They’ll try to talk you out of it

Tess Gerritsen

I’m often asked why I decided to leave a secure career in medicine and become a writer.  My answer is: way before I became a doctor, I was a writer.  Writing was, in fact, my very first career choice, and when I left medicine, I was simply returning to what I’d always wanted to be.

I first knew I was a writer when I was about seven years old.  Age seven, in fact, seems to be when many of us first self-identify as writers.  By age seven, we know how to read, and we’ve acquired the skills to set complete sentences to paper, although those sentences may be rudimentary and the words charmingly misspelled.

While cleaning out my mother’s old house, I came across one of the very first books I ever wrote: Jungle Journey.  I’d bound it with needle and thread, and illustrated it with pictures of a blue zebra.  (Why is the zebra blue?  I have no idea.) 

Micky the zebra decided to go on a walk through the jungle.  He knew he wasn’t supposed to, but he didn’t know why.  His mother told him never to go into the jungle alone…

Yes, even eight year olds know about foreshadowing.

Micky came to a big tree.  There was a parrot in it.  “Don’t go into the jungle,” he said…

Two pages in, and you can already guess what’s coming next: Something Really Bad. Is this kid destined to be a thriller writer, or what?

All through my childhood, I wrote.  Short stories.  Poems.  Novellas.  I wrote and produced plays and musicals, composed the songs, and was editor of my high school newspaper.  One evening, after a school assembly, my high school English teacher pulled my parents aside and told them: “I’ve never met any student who was more clearly destined to be a writer.”  She knew what I was.  I knew what I was.  

But I had no idea how one actually made a career as a writer.  I’d never met a real, live writer, so I had no one to turn to for advice.  And then there was the question of practicality, uttered by father: “How are you ever going to make a living at it?”  He was the son of Chinese immigrants, an ethnic group known for its practicality and focus on economic security.  Did you ever wonder why so many Chinese Americans end up in medicine, engineering, and computer sciences?  Because that’s where the jobs are.  So that’s where our parents push us.

I dutifully listened to my father, set aside my dreams of being a writer and became a pre-med student instead.  But I never did let go of the dream.  And when I returned to it a decade later, I was all the better prepared, and more determined than ever, to be a writer. 

I’m not the only kid who was almost talked out of a career in the arts, usually by well-meaning parents.  I sometimes hear from other Asian Americans who are miserable in their jobs, and wish they’d followed their hearts.  One computer engineer confessed to me that since he was a child, he’d wanted to be a fashion designer, but his parents pushed him into the sciences instead.  “Now I’m too old to chase my dream,” he said.  “Who’s going to hire a 45-year-old rookie fashion designer?”  One Korean American actor who did follow his dream, and now regularly lands roles in both TV and feature films, complained that his mother still asks him when he’s going to give up that Hollywood nonsense and apply to medical school.  

Well-meaning parents everywhere, of every color, have probably offered a variation of the same advice I heard from my dad.  “I know it’s what you love to do, son, but will you be able to to pay the bills?” Countless budding careers of artists and writers have probably been snuffed out by that common-sense voice of responsibility.  You can’t really blame parents, who are simply doing what parents through the ages have always done: ensured the survival of their offspring.  

Sometimes that advice to “choose a more practical career” is exactly what an aspiring writer needs to hear.  It prepares him for the harsh reality of this business.  It forces him to think about whether he truly is committed to his art. It winnows out those whose writing aspirations are wobbly or fleeting. The truth is, many authors won’t be able to support their families on their writing. They’ll wake up years later, with five or ten published novels under their belt and a stack of unpaid bills on the dining table, and they’ll think: “Dad was right.  I should have been a proctologist.”  If that prospect unnerves you and stops you from following your dream, then maybe you don’t have the drive, the passion, the sheer stubbornness, to be a writer.  Maybe your dream was never meant to be.    

