It was 1983 when I realized my life was shit. In truth, it had been for most of my life, but it wasn’t until then that I understood there were other options. I had finished college in the summer of 1980, the proud owner of a degree in Accounting, and absolutely no interest in a career in Accounting. I hated numbers. I suspect the companies that interviewed me were able to discern my lack of interest, as I could not find a job in the business world to save my life. And I looked; believe me, I looked.
I had picked Accounting as a major out of a hat, so to speak. At the end of my sophomore year, I was still an undeclared major. The rules were: pick a major by the deadline for next semester’s registration, or don’t come back. I remember distinctly that I did not then, nor had I ever had even the remotest idea of what I wanted to “be” when I grew up. Never a fireman, never an astronaut, never a cowboy, not me. There was a brief period in high school when I was convinced I’d make a great engineer. That was until I took Physics, and hated it. End of career aspirations.
It wasn’t that I had no ambition; I had plenty of it, more than my share, really. It was rather that a bright kid with melanin in those days was expected to carry the torch of career expectations for the entire race. I was to be a doctor or a lawyer, or God forbid, a college professor. Once the guidance counselors and school administrators realized I had no interest in medicine or law, I was left on my own.
So there I was, two years later, with a deadline looming a week away. Pick a career, or go home, and join the Air Force. So, I did what any smart kid would do: I went to the library, and found a book on careers. I don’t remember the tome, I just remember it was about half a foot thick, and listed jobs in alphabetical order, with descriptions of each. I started at “A” (Aardvark Wrangler, I believe, was the first job). Having no patience, but plenty of ADD, I managed to get as far as “Accountant” before giving up.
Accountants, it said, made “good money” (whatever that meant) and was a great career for people whom were “good with numbers.” Now, as I’ve said, I hated numbers. What I did not say, is that I’m great at numbers – better than I am at words. So, that is how I picked my career – because Accountant came before Beauty Contest Judge in the alphabet. I have cursed the alphabet ever since.
I finished college, got my degree, but not jobs. It was a recession, much like the one we’ve just come through. In 1983, I was working days as a Substitute Teacher (ironic, for the only kid in the National Honor Society who hated both school and smart kids) and nights either at Sears, selling automotive equipment, or any of a number of other stores. I was still shy in those days, but an awesome salesman, as I used the heretofore-unused tactic of being honest with my customers.
Nearly 30 years later, I still am.
By 1983, three years out of college, I was depressed. No career, no future, nothing. I had applied to graduate schools, but, having no more than a quarter to my name at any given time, there was no way I could afford to go, even if accepted. My dad had begun suggesting the Air Force in earnest. I was ready to quit, if not work, then life.
Life was shit, even for the only smart kid too cool to hang with the smart kids. I would have cursed God, had I known His phone number to call. My dad’s urgings were gentle, but increasingly persistent. I refused. In fact, I refused everyone’s advice who was willing to give me any.
I gently told them all to go fuck themselves.
Then, a remarkable thing happened. The manager at my newest day job, working minimum wage as a cashier in Best Products retail store, pulled me aside to offer me a position as a store Management Trainee. They had no idea I was a college grad as I had been too embarrassed to tell them. It was not a job; it was a career. I had a couple of days to think about it, and went home to do just that. It still wasn’t what I wanted, but perhaps, I thought, you have to take what’s there. Maybe it’s foolish to hold out for your real dream when someone tells you a better dream is at hand.
But another remarkable thing happened. I got home, and there was a piece of mail from the University of Wisconsin. It offered me a partial fellowship to graduate school. Within days, I had a better offer. A Wisconsin official called to offer me a better fellowship that would fully fund school. In fact, I earned a net $300 while picking up an MBA in Finance and International Business. My career had begun.
Now, I realize this is a writing blog, and this story has nothing to do with writing. Except, that it has everything to do with writing.
The single reason I did not start writing fiction in earnest until very late in life, is that throughout my childhood, people would tell me I could be “anything I wanted to be.” They would follow that up by telling me precisely what it was I wanted to be. I spent so many years trying to be the genius black kid, I never had the slightest chance to figure out what I was or who. I have never taken a writing course. I never took a photography class, nor an art class. This, despite the fact I spent every moment of my free time as a kid with a sketchpad or camera in hand.
I was whom they said I was … until I couldn’t be that anymore.
My life changed for the better when I stopped listening to “them.” I stopped listening to advice from people who I know have no clue who I am. I stopped believing them when they told me my way was the wrong way.
They were wrong in 1983, and they are still fucking wrong.
I believe artists are attuned to that inner voice, the one Stephen King describes as being somewhere between the conscious and unconscious, perhaps more so that anyone else. My inner voice tells that my writing goal – to learn to Write Brilliantly – is the only goal that matters. It says that I don’t have to give a shit that someone tells me they can help me market my books.
I don’t want to market the books. I want to write.
I have been a salesman. I have been a marketer. I have closed on eight-figure contracts. I have not, however, been whom I want to be – myself. I write: books, short stories, poems, essays. At some point, if I begin to write brilliantly, my work will be found. If not, why would I want it to be found? I never wanted to write fiction until after I wrote my first book. I liked it enough that I wrote the second one over the next 6 weeks. It wasn’t the easy path, or even the best one. It was my path, and I’m cool with making my own mistakes.
So, to those who offer me help I don’t want, and are convinced I need to do it your way, I have but one thing to say: It’s 1983 again, the recession is ending, and I’m still doing this my way. I’m certain I am not the only writer out there being told exactly what they should do and how. I, for instance, am currently being bombarded with groups of people who are convinced I should spend my hard-earned money on various marketing schemes. They are all certain this is the only way to success.
Now, I didn’t mention that I’ve spent around 25 years doing business cases for major corporations. I’m still better at it than I am at writing. If you are an artist, and someone offers you help, but balks when you want to understand the business case (or even their business model) be wary. It doesn’t mean they are crooked, it often means they are winging it. Here’s the truth: if you are very talented and exceptionally lucky, you can earn a lot of money writing. Here’s the other truth: almost no one is that damned lucky. It can happen, but it will be based on finding the right people at the right time. Do not be afraid to allow that to happen. But don’t let anyone convince you that you are being “afraid” if you don’t jump in blindly, without a plan or a clue.
Writers get rich by writing stuff people want to read. Sorry, that’s the only way.
There is a difference between bravery and stupidity. For the record, here is what I am afraid of: heart attacks, strokes, high bridges. End of list. But I’m still not spending thousands of dollars chasing rainbows, when what is needed is being a better writer. So, call me stubborn, call me afraid, call me whatever you like. I’m still doing this my way, because it’s my life. And, here’s a secret: since I don’t care about the money, it doesn’t matter if I’m around to see my work sell. My daughter can use the the money, I’m sure.
Success doesn’t always come when you want it, but it’s always right on time. I’ll be taking God’s Sweet Time, thankyouverymuch.