Each weekday morning, Mr. C got his art students set up at their easels before he propped open the back door of his classroom. Crisp fall or spring air hit our sleepy teenage faces as we stood together mixing paints. With his back to us, we couldn’t see Mr. C’s solid booze-belly or his unruly nicotine-stained white beard. But the smell of the cigarettes he’d dangle out the doorway, smoking one after the other as he stared out over the pond behind his classroom, wafted in on the breeze.
Mr. C had taught art at the local high school since long before I was born. As far as we knew, he had never married or had children. His life was his art, his students and the pack of Marlboro Reds in his pocket. He treated his students with a gruff and grudging mix of respect and disdain, one minute barking at us not to act like “twits” and the next making one of us feel like the next Picasso as he examined and complimented our work.
“I’m gonna give you all the best bit of advice you’ll ever hear,” he said one morning, his smoker’s voice rumbling through the room. “You’ll be graduating soon. When you get outta here, get yourselves a coupla jobs. A day job and a night job. Spend your twenties working your asses off. Live on one job, save every penny from the other. Then, when you get to be older, you can just get yourself a nice little part-time gig and live on your savings. Get it in while you’re young, because when you’re old you’re gonna want to rest.”
It never dawned on any of us to ask Mr. C whether he’d followed his own advice, and if so why he was still teaching full-time even though his visage made Santa Claus look like a youngster.
Anyone who knows me realizes I never followed Mr. C’s advice. One full-time job has always been more than enough for me. In my 20s, I could barely figure out how to hold one down without my house looking more dusty and cluttered than my college apartment ever had.
Truthfully, I’m glad that me and everyone else I still keep in touch with from that art class blew off Mr. C’s idea of a life roadmap. In the years since I stood listening to his advice with a dripping paintbrush in one hand, I’ve learned a lot about life. Specifically, that every moment of it is precious and we are never guaranteed another one to follow. With that in mind, I think working your youth away completely while banking on some promise of a relaxing old age is stupid. Among the hundreds of students Mr. C taught over the years, some may not have seen even 30 or 40, let alone old age. Spending the time they did have on Earth working round the clock would have been a rock-sucking waste.
That doesn’t mean I think Mr. C’s advice was entirely without merit. I’m glad I didn’t work two jobs in my 20s. But I’m desperately sorry that I didn’t take my writing goals more seriously back then. It took me until my 40s to begin honoring my passion for writing and chasing my dream. Who knows what I could have done if I’d approached my stories with even some level of commitment during those previous 20 years?
When I take Mr. C’s “work your ass off while you’re young” advice literally, I think it sucks. But if I look at it from a more figurative perspective, and translate it into something more like “chase your dreams while you have that youthful energy,” then I’m the dumbass for not listening to him.
The reality of human nature is that many of us have more boundless energy, more open minds, more willingness to dive in with both feet and try new things, and more inspiration and idealism when we are young. I realize now that beginning to run after my dream so late in life was a mistake. Before you all think I’m rolling on a Debbie Downer road here, I’m not saying that jumping in late in life is futile. Far from it, in fact. But only by recognizing this handicap can I, as a writer with a full-time job, ever hope to overcome it.
If the energy of youth came simply from being young and walking around in a body that sported less wear and tear, I’d turn in my game card and say, “well, screw me sideways. There’s no way I can change the fact that I’ve been around long enough to have strained eyes and a few gray hairs and a body that can’t hang with the big boys at the bar til 2 a.m and still make it to work in the morning like I did at 25.”
But I believe physical youth is only one facet of the mindset. I can’t do a beer bong like I did at 21. And if I tried to pull an all-nighter to write a paper or study for an exam and still make it to work in the morning now, I’d be snoozing and drooling on my desk by 10 a.m. But in these last two years of being a 40-something writer chasing a dream, I have learned that there’s a lot of my youth I can recapture.
Actually, let me rephrase that. There’s a lot of my youth that I MUST recapture if I hope to have any success at holding down a demanding job, maintaining a home, and writing.
Here are 5 things I’ve channeled from my college-age self that have helped me in my venture.
