The wonderful conceit of this question is in thinking that I have a career to begin with. I mean I guess I do? The question though is what is it? I’m certainly a writer and a professor, but am I something else as well?
Let’s go with the obvious and take both, call it a dual career. So, in that case, I’m a writer and teacher…right now. Have I considered others? Of course I have, who hasn’t? But here’s the thing: Before I got here, being a writer and a teacher, I did several other things. Now sure, I’ve talked about some of these particular occupational detours before, but that’s really all they were, detours. They weren’t really careers.
But they could have been.
I had this problem when I was younger. Whenever I’d see something interesting or exciting, I’d decide I wanted to make it a career. Call it a function of capitalism that I bought into the idea that everything had to be monetized, that the idea of doing something solely and strictly for fun didn’t make sense to me. Even things I wasn’t particularly good at. In high school, I had learned the elementary basics of special effects make-up and got myself a gig I was woefully unprepared for creating monsters for a local radio DJ.
At one point, after I moved to LA, I had taken a couple of sign language classes and found myself acting as an interpreter for a jr. high school student. To be honest, I knew I was unqualified for this gig, as did the people hiring me, but due to politics, they needed someone there and I was it. I lasted a day before being (rightfully) dismissed and having a bit of a breakdown while talking to my mom on a payphone I had stopped at on my way home.
As far as careers go, though, I really thought about being a diver. There was something romantic about being a dive instructor at a tropical dive resort, working at a bar during the slow times, and filling the rest with writing or card tricks. The only problem, of course, was that I’m very much afraid of the water and completely not comfortable underneath it. This is a definite detriment for devoting a good deal of your life to something. Interestingly, I only had these pipe dreams after the second time I was certified as a diver under the aegis of City Scuba*. Along those same lines, and maybe even leading to it, who knows, I thought about being a marine biologist.
When I was taking classes at SMC (the same place I took the sign language courses), I took a marine bio lab with a guy named Ed Tarvyd. He was amazing. He told some phenomenal stories and if you weren’t already in love with the ocean and its inhabitants, you would be after taking this class. I was already a fan so this course was just icing on the cake for me.
I remember going out for a day of trawling on the Vantuna, a research vessel which operated out of the Long Beach harbor. Aside from probably getting sick (I have horrible motion/sea sickness, yet another reason this would have been a bad career choice) I remember this day vividly. The trawl brought up an octopus, which I got to hold, and Ed ate a raw shrimp, biting off its head and sucking out its tale (again, my recollection may be a bit fuzzy, but I believe there was a bet involved somewhere along the way). To this day, I still tell stories I heard in Tarvyd’s class and things I learned there, I’ve put to use in a variety of ways.
I was so enamored of wanting to be a marine biologist, I even went so far as to try and apply to the program at UCLA. When I had decided to go back to school and get my bachelor’s degree**, the first thing I did was go to UCLA and meet with a guidance counselor to find out about enrolling in the Marine Bio program. I was told that even though I had the one lab (and that I’d taken an oceanography course as well) it really didn’t matter. My AA degree would be basically useless and I’d have to start over. Okay, I was reluctantly willing to do that. Then the kicker: This was just before the spring semester of 2002 and I was told there was no way I would be able to start before fall of 2003, 18 months away. That was unacceptable for a number of reasons so instead, I signed up for an English 102*** course which I needed to transfer to CSUDH that fall in their English department with the idea of getting a teaching credential for secondary education.
And that brings us to how I chose at least one of my careers: I didn’t. I went to CSUDH for two semesters before leaving LA and transferring to UNLV back in Las Vegas, where I finished my English Literature BA and went on to get the MFA, which is what allowed me to teach at university and become the brilliant professor I am today. See, when I started the MFA program, the financial aid package included teaching a couple of classes. What I discovered when I was doing that was that I really enjoyed teaching. It was something that gave me pleasure and a sense of fulfillment. So really, I kind of just fell into that. I didn’t seek it out or even have any clue I would want to do it.
As for the other career? I’ve been a storyteller since I was old enough to talk. Film and theatre got in there as well, as ways to tell those stories, but it was the stories themselves where I excelled. When I first moved out to LA, it was the writing which drew me more than the performing (which was another possibility to be sure) and so when I had the opportunities to further one or the other, I always chose writing. I read a really bad science fiction novel and decided I could do that so I started writing SF stories and scripts. When I went looking for a book about the film industry for a job, I discovered it didn’t exist so I decided I could do that, too, and wrote that book. When my neighbors were starting a motorcycle magazine, I volunteered to be the film critic.
And so here I am, on my 54th birthday, an award-winning writer and an award-winning professor. I guess I made the right choice.
*the first time I was certified was when I was a freshman at the University of Utah and living with my friend G. Lorin Nelson and his family, who happened to own a dive shop. And one day, I’m sure I’ll tell that story.
**a process which wasn’t nearly as benign as I’ve made it out to be
***where I met my friend Will Noetling and we made a truly wonderful video updating Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”