This is the third in my “With Music” series, where I capture moments in my life through a song. The first entry was about a Ben Folds song and a girl with elf ears (you can read it here), the second was about being lost in Europe and Sheryl Crow (here).
It was never supposed to be a hobby. Let’s make that point clear. Since the age of 16, my focus and my aim was on one target, becoming a professional author. I even had an agent when I was a kid (the agent then tried to sell a collection I wrote, but we parted ways when I discovered to my horror they were calling me a new generation Beverly Cleary. I thought I was Ray Bradbury. Yeah, I was a stupid and egotistic teenager… But Beverly Cleary?)
And by the time of this tale (age 24), I had four screenplays, the scripts for a ten-episode radio series, and a mountain of short stories. I knew there were novels in me, but I just wasn’t feeling it yet. I just had too many ideas and the idea of focusing on one like that felt difficult. Whatever the case, my world and identity was engulfed in the idea of me being a writer. Not just any writer, but an important one, for the history books, one of the voices of a generation. Why aim for a lower target when the mountain is freaking right there?
Now this is the rub- I was in the graduate program for English Literature at Michigan State University and I was bored. Bored, bored, bored! The idea of writing and studying more writers (and probably going on for my Ph.D.) sounded so… sigh… dull. Another essay? Another literary criticism? Bored…
The fact is I just wanted to write! My literary cup was full, thank you very much!
So in January, I got this idea and by May it was done. I had dropped out of the graduate program, moved back to Grand Rapids, got a really nice studio apartment (seriously, it had a fireplace, but the flames were blue for some odd reason), and found a normal job. Hello life!
There was a certain amount of logic around this (at least logic that worked for my odd mountain-seeking brain), I would live in this place and create my masterpieces, then when ready I would explode into the world. The problem is that this was all based on the idea that inspiration would be there waiting for me in that apartment.
Fast forward… In a little less than a month, I was working at a mortgage company which is honestly about as opposite to the arts and literature as you can get.
I had worked at this job previously. It was my in-between job, after my trip to Europe and before I went off to MSU for graduate school. I got it through a temp agency then. While there before I was fun in the office, never taking anything too seriously and fighting for my clients that needed help. (I remember saying a lot to my fellow workers, especially those that wouldn’t help a client, “How would you feel if this was happening to you and your family?”) My numbers were always good so the vice-president had tried to convince me to return to the job ever since I quit and went off to graduate school. So when I called him, saying I was moving back he jumped, quickly offering me a job again. Of course, this time I wasn’t a temp. I was a real boy like Pinocchio.
Well, the Pinocchio of banking.
The VP was thrilled, and I was too for the first few weeks… Then everything, with no real plans ahead in my future, I began to spiral downwards slowly. I was supposed to create during my downtime, but then what?
The problem I quickly realized is that the real world was not what I was expecting. First off, I had made some really bad choices in my education. See, even if I wanted to get out of banking, I’m not sure I could have. Yes, I had a Bachelor’s degree (and…what?… half a graduate degree? Does that count?), but it was in English with no minor and no focus or real training for an actual occupation. Here is what I mean:
- I couldn’t teach with my degree, I had no classroom experience and no training or certification. So K-12 was out without some more work. And for the college level I had to have either that Ph.D., a Masters, or a wicked-ass bestseller.
- I couldn’t work in a library. Yeah, I could find any book you may want (and could recommend a few), but I had no experience and no degree around that.
- I couldn’t even work really at a bookstore! The fact is the pay is too low and really I could care less about some of the popular books on the market. Could I really control my eye rolling over an eight-hour shift?
So maybe this, I began to ask myself, is the best I could have hoped for? Writing on the side and working at a mortgage company? No one told me that when I chose that major! Where was my adviser that day? Did they say it slyly in a cough and I didn’t catch it?
I began to take part in writing tables in the area, my attempt to claw back to that mountain.
I remember one at a library and one at a local book store. But the pedestal I felt myself previously on (which probably, truthfully, only I could see) was falling about around me.
I was no different. They all had mountains!
The others at the tables had a dream and I had a dream and we all had real-world jobs. I couldn’t even point to my graduate program as something that made me special! I had dropped out of that, remember? Sometimes I would forget that. For them writing was something to do in their spare time, I would tell myself. Obviously, they didn’t have the bite like I did, right? Who could?
Sometimes, when I would try to explain to someone why a story may not work, my words would not always get through. I remember once I showed up late for a session at a bookstore and they had started without me. That was a startling moment for my writing ego. They didn’t need me, and, frankly, standing in the middle of the big bookstore, the literary world really didn’t either. The books around me almost felt like taunting, for I was surrounded by the little flags of “mountain climbers.” They each got to the top of their own literary mountain. Where was I? What was my excuse now?
