Three Things I Had to do Before I Got Paid to be a Writer
I don't know what constitutes a mid-life crisis. I wouldn't have considered myself to be in crisis, so to speak. But I could see it on the horizon. Being beyond the halfway point for the average male in the United States, I'm at an age where I'm no longer comfortable calling myself "young." Retirement isn't around the corner, but I am now as close to retirement as I am to the beginning of my career. And what a career it's been!
It's actually been several careers - five to be exact.
I spent some time as a landscaper/gardener, earned a Master's Degree as a College Student Affairs professional, cut my business administration teeth in contract security (the security guard kind, not the Blackwater kind), burned stuff for a living as a welder, and am now a police dispatcher. There are a million things to write about from those experiences, but as I push on into my 44th year, I mostly wonder why I didn't stick with any of them. To a certain degree, I feel like I failed at all of them, even if the people I worked with may tell you different. The fact that for some reason or another I changed jobs four times leads me to wonder, what's wrong with me? Why couldn't I just stick it out and climb some sort of success ladder in one position?
There were elements I enjoyed in each one of my work experiences. I believe all of them provided a valuable service for my community. But I always longed for more. I'm not even sure what I mean by that. I had a muddled sense that somehow I should be achieving more, or that I should be fulfilling some sense of a call on my life. Then one day, when hashing some of this stuff out with a confidant of mine, they dropped this little nugget on me:
I want to blame Baby Boomers for the fulfillment+occupation idea that you mentioned. Our grandparents' generation was raised in the Depression and fought in World War II, only to come home and dive into careers fueled by a post-war economic boom that would create enough overhead for our parents' generation to loaf around, protest wars, and raise their children with the idea that a fulfilling career is somehow a normal pursuit and something that we should all be entitled to. I realize this makes me sound like a curmudgeon, but the struggle to equate our careers with fulfillment is one that I've seen all around me, all my life. It's one that I still struggle with.
Days later a mentor of mine - an actual Baby Boomer - expressed to me that looking for fulfilling careers was a relatively recent development. Perhaps, but regardless of where the idea came from I'd spent the first four decades of my life with this idea that there was some greater cause I was missing.
Then I, like so many others before me, found Joseph Campbell. I haven't read any of his work, not even his most consequential The Hero With 1,000 Faces. But with the vast amounts of discussion in various self-help books and podcasts, it doesn't take long to get the gist of Campbell's ideas.
After years dedicated to the examination of world religions and mythologies, Campbell constructed a writing structure from elements he found present in stories about heroes. He argues the 12-stage structure is present in compelling stories whether the authors are aware of using it or not.
I began listening to a podcast called The Hero's Journey in which the hosts- author Jeff Garvin and book blogger Dan Zarzana - examine popular movies and dissect just how Campbell's structure can be seen throughout film. It's an interesting way to learn about screenplays and writing. They rely heavily on Campbell's Journey, as well as a Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. Vogler's work is considered by some to be a must-read for any aspiring writer. Hoping to get better at writing myself, I decided to read Vogler's work. I didn't realize I was about to learn far more about myself than I was about writing.
I wasn't far into The Writer's Journey before I recognized there might be an opportunity for self-examination. I decided to begin reading the book again, but this time I would journal about my career.
I had to take a hard, intentional look at my life and be honest with myself about my professional shortcomings.
If you're unfamiliar, the first three stages of the journey are:
The Ordinary World - This is the hero's life. If we use Cinderella as an example, it's Cinderella's life before learning about the ball.
The Call to Adventure - The hero is given an opportunity to go on a quest of sorts. For Cinderella, this was the announcement of the ball. Would Cinderella go meet prince charming?
Refusal of the Call - This is where the hero either refuses to accept the call, or has the call refused for them. For Cinderella, her step-sisters tore apart her dress and hair making it impossible for her to go to the ball. Her sisters refused the call for her.
At Stage 1 I journaled about what my life had been up to that point. My ordinary world seemed to be working at a job for a while before quitting for some reason.
At stage 2 I reflected on each of my previous work experiences and looked to see if I missed a call to adventure when I was working in those capacities. As it turns out, I had. I could identify a call to adventure at every work experience.
Here are a couple examples:
When I began working in higher education I wanted to be a college president. I wanted to have a career as a development officer which would lead to a college presidency. As it turned out, the only door that opened up for me was in college student affairs. I went through that door for a while, but ultimately rejected it as a good way to become a college president. I didn't like the doldrums of planning student activities, handling roommate problems, etc. It was tedious, mundane work (so I thought) and I convince myself I wasn't good at it. So I quit to go be a stay at home father for a while.
Call Rejected? To do the important work of helping college students grow into adulthood.
