Book Gadget v0.72

Monday, July 11, 2011

Writing: A Career You Can Fall Forward On


When I was 16, my dad casually asked me if I’d decided on a career.  I told him I wanted to be a writer.

He looked a little pale.  “You mean a journalist, right?”

“No, I mean a fiction writer.  You know, one of those guys who writes novels.”

He looked even paler.  He then proceeded to advise me, in a fatherly way, to choose a practical career I could “fall back on,” and that I should go to college and get some experience in that career.  Afterwards, I could “play around” with fiction writing, if I was so inclined.

I took his advice.  The practical career I chose was engineering.  Electrical engineering, to be exact.  With a specialty in computer hardware/software design.  You can’t get much more practical than that. 

Ironically, after only one week working at my first full-time job, I was taken off the computer design project I’d been assigned and was given the task of writing a user’s manual.  I was insulted.  By that time, I had all but forgotten that I wanted to be a writer.  I felt like I was being demoted.

Nevertheless, I gave the user’s manual my best shot.  I had no clue as to what I was doing.  I simply tried to make it as interesting and engaging as I possibly could.  If I did a halfway decent job, I reasoned, they would put me back to work as an engineer.  

I printed the manual out and turned it into my boss on a Friday afternoon.  First thing Monday morning, I was called into his office.  His boss was present, too, the department manager.   I knew I was about to be fired.

“Mike, this is fantastic!  It's so good we want you to rewrite all our user’s manuals.”

I was stunned.  And even more insulted.  I’d just suffered through four hellish years in engineering school so I could write freakin’ computer user’s manuals? 

“To be honest,” my boss said, “you’re a much better writer than you are an engineer.”

I quit right then and there, walked out of the office and did not look back.  But I found it very difficult to get a job as an engineer.  I ended up starting my own computer business with my stepfather.  It all seemed very easy at first, until we actually tried to find customers.  It turned out that to make sales, I had to do a lot of writing.  Tons of writing.  Press releases, proposals, advertisements, newsletters, brochures, telemarketing pitches...and, yes, user’s manuals. 

Eventually we sold the company for a tidy sum of money.  That nest egg gave me the freedom to write two screenplays and more than 20 novels, some of which you will find online.

I often hear parents advising their children to choose practical careers, careers they can “fall back on.”  This is probably good advice.

But at the end of the day, I don’t think you choose your career.

I think your career chooses you.

RETURN TO ADVICE FOR WRITERS PAGE


45 comments:

  1. Haha - brilliant! It must almost be worth those four years of studying the wrong thing just to come up with this anecdote... almost! :-)

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  2. I hear the same thing here too. Good thing businesses need all those things written, or writers would never get "practical" jobs that also bring a decent income.

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  3. Great post! I spent 13 years working in the Corporate world of NYC and wasn't truly happy until I walked away to take an arts related job (which also got my creative juices flowing again as a writer).

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  4. Thanks, Greg. And good for you!

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  5. Great Post!
    I have always wanted to be a writer. I can remember thinking when I was younger, that I would get a degree in journalism, travel the world and maybe even one day write for Rolling Stones Magazine! Needless to say, I was a teenager and interviewing rock stars seemed to be the most fantastic job I could possibly want.
    But then the real world kicked in and I suddenly had a family I was responsible for and bills to pay. Although I wrote for myself (poems, journals, short stories) I found myself far away from the dream of being a writer. I was stuck in the world of 9-5 jobs just trying to get food on the table.
    In the last couple of years, I've found myself being pulled again to that dream of writing. Though I find that balancing the urge of writing with the necessity of my day job quite unsettling. Every day that urge gets stronger. Its almost addictive! If I could find a way to write full time, I would be ecstatic! One day maybe, but right now, I still need that day job.

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  6. Great post! I had a very similar conversation with my parents many years ago and ended up going into public relations ... and becoming a PR writer when it became clear that I did not like managing accounts (but everyone wanted me to write their press releases). Now, many years later, I'm back to doing what I wanted to do in the first place. Will RT on Twitter. - Leslie www.LeslieTentler.com.

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  7. Brilliant! I only wish I'd followed my heart...never mind I'm there now. Excellent post, Mike.

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  8. Hi Mike - nice post! Funny to be reminded - I was thinking about this at work today - I'm busy storyboarding out my next course right now. Then I'll give part of the script to the animator, part to the developer - Its going to be a big team. I'm loving being the creative guy who links it all together. :)

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  9. Great post. This really is so true. I wish I had listened to myself back then...at the very least I'd have less in college loans :)

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  10. Ha ha! Yes, how I wish I could do something 'practical' But as they say here in Hollywood, (La La Land), If you have something to fall back on, you fall back.

