Recently I stood in front of a class of middle school students at Mesa Union School in Ventura County and told them they could be what they wanted to be. More precisely, it was Career Day and I had come to the school, along with numerous other ostensible adults, to talk about our careers.
My career is writing which, if you are a middle schooler, is, on some fronts, pretty cool. I have interviewed Shaquille O'Neal (the Mesa Union kids still knew who he was), gone diving with white sharks, hiked the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu, watched stoic lizards spit up saltwater in the Galapagos, and been sorely thumped by a 280-pound world shootfighting champion (don't ask). Added plus for my Mesa Union presentation, I had just returned from the Peruvian rainforest with a botfly burrowed in my head. Since people often read while they are eating, I won't go into particulars. Suffice to say, our family doctor gave a mild exclamation of surprise when he pulled a larvae from the swollen bump that was its temporary home. When I talk to school kids, I pull out all the stops.
Although it was Career Day, I didn't talk entirely about writing. I never do. I love kids, and so whenever someone is foolish enough to invite me to talk with them I do. Looking out at a classroom of smooth faces with the world before them, I always tell them the same thing: Don't let others tell you what you can and can't do. And whatever it is you decide to do as a career, make sure it's something you love, because odds are you're going to spend a lot of time doing it.
Not every smooth face hangs on my every word. Some kids sleep with their eyes open (Word of warning. I was in high school, I know what this looks like). But most of them listen. Some listen raptly and ask amazing questions. Some kids are wicked smart. They make my heart lift, and give me great hope.
There are always a few aspiring writers in these classes. When the talk is over they slowly amble to the front of the classroom, although their shyness often disintegrates when they start telling me about what they are writing. It is a glorious transformation. Make note, too: they love what they are doing.
As a writer, I know something of roadblocks and naysayers. When I finally settled on my chosen career, the naysayers promptly stepped up. "It's too hard to make a living as a writer," they said. "Take a job that's steady and safe." I ignored them as best I could (not always easy), partly because I loved writing, partly because I had no other marketable skills with which to garner a safe, steady job. In listening to my heart I forged a now 25-year career in magazine writing, much it involving fascinating travel.
About ten years ago I decided I wanted to write a nonfiction book. Again the naysayers gathered. "Ohhhh no," they moaned. "Books are an entirely different matter." True, from what I could see books were longer than magazine articles, but every magazine editor I have worked for will tell you that going long is not my problem. I ended up writing two nonfiction books. Then I decided to write fiction. Yes. The naysayers. "Oh no, fiction is an entirely different animal." Yes it is. In fiction, you make things up. If there are any academics reading this, I'm sure some of them are having fits. But it is my honest belief that writing is writing. As with anything, it is made good through hard work and practice and maybe a little pixie dust.
This is what I tell the kids when I stand in front of them, waving my hands in the air in what I hope is an enthusiastic, and not lunatic, manner. And I will tell you, the faces of the writers in the classroom actually glow. These aspiring writers, they start to fidget. They want to run from the classroom and get their hands on their computer, iPad, notebook, paper napkins, or whatever it is they write on and get going. They love what they're doing.
I recently wrote a novel whose premise is based largely on a simple, not-so-simple thing. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Do one thing every day that scares you." I believe this is good advice.
I always tell the kids the truth. I tell them I am not the last word on writing, or anything else. I tell them if they become writers it's unlikely they'll be richer than the Queen of England. I tell them the reason I can come to their school on a weekday morning is no one pays me a steady salary. I tell them I love coming to their classroom on a weekday morning. I tell them that doing what you want has its pros and cons.
At the very end of the talk, just as the sleepers wake up and the future writers coil to bolt for the door, I say one last thing. "Maybe it's important not to think of your job as a job at all." And then (because I can never remember a quote that's longer than two sentences) I look down at my notes and I read Woodrow Wilson's words.
"You are not here to merely make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."
And then I let the believers run.