In my first creative writing class, back in the summer of 2008, Professor Stanley began the class with BHAGs - "Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals." We went around the classroom - very amateur writers, all of us - and talked about the stories we wanted published, the writing careers we wanted to establish, the books we wanted to see on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Not one of us had researched the odds of any of these things happening, not one of us had any idea what trying to make it as a writer in America actually meant. We wanted to write our fantasy and sci-fi novels and get published and make money and never have to work a "real" job ever again.
A few months before, in the middle of a home poker game, my aunt arrived with a gift for my cousin - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . I hadn't read any of the previous books - in fact, I hadn't read much of anything - but I fell in love right away and decided, right then, that writing was something I wanted to do. Deep inside, I felt it was something I actually needed to do, a warm, growing sensation that maybe, in those pages, I had discovered who I was supposed to be.
It's a strange thing to say, even now, but true nonetheless. While sitting at the poker table, I read three chapters; later that night, I stayed up with my light on, eyes fighting this new activity, reading until I fell asleep. That was a Sunday. On Monday, I faced my life until that point - a corporate sales management job, working 60 hours a week in my off-colored white shirt, discount bin ties, dealing with the public, floundering purposelessly in a sea of profit margins, ringing phones, and customer service scores. Yup, super exciting. I'd been there for five years, knowing I was on my way - to what? I couldn't tell you. A house, a wife, some kids, a dog - the American Dream, I guess?
We are indoctrinated to this once we are born. Our TV shows glorify those in big houses and nice suits, our schools measure success by test scores instead of curiosity, college degrees are for "jobs" and not for "knowledge". Even more so for a first generation American whose family moved here specifically for this reason - success, yes, but success measured by financial viability.
Until that summer, for the first 28 years of my life, I had been surrounded by business people. My parents and each one of my aunts and uncles had earned accounting degrees in the Philippines and moved here shortly thereafter. In my family, all 80 of us who lived within three miles of each other, there hadn't been one person who had become, or even dreamed of becoming, a musician, a painter, an actor, a writer. I'm sure this is the similar situation for a lot of people. It's just America. It's just what we're supposed to do - participate in industries that American capitalism has defined as worthy; there's a reason a lawyer makes 2 to 3 times that of a teacher, a reason why real estate is a more financially viable profession than, say, the musician playing gigs in local, sweaty bars for 50 years. You get a job that America says is worthy enough so you can buy a house, have kids, maybe send them to college, raise them so they can find a job that provides enough stability so they can buy a house, have kids, maybe send them to college, raise them so they can find a job that provides enough stability so they can buy a house, have kids, send them to college...
Overwhelming desperation filled me. I couldn't name it. I didn't understand it. I just kept thinking, There has to be something more than this. If this was all there was, getting the paycheck, putting money into retirement, doing this for half of your awake adult life, just so your kids could live the same systemic existence... I just needed there to be something more. I'd heard too many stories of elderly people who had this epiphany too late, of those who had found God in their later years because they wanted their life to be part of something greater. So I did something which, at the time, seemed extremely courageous. A knockout punch to The Man. One month after reading that Harry Potter book, I walked into my Area Manager's office and handed him my resignation letter.
No one understood. Not the Vice President who came a day later to show me how much money I would be making in the next two years, not the friends who had been there for the parties in Vegas, not the family. How could they? I didn't even understand myself. It turned out not to be courageous, but stupid. Idiotic. Probably insane. I had bills to pay. Rent. Instead, I moved back in with my parents, sat at their kitchen table, and for the next six months wrote nearly 200,000 words of the terrible, terrible, terrible first draft of The Jack of Heartland , the novel that now, after eight more drafts and four years, I'm finally trying to get published.
