Last night I was having a great conversation with a good friend of mine, who is a former counselor like me, while we walked around the trails at a nearby park. It was a beautiful evening with air that seemed ripe for personal discovery and revelation. Or at least a picnic dinner and pick-up soccer.
Somehow we got onto the topic of confidence and professional identity, an area that we have both been exploring for years. I told her that when people ask me what I do, I usually say "Well, I'm home with the boys a couple of days a week, and I do some consulting work, and... I'm a writer." When I get to the "I'm a writer" part, I am generally looking in the direction of my shoes and my voice drops as though I were saying "and I'm an upscale prostitute on Wednesdays." Sometimes I don't even say "I'm a writer," but I'll say something weak and watery like, "and I write fiction, in my spare time."
"What?" my appalled friend said. "You don't lead with 'I'm a writer'?"
No. I don't. And I don't lead with 'I'm a mom,' either, which I consider an equally important part of my identity. The truth is, as much as I love being a mom, and enjoy my consulting work, when people ask me what I DO, my heart says "writer." Last year I made nearly four times as a part-time writer what I made as a part-time therapist. So why does my mouth start making excuses and justifying how I spend my time, rather than embracing who I am, who I have always been? Why do I deprecate the vocation about which I have been passionate since I was six years old?
My friend's theory, which I believe is valid, is programming. Somewhere along the way, I allowed myself to be programmed (by authority figures, by society, and most importantly by my own insecurities) to believe that writing isn't a real thing. It's not a prestigious, reliable, acceptable way to make a living. Sure, I've always known that some people make it as professional authors, but my brain says those people are the exception rather than the rule, sort of like the 300 guys who play professional basketball in the NBA, just less sweaty and maybe with fewer tattoos.
I won't get into all the heavy background of where my programming comes from, because that would be boring for you, even if it was therapeutic for me. But I will say that I'm realizing how often I have made the choice to do something 'safe' like getting and MBA on top of my English degree, or choosing a job that sounded more like a real job than 'freelancer' or 'aspiring author.' I was quick to give up when I met with rejection and hardship, quick to believe the people in my life who said maybe I'd better work on a backup plan. Am I glad I have a backup plan, a work ethic, and safety net? Yes. Have those professional experiences taught me skills, broadened my horizons, and informed my writing? Absolutely.
But if you're always doing the backup plan, isn't there some point at which it simply becomes The Plan? That would be fine, IF it's really what you want. Some people fall into a job and then fall in love with it, which is great. But for me, my journey outside of writing has been largely based on fear -- fear of failing at the one thing I have always loved, or worse, fear of succeeding. What happens if I succeed and don't feel worthy of that success? Or I succeed and it's not everything I've hoped, and then I will have lost the one thing I always thought I would love.
There's a story my college mentor, Coleman Barks, used to tell about a man on a train. When the conductor comes by to take the man's ticket, he can't find it anywhere. He checks his pockets, his briefcase, under the seat, his neighbor's seat, much to the annoyance of the busy conductor. When he doesn't find it, he starts the ritual again, looking in all the same places.
Finally the conductor says, "What about your breast pocket? You haven't looked there."
"I know," says the man. "But I can't look in there."
"Why not?" says the conductor.
"Because I have looked everywhere else. If I look in that pocket and the ticket isn't there, then I will have no hope."
Sometimes I think we hold onto something so tight, whether it's a dream or a relationship or a set of ideals, that we smother the thing we love rather than risk discovering that it is not perfect. We'd rather hide it in our pocket than find out what it really is, for better or worse. For me, I have done this when I don't give my all to something, writing especially. Because if I don't really try, I can't really fail, right?
Uh, wrong. Not trying is the only real failure. I'm teaching this to my three-year-old son already, and yet I've ignored it myself for years. So now I'm working to battle my negative programming, replacing it with freedom and positivity. I have glanced into my breast pocket (or in my case an overcrowded purse) and I have a feeling the ticket just might be in there. Now it's time to dig it out, brush off the Cheerio crumbs and the lipstick smudge, and see where it takes me.
What does your negative programming keep you from doing or becoming?