Maybe if there was more in my life then I would have felt less down, but it also wasn’t just around writing. Women were not knocking down the door of the dude in the mortgage company with a little apartment (fireplace or not). I had some friends that were still in college, and I would visit them at their campuses or at parties and I would feel so incredibly older than everyone there because I wasn’t in school anymore. I know, I know!, it was just in my head, but it made me feel so much like an outsider… and I was jealous of all of them. The real world hadn’t gotten to them yet.
It was during the middle of that summer that a managing position at the company became available. It was to oversee part of the division I worked in and I thought I could do the job easily. My only competition was another worker whose numbers were always less than mine. Please! I really didn’t see her as competition at all. I gave a great interview (or so I thought), so it was a shock when she was given the job and I wasn’t. It was hard not to shout comically loud, “What?”
I waited until the end of that business day after a lot of the staff had left (including the person who got my job) and cornered the VP, the very same one who was thrilled to get me back in the office. I asked what happened…
He asked me about my writing.
I told him about a short story I had recently published on some online magazine (not the New Yorker, I know) and the radio series that might be produced on my scripts. I told him I was thinking about a novel, but hadn’t done anything yet.
He nodded listening.
I asked again about what happened. I even added the point that I was the better candidate.
He agreed. He actually agreed with me! But then the other boot dropped as he explained that she would be there today and tomorrow. She wasn’t going anywhere, nor wanted to. He just couldn’t say the same thing about me. And then he asked me the question I was not prepared to answer. Did I even see myself doing this in five years? Ten?
Living by yourself can sometimes be a very dark experience. Yes, sometimes today (years later), I miss the quiet of it, the peace of it, but when you are uncertain about your future and who you are, the silence can be overbearing. You only have your thoughts then and it can be hard to quiet them.
Yes, I could eat whatever I wanted (box of cheap Mac & Cheese? Bring it on!), I could watch whatever I wanted. This little apartment was my only world and I was in charge of who could enter it. But who really fucking cared? I remember one dark evening jokingly thinking that it would be so easy to commit suicide in such a setting. No one would even know I was gone for days. If I did it on a Saturday, my work might not call my parents asking about me until… Tuesday? Maybe Wednesday? Now I was not having suicidal thoughts, but the possibility of it was there suddenly in my mind.
This was not healthy, not healthy at all.
I would go out driving on weekends. Just point my car in a general direction and take it until the road ended. I was probably looking for something, some kind of a sign, some kind of a meaning.
Looking back at my life, there were really only two moments I can point to when I was filled with so much self-doubt and confusion about whom I was and where I was going. The first was when I went to Europe by myself, but I came out of that more strong and sure of myself. But that moment led to me going to the graduate school I just dropped out of. It was like I had unknowingly reset my soul, having to wonder again. The problem is now I saw myself as older and broken, unable to go back and fix the mistakes I had made initially in college and with my career.
This is it, Scott, deal with it. This is life. Dreams are nice, but this is life.
This may sound overly romantic, but I was saved by a song.
I was out for a drive on a Friday, another day of talking about people’s mortgages and their payments (fun stuff) was done. I had the window down and I was scanning through radio stations when I fell on one of the small indie stations (never a strong signal). They were playing “Sweetest Decline” by Beth Orton.
Luckily, I found the station at the start of the song. Right from the first line “She weaves secrets in her hair,” I was floored. I pulled over my car in a parking lot and listened to the entire song. After it ended, I caught the name of the artist from the DJ and turned off the radio. I didn’t want to hear any other songs after that.
That song, right there, became my beacon.
“What are regrets? They’re just lessons we haven’t learned yet.”
I didn’t believe that Beth was singing to me, or thought of me as she wrote the song (which seems to be a quiet moment of contemplation watching a sunset), but I found a kindred soul in her song.
See, I felt less alone knowing Beth Orton was out there. And that truly meant something to me.
I drove to Best Buy after I caught my breath and bought the CD.
- I listened to that CD for months. I put it on first thing in the morning, and turned it off as I headed to the bedroom in the evening.
- I listened to it as I outlined and then wrote my first novel.
- I listened to it as I applied for graduate writing programs (focusing on those located in cities with a lot of writing possibilities around them- New York, Los Angeles, etc.)
See, that is the thing. The VP was right, that was not where I was going to be in five years or ten. Since then, writing has always been my occupation, my true target, the real world has become something like a hobby. And I can brush it off at the end of the day.
My focus was clear and has been clear since then. I had some mountain climbing to do and I’m still struggling my way up today.
My latest novel Permanent Spring Showers was just published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.
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