Mr. C Had a Point …

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!

About hawleywood40

Writer, Steelers Fan in Baltimore, Frequent Visitor to the Shot Fairy
This entry was posted in Childhood Memories, Creativity, Memoirs, Personal Development Mumbo-Jumbo Stuff, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Mr. C Had a Point …

  1. conspiracyqueen says:

    You made me laugh….Mr. C… snoring and drooling on your desk by 10 am. Funny, in three years I’ll be fifty. This week is my first week of being part-time employed. Today, I actually went through 85 pages of my MS cutting out massive back story and fixing a problem with a wedding veil. YAY! However, my savings is skinny. Oh, well….I’l be a famous novelist soon.:)

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Shelly – wow! The “cutting back” part is one of the hardest parts of writing for me. When I’m “on a roll” I’m on a roll, and a lot of it needs to go later. I can definitely see how working part-time instead of full-time would get you in the mindset for what is one of the more arduous tasks of writing. ENJOY!!!!

  2. Marcia says:

    After your dissenting thoughts on Mr C’s advice, a lot of what you say would support his advice as being a good idea. Don’t hate me, but I do believe that working and saving while you’re young and unencumbered is a good idea. You only have yourself to look out for and support so, it’s easy to have two jobs and bank all the extra cash. You save yourself a lot of financial angst later on. I also believe there’s time to play at being young while doing the work.
    There are as few people who don’t live beyond their 20s as there are few people who reach their dreams in their 20s. A 20-something is still quite self-involved and oftentimes can’t see the ‘big picture’ or anything outside of his little world. Major decisions made in your 20s are not always the right ones and relationships don’t always work out because you don’t even know yourself yet, let alone know how to be a wife/husband to someone else.
    That being said, it’s probably clear that I didn’t follow Mr. C’s advice, which was also my father’s advice, but only because I defied my dad at every turn. Life would certainly have easier if I had, though. Just sayin. But we all have to choose our own paths and form our vision of our lives. I’m happy you found your passion again and are finding time to write…you do it so well, my friend. :)

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Marcia, I could never hate you : ). Not only because you’re awesome, but because you do make some really good points. I definitely agree that the time in your life that you are young and unencumbered is the best time to plan for your future, but also see it as the best time to chase your dreams and do the things you might not do later in life because of increased responsibility. Like, I wish I would have had the gumption to stay on and get my master’s degree in college instead of jumping right into buying a house and working full-time – I was so overwhelmed with the thought of student loan debt that I shied away from that and took what I saw as the “responsible’ route instead. I don’t need that master’s degree to be a writer, of course, but if I had made different choices I might have ended up going on and being a prof who got to go on sabbaticals to write my book : ). I’d never advocate any youth working two (full-time) “just to pay the bills job” for more than a short time if there was any other option for them, because I don’t think that leaves enough left over to figure you what you’re passionate about in life and experience the things you might not do later (like travel if you can, without children). But adding a job that gets you closer to your passions to the one you have to pay the bills? Absolutely. If I had treated writing like a job back then instead of waiting until now …. well, who knows : ).

  3. Terri Sonoda says:

    Hi Pamela; Wow, there’s so much to comment on from this wonderful post! First otf all, bless Mr. C’s heart, but I must completely disagree with him. Although I did work my ass off in my 20s, I still found time to have a blast, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for a basketful of money. That being
    said, I also limited myself back then, trying to please everyone except myself….and do the “right things”. I was in the Air Force, and a model airman, wife and mom. Yes, I had writing aspirations way back then, but shoved them deep to the back of my mind as being whimsy and selfish. I’ve only brought them out in the last two years. Unfortunately, in my 50s, I do not have the energy I would have had back then. However, I do take those risks and use my vivid imagination. Due to unemployment, I have been forced to simplify and I’ve always been one to think outside the box, much to the dismay of some of my partners. Ahem….
    So I guess I’m doing ok. Time will tell. I certiainly won’t give up. And? You post gave me some much needed inspiration and new energy. Heck, I’m headed off to write something. Thanks Pamela and Godspeed to you and you endeavors. HUGSSS
    Terri

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Terri – yay! So glad this got you in a writing mood : )! Like you, I wouldn’t trade some of my 20-something (or 30-something, for that matter) memories for a basket of money. While I’d love to have that money now, I know myself well enough to realize that if I HAD made it by working even more than I did, I probably would have blown it on pampering myself because I was bummed about working all the time! Instead, I have experiences that make me smile, and others that make me say “WTF!” And they all seem to find their way way to the forefront when I’m writing.

  4. Another thoughtful and wonderful post. You may not have loved everything Mr. C had to say, but you took away some wise life lessons.

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