Last week, I got an email from a reader of my blog, asking if I would be interested in ghostwriting his memoirs. I had to read the message twice. Actually, I probably read it a dozen times before I responded. And I sat with it there in my inbox for most of the day before I typed up a reply.
Life has a funny way of throwing you a curve-ball when you least expect it, but what was really odd about this one was that I was in the middle of reading John Scalzi’s book on writing in which he stresses the importance for writers to have multiple income streams. I am not now, nor likely in the near future, in the position to be a full-time writer. Writing is a hobby into which I am very, very invested. I call it my second job – a job that pays quite poorly. Pretty-much nothing right now. In the mid 80’s I did get a $14 check for a letter I wrote to Model Railroader magazine. The check was pink. But since then, not a dime.
I’ve written a ton of fiction in the last few years, but writing a memoir is not at all like writing fiction or even writing blog entries. There’s a certain standard of honesty in a a nonfiction book that fiction writers get to completely ignore and bloggers just aren’t held to. Nonfiction requires research and quotes and liability and becoming an expert on something. When this opportunity came into my inbox, and I thought about writing a memoir, I pictured someone poring over it, examining every adjective, and questioning whether the subject really did feel morose on April 13, 1973. Or did they just feel a little sad? Perhaps they felt morose on April 14th, 1973, which may sound irrelevant, but if, on the night of April 13th, they went out and hung up all the neighborhood cats from the clothesline in the back of Aunt Gertrude’s yard, maybe that date matters. Nonfiction scares the crap out of me because I’m so used to spending the entire writing day lying to the reader (except here, of course), and in nonfiction, someone would invariably call my bluff.
But say I decided that I wanted to write nonfiction and could get past the not-being-able-to-lie thing. This opportunity would surely diversify my income stream – or it would if I were making income from fiction. I suppose there is chance I could start making money from fiction very soon, (“So you’re saying there’s a chance!”), but I’m not counting on having Lauren Holly handing me a book advance next week. Writing is writing when you need to make money. Again, income diversification.
But technically, I already have income diversification. I have a day job. It’s not writing, but it does pay the bills. But it’s work. As Scalzi also points out, writing is work too. Yes. True. And, if he ever reads the next line, he will undoubtedly roll his eyes and say ‘moron’, but… given an even trade on dollars and donuts, I’d like to think my life would be better if my donuts came from writing. Because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And that’s why this offer was so tempting, even if it was outside of my comfort zone.
If writing was what I always wanted to do, the how did I end up not doing exactly what I want to do for a living? Well, that’s a bit of a story. Let’s see if I can summarize and not bore the crap out of you, or terminate any chance I ever have of landing a future job in IT. Which, by the way, I’m pretty damn good at. The IT part. Not the boring the crap out of you. I hope.
I’ve always been good with computers. I started using them when I was eight, when I had my first surgery on my feet (a whole other blog entry). I was in a wheelchair for six weeks, and around that time, my school got its first Commodore PET computer. With a little help from Paul Jensen, who was the son of my favorite teacher of all time, Ruth Ann Jensen, (who was my Grade 7 teacher, and my high school creative writing teacher), I started to learn how to program. One thing led to another, and my dad bought us a Commodore 64 for Christmas in 1982. I’ve used a computer pretty much every day of my life since then. I transcribed computer programs from Compute! Gazette, saved them on cassette tapes and later on the 1541 disk drive, and made that little shade-of-tan box do amazing things. I wrote short stories on the Quick Brown Fox word processor that I plugged into the back of the CPU. I printed those stories on my MPS-801 dot matrix printer, which was a lot easier to read than my horrible penmanship. My teachers didn’t like the fact that QBF had spell check, nor did they like the raised ‘g’ from the dot matrix printer. Mrs. Jensen docked me a grade on one paper because of that raised ‘g’.
By the time high school rolled around, I was pretty good with computers. But I also knew I wasn’t the best at computers. I liked using them, and I liked that they enabled me to do other things quickly and easily. I saw their power. I saw how easy it was to put together computer programs that did things that made other things easy or saved time. But I was never a bit-head. I was horrible at electronics, and I could never remember all the part numbers that ‘real’ computer people took so seriously. To this day, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a serial port and a parallel port, except that the plugs look different. And even with modern technology, I still don’t care about the difference between an Intel chip or an ATOM processor or care about advanced features on the latest cell phones. I look at computers and technology as tools to make my job easier. When I’m writing software for a client, I look to technology to solve a client’s problem so they can work more efficiently so we can all make the money we need to make to support our families, so we can go home earlier and do the things we really want to do. Thus, computer science was a side-thought when choosing which university I would go to, and what career I thought I would pursue when I graduated.
