When we’re young, everyone wants to know what we want to be when we grow up. For a while, they humor us. They smile or chuckle when we say we’re going to be an artist or a rock star or, in my son’s case, a butterfly catcher. (At that moment, he had his little butterfly net and was running through a small meadow with his sister, so it was his answer of the moment.) What did you want to be when you were young? Did it work out for you?
I don’t think anyone says, “I want to be homeless when I grow up” or “I want to work 40 hours a week in a factory doing the same thing over and over.” Some jobs, of course, require certain talents that you might not have. I used to enjoy watching gymnasts, but I couldn’t even turn one somersault. My brother, on the other hand, could do a backflip, landing his feet in the same spot as where they started. I didn’t get that gene. In fact, I once sprawled face-first into the exercise mats in gym class when I attempted my first broad jump. It was made worse by the fact that my fellow students were seated around the perimeter of the mats, holding them in place. I’ll never forget the humiliation, though I can laugh about it now.
There came a time in my life I considered medical school, but I was getting a little old for it. I would never have considered this as a youngster, because the doctor terrified me. Plagued with colds and tonsillitis as a child, with parents who were terrified to let me have a tonsillectomy, I was at the doctor’s office a lot (kind of like I am now). I remember Dr. Riley very well. He had a serious face, reddish curly hair, and wore a bow tie and tweed jacket. He knew how much I hated shots, so he would usually just give me antibiotic liquid. When he was out of town, though, his backup was Dr. Bing. He ALWAYS gave shots. I hated him. So no. I didn’t dream of becoming a doctor. I was good at science, though, and I’m pretty good with diagnosing something by its symptoms. I might have made a good doctor.
I don’t remember what I wanted to be when I was very young, but early on, I was encouraged to write. It was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Ross (who wasn’t always nice to me), who first brought the subject up with my parents. She thought I had a natural talent and wanted to encourage it. My parents seemed proud of me. They were always proud of their kids when they received praise from others or brought home straight A’s, as I tried to always do. My dad gave me one of his typewriters – a Royal manual typewriter that will now cost you around $900 restored – and set me to it. I would often write my stories out longhand on legal pads, though. I love typewriters, but there’s a real commitment when you put words to a page in ink. No corrections! (I wasn’t yet acquainted with Liquid Paper.) I know I wrote children’s stories to read to my younger sister, and such things as that.
It was the summer after I turned 12 when I wrote my first adventure story, though. I was stuck inside a lot, having broken my arm street-skating. It was just me, the typewriter, and a one-handed pecking away for three months. Once upon a time, I had a photograph my mother took of me at that task. My left arm was in a sling. My too-frizzy hair was pulled back in a ponytail that cascaded down my back, and I was looking over my shoulder with a goofy look on my face. The product of that summer would make a good YA novel, should I ever choose to revive it. The actual papers were lost long ago from my mother’s house, but I still remember the premise and the plot. It was a little bit like The Stand, though not as lengthy or descriptive. I was young, inexperienced, and sheltered. My parents told people I was going to be a writer, but the more time went on, the less they said it.
I was also a verbal storyteller. My best friends and I would have big sleepovers together, during which we would tell what we called “pass-around stories”. I would usually kick it off with something inane (“Once upon a time…”) or something scandalous (“There was Lori, in the middle of the school hallway, naked…”). We had such fun at those sleepovers, and we all looked forward to the next story we would weave. We were all musicians, too, though. Choir, band, private lessons. We did all of it. I played (play?) piano but was (and am) horribly shy about it. I know I don’t play the way I’d like to. I’m a slave to sheet music. Joan (pronounced JoAnn) was planning to go to Baylor and study medicine, but she also had a beautiful alto voice. Lisa was a soprano who also played piano. Lori was in choir, too, but she didn’t play an instrument. We dreamed big. We dreamed of forming an all-girl rock band (before the Runaways did it). I dreamed of being the drummer, though I never made any headway on my dad’s 3-pc kit. Barring that, I would play keyboards (which I really did get to do on an album and on stage).
