In the early aughts, I taught middle school humanities for five years. Every day before dismissal, the school body formed a giant circle in the gym and one student would share something he or she had learned. One day a fifth-grader thanked me for inspiring him to write. My love of poetry, he said, had him seeing poems everywhere! With the school’s eyes on me, I smiled, but as I did my stomach twisted into a pretzel. I thought of that stupid saying: those who can’t, teach.
I felt like a fraud.
I had always wanted to be a writer, but somewhere along the way, I decided this path wasn’t quite available to me. My parents were a working-class couple whose own parents weren’t far removed from the old country. My mom and dad never went to college. They extolled the values of thriftiness, learning a trade, diligent effort, and corporate loyalty. A person could pursue their passions in their own time; working made money for your family, and that was paramount.
As a teenager in suburban Philadelphia, I didn’t know any writers, but I knew that many of my literary heroes at the time — Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut — lived in poverty. They also bared themselves on the page in a way that petrified me. I can’t write, I told myself, without living first. (And socking away some money.)
So while I always journaled, I never took my writing very seriously — I left it as a dream, to be pursued at a later date. After college, I took a corporate job producing web sites, and then at age 24 became a teacher, hoping to engage more with words and creativity, and feel morally better about my work. (Corporate culture left me feeling, for lack of better words, icky and gross.) I found teaching rewarding, but still felt like I was ignoring a part of myself my heart.
During these years, I avoided making a serious commitment to my long-term girlfriend, because she wanted kids and I knew that I never did. We were off-again/on-again for years, and even when we finally moved in together, marriage and family remained a question best left unaddressed. Where were we going with our relationship? We had no idea. We were just going.
As we approached 30, I felt a mounting pressure — some in the form of questioning from family and friends, i.e. “When are you going to get married and a have a kid already?” but mostly internal. My girlfriend dreamed of children and I dreamed of writing; in my case, I either wanted to pin myself to the page or else adjust my self-image, accepting that I’d always be a cheerleader for literature and never an artist myself.
I’d like to say that at this point I gritted my teeth in determination and leaped into action with resolve like a man fire-walking across a bed of smoldering coals. Actually? I ran away. I moved halfway around the world to Shanghai, where I taught English Language Arts to a wonderful group of seventh-graders from in and around China, some of whom I still know today. The move turned out to be both bad — personally painful and scary — as well as effective. I began blogging on a regular basis about my travels, culture shock, and food. The school that hired me turned out to have a secret missionary operation — secret because religion is officially outlawed in Communist China — which gave me, an atheist, more uncomfortable experiences to record.
While I began to practice my craft, I meditated deeply about my girlfriend, who had stayed behind (at my insistence) in New York City. My life without her did not feel right. What had brought me to China, alone? Fear. The thought of opening myself up to loving a child terrified me, and so I emotionally kept my girlfriend at arm’s length. Similarly, when I sat down to write I felt inhibited and nervous. I knew I had things to say, but feared I wouldn’t be able to make any sort of living as an artist, so I stayed in jobs even when they didn’t leave me feeling great about myself.
In The Matrix, Morpheus says, “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” After being in China for two or three months, I began, step by slow step, to walk the path that I wanted to be on.
I needed a lot of encouragement at first. With one completed short story in my back pocket, the only one I had ever written, I applied to MFA programs in New York City. There, I found myself among people who, though younger, had been writing, and who’d been thinking of themselves as writers, for many years. My girlfriend, who became my wife, did for me what I did for my students: she told me that I could do it and that I had something worth sharing. She never gave me grief for taking on additional debt (I still owe money for college), or moving into a field where success was far from certain. And even if literary success occurs, let’s be honest, the financial payoff is still meager. (This isn’t to imply I mooched off her while I was in school. I tutored to make pocket money and tuition payments, but in the long term, we’ll be paying off my graduate classes for some time to come.)
Ultimately, you are the one responsible for deciding whether you’ll take a risk and pursue the life that you want to be leading — the one from which you’ve been holding back. But just as a skydiver jumps out of a plane with a parachute, you don’t make that leap alone. You have a support system, hands to hold as you leave the safety of ground behind. In my case, this was friends and, most importantly, my wife, who provided me the proverbial room of my own to write and create. She fired me up about writing the way I used to do for my students. I’ll always be grateful for her encouragement and patience — it’s as if somehow she saw the confidant man I could be within the nervous guy I was.
A week after graduating with my MFA, our son Felix was born. Needing only time and space to write, and wanting to go deeply into this relationship that had scared me silly for so long, I stayed home with the baby while my wife returned to work. Again, she trusted that during his naps I wouldn’t just fill notebooks, but that I’d seek out venues for my work and have something to say. And here you have it.
I used to think that I’d either need to get a job and be a dad, or eschew all relationships and be a writer; it’s funny how these two parts of me have in fact been joined together. That’s the thing with fear: it’s a cancer that infects areas you’re not even aware of, until you begin cutting it out. When you do, you can stop curling inward and clinging to familiar ground, you can begin to travel the path that you’ve always wanted to go down.