I eventually found myself in the graduate creative writing program at Sacramento State. Very different, to say the least, from the BS in business I had already earned. No one wore ties or dress shoes, no one talked about balance sheets; in fact, the only time the writing students and faculty talked about money was when they complained about how little of it they had. Faculty had no problem talking about the miniscule amount of money they made; classmates embodied the "writer's" stereotype - glorifying the miserly life, getting in touch with nature, railing against capitalism at all costs (even as we hoarded books and commodified them neatly into our shelves), as we sat in desks built for middle schoolers and discussed words and theories made up by people like ourselves, not realizing that specialized language is often a marker of capitalism and industry. I didn't fit in. Not with my new Calvin Klein shirts and DKNY peacoats. For the most part, I hid my past - I felt like a leftover piece of the "system" that we were so intent on "deconstructing."
It's funny how a new scene can change you. I became a little Marxist. I eschewed my Kenneth Coles for Vans and flip flops. I stopped using gel in my hair. I scoured thrift shops for cheap books. I judged my friends and family with their poster middle-class lives, with their mortgages and trimmed lawns and cute babies in their Polo Shirts and Air Jordan shoes. I wondered how anyone could succumb to the game like that, scraping by just so they could stay in the comfy confines of the ethereal prison of the American Dream.
Man, I judged. I analyzed. I criticized. We did it all day in class and it spilled out into my daily life. I couldn't watch a movie for fun anymore. People who thought Twilight was the best thing they'd ever read became idiots in my mind. My old friends who were still going to clubs instead of dive bars, other friends who were still working 50-60 hours a week instead of reading, my family who listened to the local pop stations instead of NPR - I felt bad for them; how could they not see? In the classroom, I learned the lingo - throw in "ideology" here, a little "social construction" over there, maybe call that thing "homosocial," and just for good measure, toss in some "hybridity." I threw in Foucault and Said into conversations outside of the classroom, and when people looked at me like I'd lost my damn mind I just laughed in my head and knew they would just never get it.
In the midst of all that, I did learn something, a small thing that I now realize changed my life. It's the Golden Rule about the craft of writing - everything is a choice; every word, every sentence, every image, and every punctuation mark will dictate whether or not the larger work (the book, story, poem, etc.) is successful. And not success in terms of book sales, not whether your reader "gets" it, not whether your workshop says it's the greatest thing they've ever read, not whether or not it's published, but whether or not the story is actually "whole."
It's an easy analogy to make. Story. Life. Much like the choices we make in a story, the choices we make in life dictate whether or not we can be "whole." America doesn't make it easy. I started my life wanting to be in bed with the system, with business and money, only to find myself among a group of people who wanted to throw that bed out the window with the people still on it. By the end of the program, I felt more lost than I had before. I had found writing, I had found my passion, yes, but I didn't believe the people who said that should be enough. Much like I didn't believe that those who said raising your kids the right way and being financially stable and getting married was enough. As if either of those was all there was to life. All I knew was I wanted to write, I was tired of living in an apartment, I wanted to write, I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck, I wanted to write, I was tired of praying my car wouldn't break down.
It's a choice many artists in America have to make. Be the "commercial sell out" or be "true to the craft." We see it all the time. The "indie" band makes it big and all of a sudden they are sell outs. Conversely, the writer of genre fiction cannot be taken seriously when they write literary fiction. It's always one or the other. America says you cannot be both. You cannot work 40 hours a week, dealing with mundane business crap, and go home and be creative enough to write. You cannot, okay? You cannot.
Ah, but choice. Since graduating, I have reconnected with my old friends, rekindled relationships with family. I found a 40-hour a week job that pays decently enough to buy a house. I'm getting married to a woman who is too good and too beautiful for me. We plan on having nice furniture someday. We plan on buying new cars. We plan on having kids. We plan on sending them to college. We plan on having grandkids. But we are also committed to my writing, on not making excuses on why there's no time, on not falling into the mutually exclusive buckets America says we must fall in. All choices we have made. But will it work? Living here, in the middle? Who knows? But we are choosing to try, and it is in the choosing that makes us whole.