They start asking you about your future employment much earlier than age ten, of course, those strangers who say hello to your parents in the supermarket or auto repair shop and then try to gin up some banter with you. As I remember, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was the main conversation opener adults used with me, even before I was in kindergarten.
For a long time, I said I wanted to be a fireman, but that was a lie. I only said it because I’d read it in a book. It was never going to happen. I ran and hid at the sound of the train whistle rumbling through the woods behind my grandmother’s house. Even today, much like my dog, I have trouble with sirens.
Later, I landed on the idea of being a scientist—specifically, a physicist, for three reasons: I liked the strange sibilance of the word, it seemed to be the field that covered the most territory, and I thought it was unlikely to involve animal dissection. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I interviewed a university physicist as part of a “my future profession” school assignment, but I can’t remember his name. Most of his responses to my questions were along the lines of “Well, no, it’s not going to be much like that.” I remember feeling that he was nice to bother talking to me at all.
I also had a running, secret list of what I wanted to be. At one time or another, it included:
- Detective. Specifically, an amalgam of The Three Investigators and Jim Rockford. I still think about this one.
- Motown backup singer, but I can’t sing.
- Wizard. It’s tough to find the right school for this job. You have to stumble onto a mentor.
- Shaolin monk, thanks to the 1978 film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the 1972-1975 television show Kung Fu. Remember when Harrison Ford was a business agent for the railroad company in Kung Fu, after he was Bob Falfa and before he was Han Solo? Well, I do, anyway.
- Spider-Man. Of course, he was studying to be a biophysicist, so this one has a bit of overlap. He also had to use detective skills now and then, though he was no Batman. So, yes, Spider-Man summed up several unrealistic goals for me.
I considered jobs that were more mundane, but I just couldn’t decide. Choosing one thing to be for the rest of my life was too hard. I didn’t know then that most people are several things over their lifetimes. Throughout the deliberations, I did have one certainty, thanks to the books I read: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and David Copperfield and Bridge to Terabithia and horror collections and science fiction series and mystery books and things that didn’t fall into strict genre categories, like the Henry Reed books, which began to fall apart as I turned the pages again and again. I still love The Planet of Junior Brown. After checking it out from libraries in different cities over several decades, starting from when I read it in junior high, I finally bought my own copy last year. Because I of what I read, I wanted to write.
The problem was, I thought that I also had to choose a job title, mostly to be able to tell people something recognizable when they asked what I was. But one day I gave up on the professional identity and decided to focus on books. It was a teenage epiphany and possible rebellion. I wasn’t going to choose a job. I would just pretend to have job after job. My working theory was that if I became a writer, I wouldn’t have to decide what else to be. I could on some level be whatever I wrote about.
Of course, as I’ve practiced writing fiction and poetry, I’ve spent more time learning how to join words and less cataloging job descriptions. But my plan succeeded, for the most part, on both the professional and the creative fronts.
When I had to find work after my master’s program, I searched for jobs with “writer” in the title, and one of the interviews that I landed led to my first stint as a technical writer. I took a break to work on a Ph.D. in English, but since that first contract position, most of my workdays have been devoted to thinking about how other people do their various jobs. Even during the Ph.D. program, I picked up contract jobs as a technical writer. I’ve built a career learning about random topics, from UNIX administration to HVAC installation and repair. (I now know enough about air conditioners to determine what’s probably wrong with them when they stop. I also know enough to be too afraid to fix them myself. I wrote the safety manuals. I saw the pictures. Two words: coolant burn. Do not type them in a search bar.)
When I’m not on the technical-writing clock, I do what I’ve always done: turn words around and make things up about people who are not me. I may write about characters with skills or knowledge that I already have, such as playing guitar or cooking, but I also end up learning new things because those characters take paths I didn’t expect. I then find myself reading reference books and ordering lockpicks or telescopes. I’m a recurring amateur. It’s not too bad a thing to be. Anyway, it all worked out. Being leery of making a final decision was my best choice, and I’ll probably keep at it. From what I can see, I’m not the only one.