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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Nothing to fall back on


I’ve been reflecting on the question Colleen posed yesterday. “So what keeps you struggling uphill? Do you have any special motivational techniques, especially ones that help when there's as yet no deadline looming?” My answer is pretty ignoble: I have nothing to fall back on.

Jimmy Carter had great hopes for me. I got a personally signed letter from the then-president when I scored in the top one percent of students nationwide on my SATs. It was all about how confident he was that I and my fellow smarty-britches would change the world with our smart, smart smartness and big, bold ambition. He didn’t mention that the world would roll on quite comfortably without me as I partied away my scholarships and spent the next year hopping freights and playing guitar on the street, my sole ambition being the acquisition of enough loose change to buy a packet of Ramen noodles and a bottle of Boons Farm apple wine.

Once I’d grown up and settled down, I had a burning desire to return to college and pursue one of the two greatest professions on the planet: English teacher or librarian. I didn’t dare voice the ridiculous idea that I wanted to write books for a living, but I pursued that as a passionate hobby between diaper changes. Gary and I agreed that I would return to school when our younger tadpole aged into kindergarten. Instead, I spent that year in cancer treatment. We were wiped out financially, and I was faced with a prognosis that reframed “lucky” to mean five more years of life. Three years of college was out of the question on several levels, but I’d learned through that experience that no matter how long or short my life turned out to be, I could not afford to spend one day of it being a terribly talented dabbler. If I was about to die, I decided, I was going to by-God die trying.

When I placed my first novel with a publisher, I felt like a total pretender, but my editor told me that a lifetime of voracious reading and unguarded living is the best possible education for some writers. He also (and mostly without laughing out loud) let me know how naïve I was to think that a contract on my debut novel meant I was going to make a living as an author. The following decade of financial Thunder Mountain Railroad proved him right, but sorting through my 1099s each year, I was happy to discover that I’d made more than I could have if I'd pursued any of the day jobs available to me, and there have been a few briefly shining times when I out-earned my massively over-educated husband.

What keeps me struggling uphill? Well, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells the war-weary Arjuna that it is better to die than to live a long existence that is not your own. A mother and a writer—that’s what I am. In my values system, driving a nicer car is not an acceptable substitute for doing what one is meant to do. But holding me to my noblest ideas of self and vocation is the pragmatic reality that I left myself no avenue of retreat. What keeps me struggling uphill is that the only thing I have at the bottom of the hill is cart-wrangling at Target. Armed with my high school diploma and glowing letter of recommendation from Jimmy Carter, I'd be forging a glamorous career in food service or hotel housekeeping.

What keeps me focused even when I have no deadline? Pure unadulterated pie-eyed optimism. A dogged belief that God’s hand is on me. I simply will never accept that God made me this way and brought me to this place as a cosmic joke.

“Who are we to question our purpose?” one of my critique partners said to me recently. Powerful words. I will remember them and know that God’s hand is still on me, even if I end up back on the street, playing guitar for Ramen.

(Photo above is a Philip Gendreau photo of model Beverly Stevenson doing a swan-dive, ca. 1940s.)

2 comments:

Colleen Thompson said...

You're story's one heck of an inspiration... and positive that an informal education in the real world is at least as capable of producing genius as the biggest and best diploma factory.

And I firmly believe the Powers That Be didn't spare your life so you can push carts. I'd bet the farm on that.

TJ Bennett said...

Joni, one of the things I have always admired about you is your willingness to fly without a net. No safety ropes for you, baby. You leave it all on the page, both figuratively and literally.

Would that I had that kind of courage, but I'm a "safety" kind of gal. I like to drag that mattress under me so I know I'll be able to bounce if and when I hit the ground. More power to you, girl.

TJB