But if you push ahead despite warnings from your parents, your wife, and your accountant, maybe you’re just insane enough to make it in this business.  

16 thoughts on “They’ll try to talk you out of it

  1. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I am so THERE with you, Tess. Thankfully, my mom has always been supportive of my writing and film aspirations. My dad, however, was a pediatrician, and felt I should find something more practical. It’s been a huge struggle living the separate lives – day job VS night writer – the compartmentalizing alone will send you to therapy.
    I remember my mom once asked a film produce she met what she should tell her son, who wanted to get into the film business. The producer said, "Tell him NOT to do it. Tell him there’s no future in it, that very few people ever succeed. If he doesn’t listen to you then he’ll be fine."
    By the way, my first story came at age 8 – "Sammy the Dinosaur."

  2. Rob Gregory Browne

    Tess, I was one of the fortunate ones. Both of my parents always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, both as a musician and a writer. My father even served as my first "agent" when I was seventeen and trying to sell episodic television scripts. It saddens me that he never got to see me achieve my dream. He would have been thrilled.

    I spent many, many years working lousy, low paying jobs as I pursued my dream. Someone once said — Paul Schrader, I think — that if you’re pursuing a career in the arts, you should only take the crappiest, most miserable jobs you can find, because then you’ll work that much harder on your REAL career to get you out of your misery.

    Makes sense to me.

  3. Tom

    Rob, that’s very good advice (whoever gave it – you, for now).

    One of my strongest memories is of my mother sitting in the audience for one of my song recitals. In the midst of the Brahms ‘Four Serious Songs’ there were tears streaming down her face. She didn’t speak much German, so I knew the text hadn’t reached her. Afterward she told me she was crying because she didn’t know how I’d ever make a living as a singer.

    On the other hand, she thought it would be perfectly fine for me to be a journalist or a technical writer. That was work she could understand.

  4. Louise Ure

    My age-seven effort was THE TRUE BOOK OF FAIRY TALES. There was a piece of fruit as the protagonist in each fable, and at the end each one died, and I quote, “a horrible and painful death.” Like the Proud Orange who treated all the other oranges like servants, so he was skinned alive, torn apart while he screamed, and then wrung out for juice. I was a budding fatalist.

  5. Boyd Morrison

    I had the exact opposite reaction from my friends, family, and colleagues when I left my job at Microsoft five years ago to become a full-time writer. My close friends and family, including my wife, were very supportive, but I thought I would get many colleagues saying, "You’re leaving a secure job at Microsoft to become a writer? Are you crazy?" I was pleasantly surprised when not one person said that. In fact, my colleagues were happy for me, and some of them even told me privately that they were jealous that I was leaving to follow my dream.

    That kind of support has made a huge difference to me. It took more than four years of frustration and rejection, but I finally got a publisher, and having people cheering me on during that stretch was a major reason I kept going.

  6. Dana King

    I’m a classically trained musician, and spent several years after gard school trying (unsuccessfully) to get a career off the ground. Friends have come up to me from time to time when a child or rlative wants to go to music, to ask for my advice. I always recommend talking the kid out of it. Not forbidding, not arguing about it, but trying to persuade him otherwise. Music’s a hard way to make a living. If the kid can be talked out of it, he’s got no chance. If he can’t be talked out of it, he might. Either way, get him talking about options.

    The primary difference I see between writing and music is writers can build their chops in their spare time; musicians can’t, not if they hope to play at a professinal level. I think it’s because playing music is a physical act that exists in time; you have to produce it right now, and it will be different every time. We writers get to work it until we like how it sounds, then leave it alone. True, we’re never finished (somehting can always be better), but once it’s done, it is what it is. A musician mqay play the same piece three days in a row with three different results.

  7. Allison Brennan

    Yes, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I never finished anything I started, unless it was an assignment for school. I had dozens of beginnings–hundreds by the time I was thirty–but no endings. When I was thirteen, I wrote Stephen King a fan letter after I read THE STAND. I told him I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. He sent back a post card that said, "If you want to be a writer, write." Duh, but I didn’t get it at the time (I wasn’t stupid–I was a straight-A student–but I was dense.)

