Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Leaping Before I Look

I love hearing David Rakoff speak for several reasons, including but not limited to: 1) He called Barbara Bush a "stupid f*****g cow," 2) He is always honest about how difficult writing is and how long it takes him to do it, and 3) As he is revealing the truth about himself, he is also revealing the truth about me.

Case in point, last night I had the privelege of hearing David read from his new book Half Empty during the Writers Speak series at Stony Brook Manhattan. During the Q & A afterwards, he was asked how he finally made the transition from publishing house lackey/occasional freelance writer to celebrated author of three books. He said that he finally had to just face his fear of failure and go for it. The publishing gig was a comfortable job that didn't require much from him, gave him health insurance, and a salary close enough to a living wage. He recognized that those circumstances, though not ideal, were certainly sustainable, and he could continue on that same path for a long time. Except that he couldn't. He couldn't stand the thought of living the rest of his life regretting that plunge into the unknown that he never took. So he jumped.

As he told his story, I began to squirm in my seat. He was hitting very close to home. I, too, have a comfortable, unobtrusive day job. In fact, when people ask me what I "do," I reply that in real life I am a writer and in fake life I work for a non-profit organization. The truth is that I spend seven hours a day, five days week on my fake life, and not nearly that much time on my real life. And my real life is the one I actually want to be leading. So what to do? According to David Rakoff, jump.

Sound familiar, dear reader? Are you jumping or just looking over the edge?


anotherjenny said...

Four months ago I broke up with my boyfriend of 5 years who loved me dearly, was a great guy, and was ready to marry and support me with his 80K+ job at Microsoft that he landed right out of our undergrad.

I teach English test prep and sell produce at a big open-air market and make anywhere from $800-$1300 a month, depending on business. Sometimes my parents pay for me.

I've started dating someone who I met on a bus, and who literally ended a year-long relationship with a woman he intended to marry because a single day we spent together on a beach was so compelling. He knows I'm applying to MFA programs this winter and might be gone by the summer. Or he might come with me.

Yeah, I'd say I've jumped. Yeah, sometimes it's pretty scary, realizing how much you really impact your own damn life. But it also feels pretty amazing, and I know I never want to go back to standing on that edge.

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Sally Jane said...

anotherjenny: Good for you! I loved your comment - there's the safe bet, and then there's what you find compelling, in writing and in love. Keep us posted!

Jeanne said...

Fear is my main obstacle.

I know I'm "good enough" to secure modest employment with these talents. The motivation to keep going every day comes from the dream of one day finding out I'm far better than just good enough.

The debate rages on between staying where I am versus taking the leap, which would mean finding out one of two things:
1) I'm far better than I ever imagined I am
2) I'm merely good enough

The fear, I think, is that I'd find out it's the latter rather than the former--and the dream would die, along with the motivation to carry on.

There is a measure of security in not knowing. It is only when the need to know becomes more important than the security that one takes the leap. I'm right on the edge myself.

anotherjenny said...

@ Jeanne

I know exactly what you mean about waiting for that small shift in weight where one's fear of mediocrity outweighs one's fear of the unknown. It took me a long time to reach my decision to take the leap, and in retrospect, I did myself a disservice, imagining myself not ready for as long as I did.

Because I think, in reality, no one's ever really ready for anything. Sure you can prepare and plan for the what-ifs, but even in a situation you think you have a total grip on, life will surprise you. So why not just go for broke and achieve something you actually want?

I'm starting to realize that every day should feel like a swim upstream. A chilly but awesome swim.

Sally Jane said...

@Jeanne: I'm pretty sure we've all been there. When I was close to finishing my first screenplay (which took me forever to write), I was hit by the fear that I had just devoted a large chunk of time to something that might never see the light of day. I was afraid that if this wasn't IT, if this wasn't that one thing to push me over the edge, then my life would be a complete waste. Well, I finished it (mostly) and now I'm working on my next script, and my life carries on.

It's difficult when you work in a field where, no matter how talented you are or how hard you work, it really does take that extra something else (usually another person) to propel you forward. An agent, an editor, a producer, someone has to like your work and like it so much they are willing to put their valuable time and money and influence and power behind it. But that's the part we have no control over, so all we can do is keep writing, and keep making it better.

Claire Dawn said...

This is how I live my life. I'm the absolute extreme opposite. If an opportunity comes along, I'm there. This is why I live in Japan.

The minute I have a publishable novel, I'll probably be off to a country with an English publishin industry. lol

Unknown said...

Great post! I'm in a very similar situation - working at a non-profit job, not sure of my next steps with my writing. I'm curious, what did Rakoff say taking the plunge meant? Or, what do you think taking the plunge means? Quit the job to write a book? Go into debt for an MFA?

Sally Jane said...

Melanie: Rakoff meant that he decided he had to give himself a chance to fail. He had to give his writing career everything he had and be willing to completely fail at it. I'm not sure at what point he quit the day job, but he did.

For me, not sure I'm willing to quit the cushy job just yet. As someone who has been unemployed and without health insurance (see previous post), I can definitely see the advantages of a regular paycheck and health care. But I've also gone into debt to get a MFA and it was completely worth it. I'm still trying to figure out what it means to give myself permission to fail, and whether or not I've already done that or not. Something to think about.

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