I’ve been going about it all wrong.
In high school, I was strange and artsy. I played music (viola, piano, saxophone, and guitar), I painted, and I wrote stories. I was better at writing stories than I was at painting or playing music. Although I was interested in biology (genetics in particular), I figured I would be doing something artistic when I grew up. At some point my teenage rebellion waned and I began listening to people.
Once I started listening to “reason,” I never stopped. I became convinced that I would be unable to live on less than $60,000 a year. To settle for less would have been unfathomable. I also got the idea that if it was fun and I enjoyed it, that I’d never make any money doing it. I never pursued anything I really wanted.
Thus my fallback career choice became my primary career choice. Biology seemed to be more lucrative because I lacked the confidence to get by on my artistic merits. It’s not so much that I felt I was particularly talented as a scientist, but I didn’t trust myself in a career that required me to determine its structure. I felt like I needed a job that I would show up to, get paid for, and then leave to go home. It seemed (and still seems) far too nerve-wracking to worry about getting published or selling artwork or a booking performances or anything like that. I don’t want to pour my heart and my life into something just to find out that it’s worthless. I value stability.
My senior year of college I took a class about rhetoric. I’d taken many writing courses in college, so I’m not entirely sure why this one meant so much more to me. For class we were assigned to read Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. I have always had a fondness for grammar texts, but I had not thought much about sentence structure as its own entity until I read this book. I was very excited about the class, and I did very well with little effort. For once in my life, my abilities did not go unnoticed, and my professor recommended me for a tutoring position in our campus writing center. I worked there for three full years, staying on part-time after I graduated until I got kicked out due to statewide budget cuts.
I became quite excited about academic writing. Academic writing has little use outside of an academic setting, but it came so naturally to me that I wanted to do something with it. I wrote a grammar column in our weekly newsletter. I wrote and performed workshops on sentence structure. I was happy to go to work every single day. The pay was low and I only worked part-time. I was poor, but I loved my job. During this time I began writing a book about the various levels of structure in college-level papers. I abandoned the book rather quickly because I did not see that I had nothing new to offer on the subject. Go to any bookstore and there is sure to be a shelf (or several rows of shelves) dedicated to books about writing. Aside from a few minor contradictions that can be attributed to either the author’s personal preference or the evolution of language, most of those books say essentially the same thing. Some do it dryly, some use humor. Some are very strict, and others more lenient. The truth is (or so I thought) that if you bought three or four particular books about writing, you would have access to every last iota of information you could ever possibly need about writing. Language changes, but it doesn’t change quickly enough to warrant the vast selection of books about writing that are available at any given time. If I were to create a version of what I felt should be in one volume, then it would probably alienate one group of writers or another. I thought about this a lot, and abandoned the project. And along came Mignon Fogarty.
I admit that I am bitter. If you don’t know who Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) is, she’s a woman who has made a lucrative career out of stating the obvious. Now, I am 100% in favor of improving bad grammar skills, but this woman is ubiquitous and she hasn’t brought anything new to the table. How does this happen? How do people do it? Why don’t I do it? She has roots in Seattle and one day I heard her doing a radio commercial spot for a local grocery store, explaining the difference between affect and effect for the back-to-school season. She gets paid to reiterate what one can find in a dictionary. Or even what one could have seen during her appearance on Oprah. She’s everywhere, mocking me, and I can’t escape. And dammit, I would do so much of a better job. But I didn’t write a book–she did.
Good for her, though. I feel about Mignon Fogarty the same way I feel about my friend who packed up and move to New York City on a whim, then very quickly got a managerial job. She’s several years younger than I am with less experience and less education. While I am glad when good things happen to other people, it’s difficult for me to take myself out of the equation. I feel childish even admitting that. Every time I take a risk it comes back to hurt me. As a result of conditioning, I always play it safe. But playing it safe never gets me anywhere either. I have no more risks to take.
There’s also Frank Warren of PostSecret. PostSecret is a fantastic site based on a brilliant idea, and I know that Mr. Warren puts in many hours reading secrets, selecting secrets, making appearances, and speaking with publishers. But he doesn’t create anything aside from one secret per book (or so I’ve heard). He’s a well-known middleman.
I don’t mean to be dismissive. I know he puts a lot of work into it, and he really did contribute something new and great to the world. He also provides fantastic support for HopeLine and gives many depressed and troubled individuals an outlet to express themselves anonymously. I just become bothered when I see that it’s actually possible to be down-to-earth and live an unconventional life. If only I had figured that out earlier.
So I have come to the conclusion that I have been going about it all wrong. Perhaps I’m not cut out for a “real job” in the “real world.” I’m not inferior –just different. I know where I’m not wanted, and I’m not wanted in the cubicle down the hall from you. I’m not wanted in the corner office either. I don’t need to be rich and I don’t need to be famous but I need to be able to take care of myself.
The problem is that I never follow through on anything except my own self-doubt. Self-help gurus often advise people not to tell themselves that they “should have done this” or “should have done that.” I have ideas and I should stick to them, when all this time I’ve been sticking to my regrets.