I had just finished an internship as a stage manager at a children’s theater. I was fresh out of college, and I needed money. I needed to supplement my $11 an hour day job at a downtown office. Nearby, a sports bar with a lot of taps and TVs and a full house on the weekend advertised openings for servers. I decided to apply.
I sat on a barstool at a tall table for six to fill in the blanks—name, address, job history. On the backside were a few lines where I could write a paragraph to introduce myself. I remember the flow of words as I wrote in ink without scribbling an error or attempting a rewrite.
I wrote in the equivalent of Arial Narrow, size 8. I filled in every inch of white space–even the margins–with a description of living with two roommates and a cat who meows at the wee hours of the morning. When I gave the bartender my application, I believed it not only represented my work history but also a person who had a great sense of humor. Surely, the manager would want to hire me and my wonderful wit.
I thought about the application as I got on the interstate to go home. I thought about how much fun I had filling it out, how good it felt to write my little story. I wished I had a place in my life to write like that more often. And then I thought, what have you done? You wrote on a job application how you love your cat. Who gives a shit about that? You wasted your chance to get that job, a job you needed to pay bills—rent, college loans, car repairs. What are you going to do now?
I was 24 then. And the truth was that I didn’t want to be a server at a sports bar. The truth was I did not do well with multiple drink orders or serving food to the right table. The other truth, the one I wasn’t paying attention to, was that I wanted to be a writer, but even with a college degree I didn’t know how.
I did find employment. I worked temp jobs in offices. I scheduled nurses in local hospitals. I drove a van for a retirement community. I directed a therapeutic recreation program on an Alzheimer’s wing of a nursing home. But here’s the thing: during all those jobs, when I had a spare moment, I would use it to write. If I didn’t, I would grow bored, irritable, restless. But even then, I wouldn’t say I wanted to be a writer.
I decided to go to graduate school. Those two years of writing papers and essays grounded me. I felt alive. I went on to teach English and learned that teaching others how to write isn’t the same as being a writer, and being a teacher who lives at her job isn’t compatible with living a writing life.
Natalie Goldberg in her book Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life tells the story of meeting a man who said he always wanted to be a writer. People tell her this all the time. This person was different though. This person was a doctor.
Goldberg was surprised to think that a doctor, someone with money and a respectable profession, would want to be a writer. She says, unlike all those other people who say they want to be writers, she’s never met a writer who wanted to be something else. “They [writers] might bitch about something they’re writing or about their poverty, but they never say they want to quit.”
I admire my family doctor. I wish I had her annual salary and the calm professionalism she maintains with her patients. But I now know if I were a doctor I’d sneak away between patients to write a comedy in one act. Or my desire to write would sneak up on me, like it did in that sports bar year ago, and I’d find myself charting poetry instead of appropriately documenting a patient visit.
I thought I could do [insert profession here] and write. But writing isn’t something writers do as an aside. Writing is all writers do. When I was teaching, I had a salary and a visible profession. If I didn’t get writing done, I could say it was because I had 50 papers to grade. Writing is different. It is more abstract, less visible to the world. And this is where the risk is, right? I risk not being paid. Not finishing a project. I risk not being published. When I declare myself Writer, I no longer have an excuse to be anything but what I wanted to be all along. I must report to pen and paper and get to work.
Inspired by the DPchallenge to tell describe the origins of a writing life.