I figured out what I wanted to do with my life before I was 20 years old. That is a far cry from Carl Daniels, the protagonist in my upcoming novel, Green Bay Outsiders, who has absolutely no clue what he wants to do when he graduates from college. By that point, he is 22. And the realization that he has to start making plans to find out what he wants to do is crucial if he wants to avoid falling into a miserable lifestyle set by everyone else’s expectations.
Not long after I discovered a love of writing during a creative writing course my senior year in high school, I knew that was something I would want to do in the future. But of course I was going to have to make countless choices in the following years – education, employment, travel, friendships, romance, adult responsibility – and for a while I drifted from one experience to another, experimenting, trying things out and ultimately returning to what I always loved.
This is how it all went down and what happened when I realized what I wanted to do with my life. (Too bad for Carl who doesn’t realize what he wants to do yet; he must decide if he needs to rip himself away from everything he already has in his life to discover something he considers more fulfilling.)
What I Wanted to Do With My Life
When you discover something you love doing, there are likely several ways you can apply that passion to your life. If you love accounting, you can work for a public accounting firm or you can become a controller or chief financial officer of a nonprofit, or you can manage budgets for a federal agency. If you get a law degree, you can make a ton of money as an attorney at a law firm, set up shop on your own, become in-house counsel for a large corporation or leverage your background into a career in politics.
You end up realizing that your choices have much more to do than just doing what you love – the question of values inevitably rears its head to help you determine how you want to apply your passion.
Here are four times when I made sure that, whatever my life circumstances, I kept writing as a central component of it.
1. When I traveled….
One of a writer’s greatest challenges is learning how to balance the need to sit at a desk all the time to write and also acquire life experience so that you have something to write about. At the end of the day, research can help significantly with the latter and I’ve been doing a decent amount of research to help get the facts right for Green Bay Outsiders.
But when I was in my mid-20s, I traveled to Alaska and lived there for a summer working 16-hour shifts at a salmon processing center in the small Bristol Bay community of Naknek (right next to the larger community of, er, King Salmon). I returned home with a slight beard, a bunch of checkered flannel shirts and a new-found interest in traveling.
Less than two years later, I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Sri Lanka to teach English as a Foreign Language. I was supposed to live there for two years but due to the civil war in the country at the time – a suicide bomber drove a truck into a sacred temple less than two miles from where I lived – I had to leave a year early. It was great to get to know the people and the country. I had an intense, if short-lived romance with another American expatriate and I wrote a lot about my experience.
In later years, I would spend much shorter periods of time in Guatemala, Peru, Serbia and Ireland. I also traveled to Arizona several years ago to go on ride-alongs with Border Patrol agents in support of my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot.
Through it all, I kept writing about my personal experiences outside the norms of my regular run-of-the-mill life.
2. When I went to graduate school….
When you love doing something that requires investing a lot of time to succeed, it can be easy to pursue something closely related to your love. I was recently offered an opportunity to join a committee that would set up workshops for authors and writers. Despite the fact that it would bring me into proximity with other authors, I also knew it would mean an investment of time, so I turned it down.
Graduate school was like that for me too. I ended up pursuing a Master of Arts degree in English with some vague idea of becoming an English professor one day. But at a certain point of time, I realized that despite my love of thinking and cognitive analysis, that my greatest passion wasn’t for reading and analyzing literature but for the creative aspects of writing. I ended up joining the Peace Corps (see #1 above) to get away from the university for a while and get perspective on the future of my writing.
When I returned to the United States, I finished my graduate degree and, because I’d received a high pass in my comprehensive exams, my professors encouraged me to pursue my PhD. It was a hard decision but ultimately I decided not to. I needed to get away from the critical aspects of writing and let my imagination out of the cage I’d inevitably put it in while pursuing a Master’s degree.
3. When I moved to Washington, DC…
I saw my move to Washington, DC as my first real chance to pursue fiction writing as a vocation. It’s no easy thing to translate an academic background in English literature to the professional workforce. But due to some connections I’d made with the Peace Corps after my return stateside, I secured some entry-level opportunities in marketing and public relations that gave me the professional experience I needed to get a career started.