    I quit my 13 year career in the California State Legislature when I sold my first book. It was a huge leap of faith. We cut expenses across the board, pulled the little kids out of day care to save money, and re-fied the house to cut our monthly payments. I paid myself a "salary" from my advance, but it was tight. I knew that if my books failed, I would be crawling back to my boss begging for my old job back. That was something I really, really, REALLY did not want to do.

    My husband was nervous, but supportive. My mom has always been supportive of anything I’ve wanted to do. After I quit my day job, though I was stressed about money and failure, my oldest daughter, then 11, told me she’d never seen me happier.

    The only naysayers I met when I made this decision were from other writers–all published–who told me I was a fool. This I didn’t understand because I thought they’d be more supportive of my dream because they shared it. It was my first taste of professional jealousy.

  8. Leigh

    My mom actually went against what people told her many times (Becoming a teacher, raising a child on her own) so when I looked at her at the age of 9 and said, "I want to be a writer" she hugged me, replying, "what do you need me to do to help?" I’m very grateful to her for that.

  9. Jill James

    Tess, parents are such an influence to their children. I wanted to be a doctor when I was little. A brain surgeon or a heart specialist. My dad said, "you can’t be a doctor, you’re a girl." Those words stayed with me for a long time. So maybe I didn’t want to be a doctor strongly enough, but I know I want to be a writer, therefore, I write.

  10. Ray Rhamey

    I wanted to be a cartoonist by age seven, and that has morphed into storyteller, novelist, screenwriter,etc. I was discouraged from pursuing my cartooning by my dad. He never said, but I suspect he didn’t see "artist" as either economically viable or manly. Nonetheless, one of my projects of the future is a graphic novel, written and drawn by me. It’s just a part of being who you are, just as you did, Tess. Excellent post.


  11. Autumn Jordon

    OH, Rob, what Paul said is so true. I work in my family business. Working for family with family has its perks but the frustration, tension, crappiest out weighs the perks a thousand to one. That postion drives me everyday to study the craft and write.

    Autumn Jordon
    2009 Golden Heart Finalist

  12. BCB

    I’ve always known I was a writer, I just didn’t know it was something you could "be" in terms of employment. I can’t say anyone really discouraged me — seeing as how growing up I never aspired to Be A Writer — but my family certainly expected me to do something other than that to earn a living. And I have, and am.

    More than a dozen years ago I started writing a romance novel. I wasn’t going to tell anyone because I was secretly ashamed to be writing what other people commonly considered to be "trash." But I mentioned it to one of my sisters. Who, sworn to secrecy, promptly told my dad. My dad was a HS English teacher, a brilliant writer and one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. Really, I did not want him to know I was writing a trashy romance novel, even though I loved them and still do.

    He called me and asked about it, and I admitted my folly. He said, "Stop what you’re doing. Don’t write another word until you read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I know you read it in high school [in his class, BTW]. Read it again. Then we’ll talk." I said, "But, dad, I’m just writing a stupid romance novel." Like maybe he hadn’t understood that part. [Yes, that remark now prompts feelings of shame.] He said, "Good fiction is good fiction. Read it and then we’ll talk." Sadly, he died before we could have that talk.

    Life intervened, that first horrid attempt got shoved in a box where it belonged, and it has only been in the past several years that I’ve begun writing fiction again in earnest. And not romance this time, but a thriller. Okay, it does have a bit of romance in it. But I’ll never forget those simple words of validation and dad’s insistence that, whatever I was writing, I should take it seriously. "Good fiction is good fiction."

    As a consequence, I’ve been very mindful of what I say to my own kids about what they can or should do with their futures. It’s never too late to encourage a person to live up to their creative potential, but earlier is better.


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