Sunday, June 29, 2014

Forks in the Road

About ten years ago, I attended a writing workshop in Iceland given by the wonderful Icelandic-American poet and essayist Bill Holm, who died way too young, and David Arnason, a very fine Icelandic-Canadian fiction writer. One of the exercises David gave us was: imagine a point in your life that was a fork in the road, when you had a choice of going in two different directions. Then write a description of what your life would have been like if you had taken the other road.

I could not do the exercise. I couldn't imagine a point when my life had those kinds of choices. I talked to David afterward. He said he had a very clear point of decision in his life. His father had been a fisherman on Lake Winnipeg. He could have followed in his father's footsteps and become a fisherman. Instead, he went to college and became a professor of English Lit and a writer.

I began writing in grade school, and I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was junior high or high school.

I knew in college that I didn't want to join the professional middle class. This was the 1960s, and the middle class did not have a good rep. I thought they were servants of the ruling class, who earned enough by their servitude to be comfortable when many other people suffered. This was a black-and-white vision. Life is more complex, and many middle class people do good work. But I felt then that the middle class was morally compromised. I also felt that a professional career would interfere with my writing.

I went to graduate school for several years, but quit when I realized I was getting close to an MA. I knew if I got one, I'd take the easy way out and get work in an art museum or teaching at a college. (An MA was worth more in those days.) Since my father was an art historian, I had spent my entire life in art departments and art museums. I wanted to find out what else was in the world.

After college, I worked a long series of crap jobs -- mostly in offices, but some in warehouses. 'Crap' is unfair. I found most of the jobs interesting. But they were poorly paid and not respected.

And I wrote, first poetry and then fiction.

Gradually, over time, I learned to do accounting. I ended by being a bookkeeper or financial manager for several small organizations, mostly nonprofits. This was sort of professional, though I never made much money, and I had no credentials, no degree in accounting or CPA. I did end up with more responsibility than I liked. I have never wanted to be any kind of boss, and I ended up as a supervisor -- a strawboss -- a couple of times.

In 2009 I got laid off. I discovered it was really hard to find a job at my age in a depression. In the end, I retired and became a full-time writer.

So where is the fork in my road? I could have finished my MA, I suppose, and gone on to work in a museum. But I didn't want to.


Blogger Peg said...

I always talk about the $50.00 decision that changed my life. When I got out of college, I used $50.00 from my first paycheck from my first job to sign up for a writing course with the University of Minnesota evening Extension classes: "Writing Science Fiction Short Stories for publication."

On the day before the class was supposed to start, I was fired from the job (I'd only had it two weeks). I thought hard about cancelling my registration so I could get my $50.00 back. When you don't have a job, $50.00 is a big deal. In the end, I decided, no, I really did want to take the class.

When the class was over, those who were still interested became my first writing group. I met my boyfriend, later my husband, in that class. He was a self-employed attorney who typed with two fingers, so I started typing his legal briefs for him, and he taught me how to become a legal secretary. He introduced me to Minneaplis science fiction fandom.

The class led me to my first writing group, which led to my first publications and eventually my novels. It led me to fandom. It led me to my husband, which brought me parenthood, which in turn led to karate. Both my daughters and I have black belts.

If I had cancelled that class to get my $50.00 back, I have no idea what my life would be like now. It's rare, I suppose, to be able to see it so clearly in the lives of most people, but that decision absolutely was the turning point of my life.

7:47 AM  

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