Yesterday, my son decided that he wanted to write a letter to his bear, Walter … so he did. As I described it on Facebook:
“The letter included Walter’s name, my kid’s name, a drawing of each, a drawing of a house and a drawing of a cave. Oh, and a drawing of some hydro wires. Then he made a bracelet for Walter, and included a set of keys (not ones we actually use). Then we weighed it (52 g), so we had to put five stamps (stickers) on it. Very productive afternoon.”
Inside the letter, he traced the letters I’d written. On the envelope, he printed them all by himself. I posted pictures of both, and his grandma (my mom) made a sweet and benign comment about how he is a “budding writer.”
(MOTHER, IF YOU ARE READING THIS: I AM IN NO WAY BEING CRITICAL OF YOUR COMMENT. ALL THAT FOLLOWS IS THE PRODUCT OF MY HYPERLITERAL WAY OF THINKING, A TENDENCY WITH WHICH YOU ARE SADLY QUITE FAMILIAR, HAVING BEEN FORCED TO TOLERATE IT IN CLOSE QUARTERS FOR 17-ODD YEARS.)
So I read that comment and, being a writer, reflexively started to compose the expected reply, about how writing is a terrible career, pay is lousy and wouldn’t wish it upon my enemies, you know the drill.
Except that: it’s none of those things.
It’s not a job for someone who wants to clock in and 9:00 AM and be out the door by 5:01 PM. (But: my commute to the kitchen table takes 20 seconds and costs me what, one calorie?)
It’s not ideal for someone who needs a stable and predictable income. (Though: it can be, if you hustle, and if you’re hot hustle-prone, no kind of freelance or contractual work will suit.)
And it’s not something I’d wish upon my enemies, because if I had any, I suppose I wouldn’t want them to have fun, something that spending one’s time working with words most definitely is.
I’m reminded of something that happened to me when I was pretty young. I was sitting on the steps of a house on 6th Street East in Fort Frances, Ontario, which meant it had to have been, at latest, the summer before I turned seven. I’d written some little story and a neighbouring parent commented that I should be a writer when I grow up.
And I said: “Okay, but I only want to write fiction books, because then I can just make things up and I don’t have to do as much research.”
And then s/he said: “Actually, fiction writers have to do a lot of research, too.”
And then I said, in my head: “Well, fuck that.”
Because I was six and not a fan of hard work, and here I am 35 years later and I can’t say that impulse to otiosity has changed all that much. Or has it? I just took 30 seconds right now to make sure I was using “otiosity” correctly.
Anyway. I feel like that one innocent conversation shut things down for me for a long time. I didn’t stop writing but it did cease to exist in my own Arena of Aspiration, and to this day, the descriptor “writer” — even though it (sometimes) leads off my own Twitter bio and satisfies Revenue Canada that I’m not earning a living through less salutary means — skeeves me out a little.
So if you’re going to have a conversation with a six-year-old this summer, and I do hope that you do, just know that what you say matters and echoes on. Even if you’re right and that small boy fixated on saving each sidewalk-stranded earthworm does go on to be a veterinarian, maybe spare him the comment about euthanistic inevitabilities. He’ll figure it out on his own.
We all do.