I just started reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” and a passage from the preface resonated with me: “Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child – What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”
I could relate to this because I drew, sculpted, painted, and wrote when I was little and adults asked me all the time if I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. The question baffled me. “I am an artist,” was my standard reply. I wondered if there was something I was missing about their question, or if adulthood came with limitations. My parents assured me it was a simple misunderstanding, with a smidge of the latter. They encouraged me to ignore the expectations of others and follow my passions, wherever they led. They were right. My road has been winding and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I never could have foreseen where I am now. As a child, though, because adults kept asking, I said “a veterinarian.” Which was true, until I realized at 10 years old the sight of blood makes me faint. Regardless, I continued with that answer for a few years, until I got away with the surly teenage answer of “I dunno.”
So how about you, my fellow Miss Demeanors? What did you say when grown-ups asked you what you wanted to be?
Susan: I’ve been thinking about this myself and can answer it exactly! My father was a disabled World War II veteran and our income depended on payments from the VA, as did my college education. They were forever giving me aptitude tests and invariably I scored well on the writing portion. So the VA and I were pretty much in agreement that I would be a writer. It just took me some time to figure out how to make money at it. (Still working on that.) But I did work as a reporter for a long time, and I remember how proud my VA representative was when he saw my name in Fortune Magazine.
Paula: I grew up in the military so being an artist of any kind seemed out of reach . Artists were special people and I certainly didn’t know any. Books were magical things written by magical creatures. Not to mention being a writer was not a real job. I wanted to be a cultural anthropologist when I was 12 and went through my Desmond Morris phase. Then I wanted to be a psychologist until I read The Three Faces of Eve, which scared me off that idea. When I was in the ninth grade, I had a wonderful English teacher named Mrs. Berentz and she told my mother that she should encourage me to be a writer. I was 14 and I didn’t want to do anything my parents encouraged me to do. So I studied geophysics in college. But I figured if I ever wanted to be a writer I could because Mrs. Berentz said so. When I needed to make extra money in college, I started freelancing.
Cate: I’ve wanted to be a writer since age seven, when I sent an illustrated book to scholastic and got a rejection note that said “keep trying.” I got my first journalism job at thirteen at my grandfather’s magazine and my second at fourteen at The Bergen Record, where I wrote obituaries. I wrote for newspaper and magazines for the next sixteen years and wrote fiction on the side, still struggling with how to make the transition to books and getting a ton of rejection letters from agents. Then, after my second kid when I couldn’t handle the breaking news schedule anymore, I began writing fiction full time.
Writing is my way of making sense of the world. I don’t think I could do anything else. I am still trying to figure out how to make money with it but I don’t really have a choice, I think.
Connie: While I hated being asked by adults what I wanted to be when I grew up, I also loved dreaming about my future career. All paths were open to me. Once, my father, who adored antiquities, told me the story of Howard Carter discovering the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. “Can you see anything?” asked his patron, Lord Carnarvon, when Carter had made the first small opening into the tomb. “Yes, wonderful things,” was Carter’s famous answer. I was so swept away in the romance and intrigue of it all that I decided I would be an archaeologist. Later, understanding that most of archaeology involves digging trenches and spending hours crouched in the sun, brushing away sand with a tiny brush, I rethought my career plans. But I’ve never lost my fascination with archaeology and have inherited an ancient tomb figure and several turquoise ushabti, funerary figures placed in Egyptian tombs to act as servants for the deceased, should they be called on to perform manual labor in the afterlife.
Michele: This is a painful question for me. I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer and would say so. I didn’t want to be Della Reese on Perry Mason, I wanted to be the female lawyer played by Joan Hackett on The Defenders. I know, I’m dating myself, but my answer reflects when I was born. I continued to say I wanted to be a lawyer until I entered a Catholic high school where there were three unofficial career lines for girls: 1) Teachers; 2) Nurses; 3) Secretaries. I didn’t want to be a teacher (although I ended up teaching law for 30 years), couldn’t fathom being secretary, so I became a nurse. Ten years later, a decade that saw the glass ceiling beginning to crack and women’s rights advance, I became a lawyer. I attended law school while raising three kids and working part-time, but by god, I did it!
Did I want to be a writer? I didn’t know that was even a possibility for years. While I loved reading books, it didn’t occur to me that I could have the pleasure of writing one. But once I began to write the stories of my clients in court pleadings, I realized how much satisfaction I found making their lives come alive on paper. Only then did I dare to think I might become a writer. The genie was out of the bottle.
And by the way, I’m not sure I’m all grown up! Who knows what’s next?
Alison: A ballerina and an archaeologist. Yes, both. Things did not go to plan. There were surprisingly few positions for pirouetting archeologists. Learning that life unfolds as it unfolds is a lesson that took me some time to accept. Looking back now, I realize what drove me to get my Ph.D. in political science was my fascination with how people create societies; what compelled me to become a lawyer was my belief that words, fairness, and equity matter. Now, I spend my days immersed in words describing how people–at their best and worst–interact in society. Maybe writing is part of some meandering path, but I’m not sure. I subscribe to the idea that life is like kayaking, you never know when you’ll flip under the water and change directions.
Alexia: What did I say when grown-ups asked me what I wanted to be? A doctor. Seriously, since the 7th grade I’ve wanted to be a doctor. Before that? A dentist.
While my parents never discouraged my creative tendencies–they funded a lot of art and writing and dance classes over the years and never said no when I asked for another book–they are pragmatic folks who grew up in rural areas during the Depression. The only “restriction” they placed on my ambitions was that I had to earn a degree beyond my bachelor’s so that I could get a job that would pay my bills. So, not a career as an author. Writing was fine as a hobby. (I was grown before I discovered Mom dreamt of becoming a fashion designer and Dad of becoming a photographer.)
Luckily, “doctor” is a profession that pays the bills. (Teacher was the backup plan. Seriously. I had to take the GRE as well as the MCAT so, just in case I didn’t get into med school, I could go for a Master’s or Doctorate in education. Educators are held in the same esteem as doctors and lawyers in my family. As they should be.) Once I became “Doctor” Gordon, everyone was cool with me becoming “Author Gordon,” too. My family claims bragging rights for both.
Laurie: I didn’t have any ideas of what I wanted into be when I grew up. I didn’t feel like I saw very many choices. I took a survey test once in high school and it said I should be an air traffic controller. (?!?) I loved all my classes and enjoyed the idea of being a woman in a man’s world, the challenge of it. So, since I lived in Michigan —car country— I naturally started thinking about engineering. Thank god my mom had me go to a Women in Engineering program at Michigan Tech U where I quickly learned that though I loved science and math…engineering was not for me. I kind of fell into PR and double majored in English Lit and PR at the University of Michigan which suits me well. I’d always been a big reader, but it wasn’t until much later that I found the world of being an author. I’ve had a LOT of jobs, some mind numbing, some exciting (including managing a rock band and touring the country). But I can honestly say that being an author has given me the most enjoyment in work that I’ve ever had. I love creating worlds and characters and doing research. And I had NO IDEA how much conferences and the people aspect of writing would add to my life in meeting and encouraging other authors, bonding with other readers, learning and growing so much. I was over forty when my first book came out and I feel like I’ve finally found myself.
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