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.