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  11. There is so much truth in that saying! The common wisdom is "don't burn your bridges," but unless you do that, you'll retreat to the easy path. At least I will.

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  12. I love this! Great post. Great story! :) Do you ever teach online creative writing classes? I'm a copywriter for my day job for a religious non profit organization. For years, I've had to "market" and do "call to action writing". I hated it! Struggled so much. Funny how now I'm my own brander, marketer, etc. for my fiction career now!

    Everything happens for a reason, I believe. I'm RTing this too! :) We all have talents and gifts that we are just naturally good at and were born to do! It's truly a blessing when we get to do that for a living!

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  13. Thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it. No I haven't taught any online classes yet. Fiction writing would be ideal for that, though, wouldn't it? And yes, funny how all that nasty marketing stuff we hated doing as a "day job" has come in so handy now! Thanks for the RT, too!

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  14. Good article. The funny thing is, I fell into graphic design, and then I realized that writing is a part of that. Not quite as "creative" as I'd like it to be, but I was just given the task of creating a rack card for some one and instead of telling me what they wanted it to say, they just threw a bunch of pieces at me and said here, make us a rack card. Guess if they want it, I'm going to have to write it. Best of both worlds! May not be exactly what I was looking for, but hey, I'm writing... ;)

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  15. I have spent over a decade working as an automotive mechanic, and have specialized for the better half of that. But in the end all I want to do is write, so while I drone in the everyday hoopla of tyrannical politics of transit vehicles, I write. And hopefully one day I can put that part of my life behind me for a brighter and more exhilarating future doing what I love and makes me happy. Great article Mike. I think it hits home to a lot of people.

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  16. So true. I advise my son to find a career he loves and to not aim low. If he wants to be a professional fisherman or work in communications with a major league baseball team - go for it. I also tell him, don't think you have to wait until your established or experienced to give these things a try. Go for it right out of the gate.

    These seems like odd or lofty career choices but I have a niece and nephew in *their very early twenties* who hold these jobs. Holy crap!! I worked fast food and babysat in my early twenties. What the heck was I thinking? :-)

    Here is some unwanted feedback - your blog hurts my eyes. Way too bright and the white font on black background is ouchy. Someone find my sunglasses. Ha ha

    ~ Jenna

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  17. Sounds like great advice that was well-taken!
    About the blog, you're the very first person to complain about it, lots of positive feedback. I think you should turn your screen brightness down (or find those sunglasses) Seriously, this is a pretty soft color combination.

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  18. Ha ha - Yes I am getting old and my eyes are becoming sensitive. I'll check my screen brightness and turn it down a couple notches. As a rule though I generally skip reading all blogs that are black background with white font. It really does hurt my eyes. I'll keep my opinions to myself about this from now on and just move on since it seems to be only me. :-)


    ~ Jenna

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  19. I just saw this post in my twitter feed and I'm glad I stumbled upon it. I've been writing for a while now, nothing quite as prestigious as novels but I earn a decent living. I'm hoping that sometime in the future I'll get a manuscript completed and (fingers crossed) published. If not, I suppose I can live with the satisfaction of just getting a book completed....

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  20. That was worth the read. Thanks for sharing. I'll retweet this! :)

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  21. My parents never discouraged me, my mom told me I could do this. *I* discouraged me. Now I work at a cubicle in a call center from 3-11 p.m M-F hating my job.

    However, I'm not awesome at writing. If I ever do get published I won't sell much so my 8 hour job is going to have to do. :)

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  22. Lovely post! Thanks for sharing. Am kind of at a crossroad right now and not sure exactly what I want to do. This post helps give me some perspective of how I want to proceed with my life.

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  23. Whilst I agree with the lovely idea of a career to fall forward onto, as a technical writer working in the IT sector I am mortally offended by your idea that there us something wrong with being a tech writer. :) :) :)
    My tech writing funds my fiction writing (and the rest of my life)! :)
    Keep up the great work!

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  24. Great article, Mike. I changed careers twice before returning to my childhood passion of writing. I find it humorous that you were offended by the compliment to your writing when you were an engineer because I spent years encouraging others to pursue writing before realizing that I was the one who really wanted to pursue it! I agree: the career chooses us. It's followed me through the years and now that I am finally publishing novels, I couldn't be happier.

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  25. Yes, I agree, I think our career chooses us. Sometimes it just takes awhile for it to find us!!


