If someone told me in High School that I would make money doing one of the things I hated the most, I wouldn’t have believed them. I remember back in Honors American History writing research papers and long and involved essays about the Civil War of the American Revolution. I told myself that I wouldn’t do this anymore after I graduated. Then, of course, I had to keep doing it in college. Now, I do it for pay. I write information about fancy pocket knives, slip and fall injuries, crime scene cleanup companies, and just about anything else out there. The formula is the same. You have a topic, you do some research on it, and you put together what you know into a bunch of words that make sense to other people.
In the beginning, I didn’t want to be a writer. I wasn’t a very strong reader (and I’m still not, really) and most will tell you that is a prerquesite. In high school, I wanted to be an artist. I was self taught, since my school didn’t have an arts program. It cost too much to hire a teacher to try to teach us art. We barely had a music program. So, I taught myself. I worked mainly with pencils. I got pretty good at drawing and sketching too. Or so I thought.
My introduction to art class, which I had dreamed of taking for years in high school, was a drawing class. Between the expense of the materials, the rigorous demands of the professor, and the intimidation factor of how wildly talented the other students were, my asprirations to become the next Frank Frazetta or Ted Nasmith or Brom were snuffed out. Drawing was no longer fun. The class had taken the imagination and creativity of what I had loved doing and taught me that you could put a grade on something you enjoyed. And my grade was never that great.
Over the years some high school friends of mine and I continued playing music together. To sum up that experience, I am reminded of what the response was when the Press asked Paul McCartney if Ringo was the best drummer in the world. He said, “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”
It was fun to get together with my friends/roomates at the time and jam out for our neighbors, playing old classic rock covers, making originals, etc. But I think one night as my bandmates were in the garage playing songs on a cold March evening and I was up in my bedroom typing away at a story I was working on, something inside broke about being a rockstar. Which is funny, because I was the only one who had groupies. (Everyone else had a Linda or a Yoko).
Like my artwork, I knew that my skills at drumming had reached just about the best they would ever be. This is also a reason I didn’t take that scholarship to UW to play in their jazz program. I couldn’t read music, and I had lacked the instruction (and really the love for playing the drums) that separates dabblers with people who will take their talent somplace. Let’s be honest. I only started playing the drums in the 4th Grade because a set of sticks and a practice pad were only $12 as opposed to a $400 trumpet. It didn’t help that I never practiced. Not that my band teachers ever knew. They didn’t know anything about percussion instruments either.
So I dabbled.
I will say this. You don’t need college to become a writer. In some ways, I would almost discourage it. You do need practice. Lots of practice. College can give you that. In particular, my History minor gave me practice. Essays and term papers. 15-20 pagers which I could do overnight and always got good grades on. This also gave me bad habits of procrastination, which I still fight to this day. My English classes taught me basics that I should have learned in high school (but didn’t). The two creative writing classes I took were not as intimidating as the art class I took.
I felt competent. Hell, I felt like a rockstar of writing. I was the only one in class who had over 100 pages down on a novel. (The novel was terrible. It caught on fire and sank into the swamp).
My other creative writing class was Poetry. Though I had written some poetry, I mostly understood it through song lyrics, because I loved music. Poetry is just lyrics without the instrumentals. What the course taught me was word choice. Other than the practice I got, and that little gem of info about word choice, I could have saved myself a lot of money on tuition if I had just bought a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to become a writer.
I won’t say I’m Hemingway or Maya Angelou or a bunch of other greats anyone could rattle off if you asked them the name of a famous writer. But I feel fairly competent. And in spite of having to do it for money sometimes, I don’t hate it. A bad day writing is still better than a good day of working. There are days I struggle with the guilt of writing as a dream job, because it never feels like work. It feels like art. Even if it’s writing about 4×4 grille guards or building my own worlds.
Writing is the way I stay sane. It’s the way I process the world around me to make sense.
I’m still not a strong reader. I envy those who can burn through a paperback in a couple days. When I read, I have to take every world and turn it around in my head and piece it together. I often remember what I’ve read and can turn back to the part of the book where I saw it a long time after I’ve set the book down. This is a big reason I probably finished reading 1/10 books in college. So little time. So much reading.
If I don’t write, I get sick. Like physically ill. Writing is like my way of getting rid of those free radicals in your body that everyone takes vitamins for. If I don’t purge my mind and soul of these toxic little critters, I really start to worry about my mental health. So, writing isn’t a calling. It’s not a joy. It’s a compulsion. And it’s going to happen one way or the other. The good news is that when it does, I feel great. It gets the poison out.
This September I will be 46. I understand that I will likely have to write the rest of my life, having no golden parachute for retirement. This really doesn’t bother me. And honestly, it shouldn’t concern anyone. How many people do you know that truly “Retire”? Even those who no longer do the jobs that earned them a “retirement” still have a side gig to keep them going. And how many people out there go into retirement only to find themselves passing away a few years later?
So, the too long; didn’t read of this is that a long time ago, I thought I was going to become an illustrator. Since then, I have worked different jobs, I have learned what I don’t want to do, and I have discovered a different path I never would have guessed being a kid who did play sick to stay home and read a couple times, but those were only the Wheel of Time books. I wasn’t the typical “That kid is gonna become a writer one day!” kid. Who knows what anyone thought I would have turned out to be back then. I’ve hit the age where I’m not even curious about it anymore. I’d rather not know, because I don’t think my peers or my teachers ever set the bar all that high for me.
The way you find your niche in life is something that happens through massive amounts of attempts and failures. Chances are if you are good at something right off, and you never have to work at it or struggle or sharpen your skill (like my drumming) you’ll never get great at it. I take the time to write about writing here because I hope to pass on any information that I would have loved to have heard in the beginning.
And I hope that even if writing isn’t your gig, and something else is, you need to hear that you don’t have to be perfect at it like the kids in my art class were. I’m willing to bet maybe only one or two of them even still does art. My ex-bandmates sure don’t play music anymore.
You have to hate how bad you suck at something to want to improve your skills and give yourself a mastery of it. And if you are struggling, you can cut and run, or you can power through. You might surprise yourself when you come out the other side. You might even decide to do something else!
Five years down the road, I might not even be trying to write as a career. Maybe by then something else will have turned up. Something I know nothing about right now, which will open my eyes to new possibilities and I will throw myself into it. I’m not going to limit myself. After all, I’ll only be 46 in September.
There’s still time.