they do. And dammit, life is meant to be lived. Get out there. See the world. Make love in the middle of a weekday — because that's what you get to do when you write for a living.
I told that to the class. Not the last part, of course. But the stuff before it.
I also told them that "dreamer" is a compliment, not the insult that gets tossed around so callously. Writing is a job without a road map, forcing you to make your own path. It's not for sissies or those lacking ambition. The legendary Harvey Mackay once called writing the most extreme form of entrepreneurship, with the individual creating, packaging and shipping a product of their own design.
The class seemed attentive. I hope they heard me. Or at least, I hope they heard my enthusiasm. I didn't tell them of all the adventures, great and small, I've enjoyed since I got that phone call — the supersonic flight around the world, the years at the Tour de France, the dozens of stamps in my passport. I also didn't tell them about the financial hardships that arise during the famine years, like back in 2007 when the economy collapsed and the publishing world was cratering.
This is a magical life, is what I should have said.
I hope someday you choose to buy this ticket and take the ride, I should have said.
I'm so glad I did.