    Patricia

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  26. My absolute glee in discovering this post this morning is immeasurable! I thank you for the encouragement that you unknowingly offered to me. Congratulations on your writing life!

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  27. Thanks Mike,

    Great story and waiting for my career path to slap me in the face.

    RT is just around the corner.....

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  29. I first decided to be a writer when I was nine years old in the fourth grade after finally finding the courage to pick up a Goosebumps book by R.L. Stine. I have devoted my life to learning how to become a better writer since then, but now I tell people about my plans to become a novelist and they laugh in my face. One of my friends who is also an writer always tells me never to go into writing, expecting to make money off of it, but I don't want money. I just want people to read my stories and to like them, so I can't tell you how happy it makes me to hear someone refer to a writing career as a positive thing instead of some stupid idea.
    Thank you for posting this.

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    Replies
    1. Why are your writing friends still doing it then? They must not believe in the transformative power of writing on the reader and writer alike. Geez. How can one not be passionate about writing?! I don't get it. Why write otherwise? :P

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  30. I wanted to be an actress. Parents had same reaction, so I studied biology. Then was pushed to go to grad school. I was so conflicted I applied half-heartedly and then was heart-broken when I didn't get in. Struggled with dead-end lab jobs until I gave up to have children. All those years at home gave me lots of time to think. I started to write as a creative outlet--I was desperately missing that spark. Then one day I realized acting and writing have a lot of creative processes in common. I'd been struck upon the head with a solution. Nice post.

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  31. Hi Mike,

    Love this! I went to a university with a hallowed engineering school. I still remember the engineering majors in my dorm freaking out when the department added another upper division English class requirement. I wanted to major in history and go to culinary school. I had "Tiger" parents who thought I was nuts.

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  32. I've spent the last eight years and way too much financial aid trying to force myself into paths that are practical but not right for ME. I finally concluded that I am not that talented at anything but writing, nor do I enjoy much else. I decided to make a living (= a thousand or two a month, at this point) at writing, come hell or high water. Great post. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  33. Great post! This got me thinking about what my mother always told me. I studied English and Creative Writing for five years in university. Now I'm writing my first novel and still working at a coffee shop that hired me when I was in high school. My mom wanted me to study law and go for a "real" career. But I have always been stubborn and chose what I chose.
    Now, I occasionally freak (internally) out over my decision, but I cherish the days where I KNOW for certain that I made the right choice. I like seeing that no matter what you chose, you ended up back where you are supposed to be.
    Thank you for this!

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  34. As Karl Jung, german pshycologist, defined you got sincronicity between what you would like to do inside yourself, even though you weren't aware of, and what your first job asked you to. You catched up the blue bird! Congratulations! By the way I read your first book of Lust, money and murder, fantastic!

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  35. Great advice Mike.I once heard the principle of my daughter's graduating class say follow what your passionate with, rather than be stuck a job you dislike for years. That was my "ahuh..." moment. I only wish someone said that to me when I was young.
    Nice post Mike:)

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  36. I worked in computing and like you, ended up writing - in my case it was computer application courses that I gave. Am now much happier writing novels!

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  37. That was inspiring Mark,as a student journalist i sure look up to you.Bless

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  38. Nice post. My story is similar. Gave up a steady career to pursue writing full-time.

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  39. Truer words . . . well, you get my drift. Always wanted to be a veterinarian until a well-meaning, but stupid, school councilor told me I didn't have the brains. My fall-back career? Writing. :)

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  40. Great post Mike
    I thought after I turned 46 my dream of becoming a writer was over but than I got my first story published and now all I want to do is write. I'm even thinking of quieting my day job. My husband said I could but with three kids I'm so scared.. I have one more month to decide but all I think about is writing.
    Anyway I'm happy everything turned out great for you. Best wishes.

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  41. Awesome post!
    I always loved writing, but never was able to stick with it. Mostly because it didn't seem like a viable career choice. I thought I'd try the next best thing and become and English Teacher. That didn't pan out so well (long sad story).
    When I went into the Army I wanted to be a journalist, but the unit I was assigned to didn't have any slots open at the time. So I wound up being an Administrative Personnel.
    My admin career has certainly been something I've been able to fall back on, but I kept going back to writing. Now here I am working on my first book.

    Very inspiring post for someone like me. Thanks for sharing! :)

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  42. After going to college and spending thousands of dollars on a college degree, I now sit behind a computer screen everyday doing what I love....writing. I completely agree that our careers choose us!

    Great posting. You're very talented. God Bless!

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  43. I think some learn to write, others "fall into" writing and still others were born to write. Those born to write will find their way to it no matter how long or twisted the road. .

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