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I began to get up early in the mornings, around 4:30 a.m., to write. In hindsight, pursuing creative writing at university should have been the best way to go. But I couldn’t go back in time now. I had to move forward by making mistakes, and a lot of them, through writing, writing and writing some more.
My first novel–a failed 900+ page behemoth called Journeying Away–I finished on my 30th birthday. No literary agent wanted to touch it for the purposes of trying to publish it though a hybrid publishing/editing house offered to charge me $2.50 per page for their editing services. No thank you.
I made a close group of friends – artistic, somewhat bohemian – that carried me through my late 20s. Romantically speaking, I didn’t do so well, largely because I wasn’t developing any relationship skills. I was developing my writing skills instead.
I did end up getting into a relationship when I was 31 years old that lasted about seven months then I ended it because I was ramping up to start my next novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot.
By that point, the horrors of September 11 (I used to work at the World Trade Center in 1999!) made me rethink several areas of my life, which I had sorely neglected. I separated from my friends and joined a martial arts studio to bring greater discipline into my thinking and my life. For the next two years, I had the most simple but fantastic life. Writing my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, early in the morning, working an enjoyable job in accounting marketing during the day and kicking ass at the dojo in the evenings. Those years were transformational. I learned about emotional intelligence, and mental and personal discipline. And my writing was getting better.
At the end of those two years, I had a massive (but understandable and not necessarily unhealthy) emotional hangover. My novel was done, I had earned a brown belt in tae kwon do, and was getting ready to test for my black belt, but I felt suddenly alone.
I began dating the woman who I would end up marrying. I earned my black belt in tae kwon do and I started querying literary agents about my now-completed second novel. This was around 2006 and 2007.
4. When I got divorced….
In a blog post published a few years ago, Why It Took More Than 10 Years to Write Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, I explained why it took such a long time to write that novel. Partly, it was due to deciding to rewrite the entire book. One literary agent had sent me an encouraging letter following my first draft, explaining that while it had merits, the book also had several weaknesses. I loved the main character, Billy Maddox, so instead of just starting a new novel, I rewrote the one I already had.
Partly, though, the reason had to do with my marriage. It didn’t get off to a great start and it went downhill from there. I was mentally blocked – I couldn’t write – for a variety of reasons. One was the marriage. The other had to do with the fact that my wife and I had moved to Denver, where we knew no one and I was far from my family. And then there was also the Great Recession to contend with. My wife hadn’t been in the workforce for more than a year, and I lost my job in the Spring of 2008.
Over a period of several years, my identity felt stripped away as though I had been flayed alive. The words wouldn’t come and even the return to Washington, DC and a job I had worked for before moving to Denver (my employer called me back) couldn’t restore the balance in my life.
Fast forward several years to late 2013 and early 2014, and my marriage came crashing down around my ears. While bad news such as a lost marriage, a lost job or any other tragedy is never good to experience, it does remind one that there is only one life to live, and it’s best to do what one enjoys and what provides the most balance.
I spent the next several years largely on my own, going through one more painful divorce with the job I had long loved but which had changed drastically. I began to write. I built a website and blog, enrolled in some online education to learn how to market my work online and jumped headfirst into the entrepreneurial lifestyle.
Having that focus helped me return to Billy Maddox Takes his Shot. I finished the book, published it digitally and then went on to my next writing projects – a short horror novel called The Curse of Jaxx, a long short story entitled “Billy and Darla” and, most recently, the novel Green Bay Outsiders.
So back to Green Bay Outsiders…..
It takes Carl Daniels a while to determine what he wants to do as he sets sail from university life into adulthood. It’s also possible to speculate that what he ends up pursuing is nothing more than a reaction to the realization that he’s currently doing something he doesn’t want to do.
Life twists and turns like a hose gushing water that no one is holding on to, and it takes you with it wherever it chooses to go. The best thing one can do it hold on for dear life and try to figure out what gives one happiness. It’s never easy to figure out what that is when you need to contend with a multitude of forces but, at the end of the day, if you can look back one day and realize you’ve stayed true to what you believe gives your life meaning, everything should end up okay.
When did you discover what you most wanted to do in life? Looking back from where you are now, would you say you’ve stayed true to that aspect of yourself? Or has life turned you around and inside out, leaving you somewhere you never expected to be? Share your story below.