Writing came easily to me, but I wanted to create music. I wanted to move to New York City or LA. When I first joined the drama classes and formed the drama club in high school, I wanted to marry my musical side and theater side and carry it to Broadway. I had a clear, pure, first soprano voice that was well suited for being part of a chorus. (I never saw myself as a leading lady, because I didn’t have the strong pipes for that, nor did I want to be front and center where I could screw up massively. Another faceplant on the mat.)
I starting hitting discouragement with my family. When I became a teenager, suddenly they wanted to start telling me about “the real world”. One of my brothers just loved me, but he wasn’t around much. He was 13 years older and went off to the USAF when I was in kindergarten. The other one just told me how nasty those cities were and how I didn’t want to end up there. Bad things would happen to me. He probably said it out of concern, but inside, I felt my dreams dying. My older sister, whom I love very much, has always been very practical, and a career in the arts wasn’t something she saw as practical. Even my father, who had been a musician when I was young and who played guitar and sang all the time, discouraged me from pursuing music as a career. Maybe it’s because performing music was all tied up with addiction to him (and honestly, to a lot of musicians). He was an alcoholic. Later, he became addicted to morphine. Are you getting the picture?
My family, though they loved to hear me play, did not want me out there as a touring musician. My cousins played and sang in churches all over the South. I didn’t want to do that. My cousin Melba had a big voice. I didn’t, and I didn’t want to screw up and embarrass my family. My grandfather played boogie-woogie and ragtime on the old piano–played it with verve and spirit! He often played in pool halls, my mother told me. Sadly, I never got to learn from him, because he died when I was 5. He was a big presence in my life, though. He’s one person I’d love to have another day with.
My big dreams were slipping from my grasp, kicked down the road by my family. Eventually, I even lost those close relationships with my best friends, because Dad got sick and we moved to the country. I carried on with choir, drama, and piano, but I started to lose interest. I knew it couldn’t be my career. One of my first drama teachers went to Auburn University and encouraged me to do the same, to study drama. But my family said college was something they couldn’t afford. The breakup of the family in 1978 also sent me on another path–back to Houston to live with my older sister. I got a job at a movie theater, babysat my niece, and did a lot of housework and cooking for her family. I met some guys and we tried to form a band. We were Rush and Yes geeks, with a little Led Zeppelin on the side. I started writing a rock musical. We performed a couple of the songs from it at a drama banquet. But the drama teacher was a jackass (as was the choir director), so in my senior year, I dropped the arts and tried out cosmetology. My family thought I needed a “real” job.
I wasn’t good at cutting hair. Period. Full stop.
I later went into computer work, mostly at the continuous encouragement of my older brother, who is the biggest geek I know! It has paid the bills and kept me going, but it’s like Edward said of drinking animal blood in “Twilight”. It’s like eating tofu. It gives you sustenance, but it never truly satisfies.
Life has taken many twists and turns since I got my first “acceptable” job. I’m trying to return to the arts later in life. I’ve performed on stage with other local adult students, playing keyboard and singing. Am I great? No, but it was fun. I’ve dabbled in painting, though I haven’t picked up the sketchpad to draw things as I once did. I write. Mostly I write technical documents at work, but I also write here and there. Poetry, short stories, blog entries. I want to write more. Lately, I’ve had a couple of characters floating around in my head. When I’m trying to go to sleep at night, they show up and show me more about who they are. They are pretty interesting people, becoming fully formed in my mind, if robbing me of sleep.
Stephen King once wrote something like this: if you’re not willing to put in the work to slave away at and give your all to your works of fiction, you should just give up and be a technical writer. Ouch. I’ve never forgotten it.
I’m hoping that someday I can retire from the corporate world and write books again. (I’ve published two engineering books, in the early part of this century. I’m glad my mother lived to get a copy of them.) It will have taken me 50 years or more to get back to where I should have started.
The moral of this long thread is this: NEVER quash your kid’s dreams. Never let their siblings quash their dreams. Let them dream and dream BIG! You don’t know what they can do. Let them find out. Support them unconditionally. They will love you for it, even if they end up in corporate America, staring into a computer screen 8-10 hours a day.