Being a stay at home father almost destroyed my marriage. As it turns out, I thought it meant stay at home babysitter. To appease my wife's dissatisfaction with how I was contributing as a husband I got a part-time job as a security guard. It's not difficult to shine as a security guard. Here's how- Arrive to work on time on the days you're scheduled and make sure your shirt is tucked in. That's pretty much it. I was able to do those things and also use some of the administrative skills I had developed in previous jobs to eventually attained a position as a National Account Manager for my company. (Yes, I left out a lot of information - about 6 years of standing post, overnight shifts, a few promotions and a years-long job search for a management position.) As I worked my way up the company's administrative ladder, I became uncomfortable with the way it treated it's entry-level employees. In general, the companies I worked for were built on the backs of the poor, and largely minority community. I knew that if I was going to continue to work in the industry, I was going to have to do some pretty hard work to change things at the upper levels. There was a chance I'd experience push-back and stress. So I convinced myself I wasn't a business person and I quit. Not only did I quit, but I decided then was a good time to move closer to my aging in-laws just to have another reason to reject the call.
Call Rejected? To be a part of creating a work environment which brings more appreciation and opportunity to undervalued employees.
I went through this process for all of my previous jobs, and even my current one. With each job I could remember a circumstance where I had an idea, or a thought, or a vision to create something better. There were opportunities to make the situation better for me and those I worked with or for. Each and every time I was faced with a question of whether I would take steps to do the work, I didn't. If they were calls to action, I rejected them.
This wasn't a feel-good process. I was embarrassed and there was a fair amount of shame.
My wife had carried me a quite a bit. I was able to save my marriage, but it meant I was going to have to work hard at it. I did. It made all the difference. I considered whether this could be the same for my career.
There was something else that was present throughout most of the past two decades of work. It was a desire my desire to write. The desire grew stronger after completing my graduate work. I began to read more, my worldview began to grow deeper and wider, and my desire to engage in a larger conversation blossomed. Other than blogging for a while, I didn't write much. It was mainly dabbling here and there. I never got serious about being a writer.
When my family relocated after I quit my contract security position, I was without a job. A new friend of ours was an editor of a local business magazine and mentioned in passing that they would be happy to give me a crack at writing some articles for them. I'd seen this magazine, and while I believed it was a fine publication, I politely declined the offer. My reason? It wouldn't provide me with the "artistic freedom" to write as I might have wanted.
Journaling as I read through The Writer's Journey changed everything for me. When I was able to see calls to adventure I'd rejected in the past, I was able to see calls to adventure in my present, and how my current situation was providing me with an opportunity to develop something important to me- my writing. But before I could do that...
I had to give up any sense of call on my life.
It's worth noting that there is a difference between a call to adventure and a life's calling. I'd received several calls to adventure but I wouldn't say they were my life's calling. The only times I ever expressed a call on my life was to be a pastor when I was 10 (I wanted to be like my daddy) and to be a college president when I was in my early 20's (I wanted to be like my grandpa). Neither of those happened. In fact, my desire to follow a life's calling played a large part in what caused problems in my marriage. So I stopped longing for call in order to save the marriage. Giving it up was part of the hard work I was doing to fix things. When I did, I was willing to take a job as a part-time security guard at the back door of the Harvard School of Public Health.
Nobody has ever claimed to be called to be a security guard.
The willingness to let go of what I formerly thought was my life's calling led to the most financially rewarding job I ever had. My wife recalls feeling safe and content during this time because I was doing the work I needed to do to carry some of the weight of financial responsibility for our family. I'd later reject a call to adventure with this particular career, but it wasn't all failure there. I'd learned some important lessons about humility and the value of starting at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. I didn't know that a back door security guard position would turn into an opportunity for success. I just thought it was a way to pacify my wife until the universe turned things back in my direction. I was wrong. It was an unexpected opportunity.
I had to respond to opportunities I didn't know were opportunities.
Even as I was contemplating all of this, it seems the universe was conspiring to provide me a second chance at writing.
I was perusing my Facebook feed one day and a friend of mine had tagged me in a post from someone I didn't know. The post was asking for freelance writers at her local publication. As it turned out, this was the same publication where I'd rejected the offer a few years back. I wasn't about to reject it this time. I responded to the offer myself, but also sent a text message to the friend who initially offered me the opportunity.
I received my first assignment just a couple days later. There was a time crunch on that one. I'd heard of deadlines before, but this was the first I'd had to deal with. As it turns out, I don't procrastinate when I have a looming deadline. I wrote the article, they published it, and about a week later...
...I received a check in the mail. Somebody paid me to write something for them. I won't be retiring on that check - or even making a car payment with it - but man, it was a good feeling.
Writing that first article that I didn't think would allow me "artistic freedom" turned out to be a lot of fun. Even though the publication I was writing for required me to stay within writing guidelines in an effort to maintain consistency, they didn't tell me how to write. And I found that as I interviewed people for stories, I was able to release some of my extrovert tendencies which was just an added bonus. I found it entirely enjoyable.
This was my experience. Yours might be a bit different, but I think a bit of honest, self-reflection is a beneficial for all. I came to a place where I recognized some things in myself that needed to change, and I could finally see a pathway to becoming a successful writer.
I'll be keeping my job as a police dispatcher for a while. There are a lot of police departments where dispatching is a full shift of answering phones and ...dispatching. But I'm fortunate to work at a less busy agency. There's plenty of time to write.
The universe delivers again.