1. Taking risks. For some reason, we are never more willing to try something new than we are when we are young. At 19, I had no qualms about accepting a position as editor of a weekly college newspaper after working there less than two months. If someone asked me to do that now, I’d say “are you serious? Give me some of what you’re drinking.” To decide that I really CAN be a administrative manager by day and an essaysist and novelist by whatever-hours-are-leftover, I had to dig down deep and find that girl who knew she could do anything.
2. Thinking outside the box. At 20, we don’t quite have preconceived notions of what we should be doing every day. We might be in school, or working, or both. We might be playing a sport or sneaking into a bar. We might be living with mom and dad or hunkering down in a tiny apartment with three roommates. At 40, we’ve been beaten down by years of “keeping up with the Joneses.” We SHOULD host gatherings in our lovely suburban homes. If we aren’t working, we SHOULD be the perfect mom/dad/chauffer/community volunteer/school helper/cook/hostess with the mostess. If we ARE working, we should probably still find a way to do all that too.
While doing this, we should of course be the image of style and grace.
No wonder so many grownups are on anxiety meds. To be a full-time worker (not by choice) who writes (by choice), I’ve had to re-learn how to say screw what society expects of me. I’m not the hostess with the mostess, and I won’t be at the next fundraiser. Since my life is about working like a plow horse, I’ve given up looking like a show pony. Learning to focus on MY priorities for my time and energy rather than worrying about what others might think of me has been critical.
3. Simplifying. As a college student, I had no choice but to simplify. Dinner was most likely ramen noodles or ghetto-mac-n-cheese, because that’s what I could afford. “Cleaning” consisted of doing the dishes piled in the sink, running the vacuum, and shoving the dirty laundry under the bed. That was the best I could do since I also had multiple part-time jobs, a full schedule of classes, and a fridge full of beer to bring to that night’s party. As a grownup writer with a day job, I’ve had to re-learn how to be okay with that. I’ve had to convince myself that the dustbunnies can hang out under the bed a little longer and the laundry in the hamper won’t need therapy if I wait until tomorrow to do it, because right now, I’m WRITING.
4. Using my imagination. Those who believe in ghostly encounters swear that they happen more commonly to children because youngsters haven’t yet closed their minds to the inexplicable. I don’t know what I believe about that. But I do know that many of us are more imaginative and open-minded when we are young. Over the years, we get beaten down into routines and expectations. We get looked at like we’re crazy for throwing an off-the-cuff idea out into the universe, and so we learn to shove those thoughts deep into our mental closets. We decide that life is more easily managed if we armor ourselves in disbelief.
I am writing a novel about a manwhore who returns from the dead as a naked and loveably obnoxious ghost. That takes a little reconnecting with my old “anything is possible” college way of thinking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought “but is that BELIEVABLE?” as I’ve written a scene.
Well, no – in the literal sense, no one is going to believe there’s a naked man-whore at the porch window frantically waving his tallywacker because he’s having a panic attack over it being invisible. But did I believe in the healing power of vampire blood when I read the Sookie Stackhouse collection? Do I look around for dragons because I’m into Game of Thrones?
It has taken some serious mental reprogramming to remind myself that while I really don’t believe that Pennywise lives in the sewers or there’s a chick out there who can make dragons hatch, I can still become totally immersed in the writing of Stephen King or George R. R. Martin.
5. Having fun. In college, I always got the best grades in the classes I enjoyed. I started out convincing myself that I should major in social work and psychology so that I could get a decent job after graduation. I switched to English and writing within a year, because those were the classes I poured my heart into and aced.
In my adult life, I’ve been a writer who always thinks she should finish what she starts, even if the joy goes out of it. I’ve had to retrain myself a little. I don’t want to give up on something just because I’ve hit a rough patch. At the same time, that doesn’t mean I can’t set it aside and work on another piece that IS making me tick for a while. I already have a job that isn’t fun. If I turn writing into another one, I will most surely stop doing it.
So thank you, Mr. C. I’m glad I didn’t drone away my youth as you advised. But you did remind me of the strength of youth. I can’t go back in time or do a whole lot about these laugh lines. But when I set my mind to it, recapturing some of the attitude and energy of my college days so that I can be a better writer has been easy.
That’s part of the reason I’m still making art – even if it is “word art” instead of oil paintings these days.
Oh, and yard art too!