In Ontario, when I was in high school, college applications were accepted by a central office which limited each student to apply to three schools, so that students didn’t carpet-bomb every school in the province with applications. One of the schools I applied to was Ryerson Polytechnique in Toronto, for journalism. Another was the University of Toronto for aerospace engineering. And the third was the University of Waterloo for chemical engineering. But shortly after I submitted my applications, I discovered a new program at York University for Honours Physics – Space and Communication Science. According to those pesky Ontario rules, I could only have three applications active at a time. So I dropped the journalism application right before the deadline. I was accepted at York and Waterloo, and I don’t remember about U of T (I don’t think I made it, but I could be wrong). Due to a paperwork snafu, I also got an acceptance from Ryerson for journalism. By that point however, I was fully hooked on the idea of going to study Space Science.
But why did I drop the journalism application and not the one for chemical engineering? I really had no ambition to be a chemical engineer, and journalism was much closer to my dream of writing for a living. Well, a couple of points. 1) I had done an internship at Esso Petroleum in Sarnia during high school and I had some great letters of recommendation from those engineers and scientists that virtually assured me of a place at Waterloo and probably a job when I got out, and 2) I had to get in somewhere. U of T’s entrance requirements were ridiculously high, and I knew that was aiming for the stars. York’s program was new and fascinating . I saw it as the stepping stone to NASA. I met their entrance criteria but I was not a straight A student, so I was concerned I would get shut out and not have any school to go to in the fall. I think I was the final (or second-to-last) student accepted into York’s program. It was very close. ChemEng at Waterloo was my backup plan, one which, in retrospect, would have made me miserable because I hated chemistry in college.
But there were other considerations on the journalism side. I’ve always been a very practical person. I harbored doubts about my ability to make a living as a journalist in the long run. As I recall, the ‘80s were a rough time for journalists; a couple of them were killed or kidnapped in Beirut (or in some war-torn country). Plus, I was not the healthiest kid around, and the idea of being sick or injured overseas wasn’t appealing. Journalists didn’t make a lot of money back then – nor do they now, I suppose. I wasn’t very good at learning foreign languages. My French was horrible, which was a distinct disadvantage to a journalist in Canada, and Canadian politics bored the crap out of me. So journalism seemed to make the most sense to cut from the list of my possible career and educational choices.
In the fall of 1990, I arrived at York University in Toronto, where I would stay until the spring of 1994. I somehow wiggled my way through and graduated despite having serious doubts within myself as to whether or not I understood anything that was said after, “Hi. Welcome to York.” I then got a job with EDS in Oshawa, Ontario, working on the General Motors account programming in C. Not the perfect job, but it was a job, and about that, I was happy. I viewed it as a quick stop until I found something to really do with that Physics degree beside cover up a hole in my wall. That was September 6, 1994.
I stopped looking for something else to do with that Physics degree after September 1995 when I interviewed at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana for a post-grad position in their climate study lab and confused how a laser worked with a photo-multiplier. I think the guy doing the interview felt extremely sorry for me, and told me that if I seriously wanted to do physics as I career, I should probably retake my third and fourth year core physics courses. I half-heartedly tried again in 1997 to see about jobs at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but was told the same thing.
Computers it was then. Luckily, I took a lot of Comp-Sci classes at York and was pretty good at them.
So now you know why I am not a world renowned physicist, and why I’m not a journalist. I have no ambition about going back into physics. That ship has sailed, and I missed it by an AU or two.
But the journalism thing – the writing thing. That desire never really left my bones. I still wouldn’t want to travel to war-torn-anywhere, but I have toyed with the idea of doing some freelance writing for the local newspaper to get my feet wet. I’ve thought about writing for magazines, both fiction and non-fiction. But until last week, I had never thought about doing any kind of non-fiction book. That little email sent my mind spinning and a whole series of questions ran through my brain. Questions like “How serious am I about writing as an alternative to what I am doing now? What would it take for me to truly retire from IT and write full time? What level of minimum income must I have to ensure I can provide for my family? If not now, when?”
None of those questions are easy, and I didn’t get to any final answers. In the end, after conversations with both my wife and my agent, I decided that this is not the right time to take on a project of this magnitude. I have four fiction books in various stages of editing, and I’m really hoping that 2012 is the year that one (or two) of them move into the next stage. I’ve got a new novel in development. I’ve got my regular job, and this blog, and all the marketing that will go with getting a book published. I’ve got a family with two wonderful kids who are starting to be able to do fun things like go camping and go to the beach. I couldn’t lose that experience. So I said no.
But I did do a web search to see if any of the local colleges offer continuing education for journalism. Not as a full time gig. Perhaps taking a class will help me to develop a new skill that, down the road, when I can balance fiction with non-fiction, helps to diversify my income, and allows my career choices to come full circle.
I will concede that I will never be a physicist again. I still can’t tell you how a laser works, and at this point, I don’t think I really care. But I can still write, and perhaps someday soon, I’ll finally get to realize my dreams of doing it full-time.