More From “Turning Pro”
Last Wednesday I posted in this space the first two chapters from Turning Pro. This week I want to include the following four. Mainly because I think they work nicely as a unit—and because together they give a real flavor for what the book is and what it’s about.
Next week: back to our regular Writing Wednesdays. Now, chapters three through six from Turning Pro:
3. MY LIFE AS AN AMATEUR
When I was in my twenties, I lived for a winter in a boarding house in Durham, North Carolina that served as a halfway station for patients emerging from state mental hospitals. I wasn’t a mental patient myself, but the law of metaphor had brought me to this place as surely as if I had been.
The people in the halfway house were by no means “crazy.” They were as interesting and complex a collection of individuals as I had ever met. I made friends. I found a home.
We did a lot of talking in the evenings in the halfway house. We gathered over coffee in the communal kitchen and talked about books or politics or whether aliens were really messengers from the future or from God.
I was the only one in the halfway house who had a job. I was making $1.75 an hour in the body shop of a trucking company, training to become an over-the-road trucker. Everyone else in the halfway house got a check from the state. Social workers appeared from time to time to evaluate the people in the halfway house, to check on their progress and to counsel them in their re-integration into society and the real world.
I began to wonder how I came to be in this house with these people. Why did I feel so at home? Was this my destiny?
Then one night I had a dream. In the dream I came into my room and found that my shirts had all folded themselves in the drawer (instead of being mashed together in their usual jumbled mess.) My boots had crawled out from under the bed where I normally kicked them when I took them off. The boots had set themselves upright and tidy. They had shined themselves.
When I woke up, I thought, “I’m ambitious! I have ambition!”
I didn’t tell anyone in the halfway house about the dream. In fact I haven’t told anyone to this day. I kept the dream private. It was my secret.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the idea that I had ambition. I felt guilty about it. Who was I to aspire to “rise above” my brothers and sisters or to aim to be “better” than anybody else?
In the halfway house, the dominant emotion was fear. No one ever spoke of it, but fear pervaded every centimeter of that living space. Everyone in the house had, in his or her own way, experienced the disintegration of their personality. Everyone had fallen a long way, fallen hard and fallen alone. Everyone in that house had looked his own annihilation in the face, and it had scared the hell out of him.
I decided that I had to leave the halfway house. I found a cinderblock cabin along a highway in the country that rented for fifteen dollars a week. I still have a photo of that house. The house had no electricity, no toilet, no running water and no heat. It had a front door but no back door. There was no furniture and no windows. I slept on a mattress that I pushed into a corner where the rain couldn’t reach it. I cooked my meals outdoors in back, over a fire of pine kindling that I collected from the woods.
I had started driving for the trucking company then. I was getting assigned my first loads and being sent out on the road for the first time, so it didn’t matter too much where I had my home address. I was sleeping most nights in the truck’s sleeper berth and eating my meals in cafes and truck stops on the road.
The reason I keep a photo of that house is that it changed my life. To find that house and to move into it was the first act I had taken, as an adult, that embraced the idea of ambition.
Ambition, I have come to believe, is the most primal and sacred fundament of our being. To feel ambition and to act upon it is to embrace the unique calling of our soul. Not to act upon that ambition is to turn our back on ourselves and on the reason for our existence.
Those first stirrings of ambition saved me and put me on the path to becoming an artist and a professional.
4. MY FIRST HERO
There was a redheaded cat who used to come around sometimes when I lived in that house in the country. He was a battle-scarred old tom who lived in the woods. On nights when I was home, I would cook supper over a little fire out back. The cat would materialize and sit across from me while I ate. I tried to toss him scraps of food from time to time, but he wouldn’t take them. He was nobody’s pet.
The geography of our dinners together was that I would sit on the cinderblock step at the back of the house. The fire was in front of me inside a circle of stones on a patch of grass. Ten feet away the woods started. The redheaded cat would sit on the edge of the woods, across from me. He didn’t lie down. He sat up, facing me, with his big front paws beneath him.
The cat regarded me with an expression that was somewhere between condescension and disdain. There was no doubt in either of our minds which one of us was the superior being or which one possessed self-command and self-sovereignty. There was no doubt which one could take care of himself and which one had his shit together. That cat looked at me like he was deciding whether or not to kick my ass.
I admired that redheaded cat. He became a role model for me. I wanted to be like that redheaded cat. I missed him when he didn’t show up.
I regarded the apparition of that redheaded cat as a good omen and a sign that, maybe, I was on the right path.
5. MY SMITH-CORONA
What was really happening in that house in the country?
What was happening was I was hiding.
In the back of my Chevy van, under piles of junk and rusting spare parts, sat my ancient Smith-Corona typewriter. Why didn’t I throw it away? I certainly wasn’t using it.
Fear and shame hung over me and over that house, just as they permeated every crack and cranny of the halfway house back in town. I was terrified of sitting down at that Smith-Corona and trying to write something and ashamed of myself because I knew that but I was still too scared to act.
My ambition was to write, but I had buried it so deep that it only peeked out in dreams and moments of insight that appeared at odd instants and then vanished without a trace.
Everything I was doing in my outer life was a consequence and an expression of that terror and that shame.
6. SHADOW CAREERS
Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. The shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.
Are you pursuing a shadow career?
Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan Studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk being an innovator yourself?
If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for.
That metaphor will point you toward your true calling.