“When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?” Chris Garrett asks, and “if things had turned out different, what might your career have been?”

Here’s my answer:

Throw down a rock, and the river will flow around it. Try to force the water’s flow into a channel thatyou’ve carved out for it, and it might work for a time — but sooner or later, the rain will fall. And then it’s going to be all white-water rapids and flooded fields…

(That would be a metaphor, right there. We are all just so much flowing water, see?)

the author as a young artist So, what in God’s name are we doing to our kids, when we chuck them under the chin and ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As if there could be only One True Career Path…

Much like my friend Chris Garrett, when I was a kid and right up into my late teens, I wanted to be an illustrator. Preferably a cartoonist, but any kind of illustrator would do.

As soon as I was old enough to hold a crayon and make wavy lines I called “writing,” I’d create little story books out of scratch paper, just for the pleasure of illustrating them. But it wasn’t until Grade 8 that I realized that not everyone could draw, and that there was a certain power in art… I drew a cartoon strip starring the most popular boy in school and instantly became his best friend — a pivotal moment! Drawing was my ticket to popularity!

Like Chris, also, I was a solitary child, a book worm but not a scholar, and agonizingly shy. I blushed, I stammered, my hands trembled, my whole body trembled if I had to do so much as answer the phone. My sketchbook and pencils became a solace when my family moved to England for a time, and drawing was my social survival on returning to Canada, now a stranger to old friends, set adrift in what was then the largest high school in the Commonwealth — but never quite lost in the crowd, as long as I was That Cartoonist Girl.

So, you’d think I might have ended up with a career as a cartoonist, or as a commercial artist of some kind, wouldn’t you? The problem — one of the problems — was that my knack for drawing was no more than just that, just a lucky knack. I knew it wasn’t the kind of major-league talent that could stand up to real-world competition.

And what about writing… my other, equal love?

Divided Loyalties

A “career aptitude test” in high school said, in no uncertain terms, that I should be a Priest — not an option! Artist and Journalist were tied for a distant second. Art was obviously an impractical choice, but I couldn’t be a journalist — I could never be brave enough to go interview strangers — so I’d have to be another kind of writer…

And, in either field, art or literature, was there any hope of earning a living?

Without a clear direction, out of school, I stalled for time… picked up an assortment of nasty unskilled jobs, moved out west, moved back east, made a few unwise choices, drifted in circles of fear and indecision, anything to avoid that terrible question — “what do you want to do when you grow up?”

Fighting the Fear

Chris talks about facing down his fear of public speaking, when he enrolled in a teaching course. “The transformation was not immediate,” he says, “but it was dramatic.” It was by facing his fear that he found his life’s calling.

Alas, there was no empowering transformation there for me, when I became a teacher. Just the escalating terror of getting up in the morning, day after day, and going out to face a world that felt impossibly judgmental. Nowadays I tell people that I was a teacher for about 10 minutes. Back to the drifting, hoping for a great Cosmic hint about the right career.

A friend got me a small gig to draw cartoons for commercial newsletters. I sat for life-drawing classes, two evenings a week. I marked student essays. I shelved books at the library. I baked organic whole-grain bread in a converted warehouse at night. I wrote theatre reviews for the local paper. I took care of other people’s children and did their sewing and painted their homes and walked their dogs and weeded their gardens…

And there, there was the transformation!

The deciding moment came not as the “Eureka moment” I’d been looking for since childhood, but dawned on me one very small step at a time… one small success after one small confidence-boosting success. One contract job led to another, always one step better… but looking back now it almost feels as if I woke up one morning with a solid foothold in publishing — a job I adored — and the choice between writing and drawing had been decided for me. A few years in the book trade gave me the skills and experience to go out on my own as a writer and editor, and the confidence to rise to new opportunites as they came along.

What If…?

If I had chosen the pencil over the pen, yes, the details would be different — perhaps I’d be storyboarding the documentaries I work on, for example, instead of scripting them. Or illustrating books instead of editing their words. But I do believe that I’d have ended up in substantially the same place — like water flowing downhill —

There are many (too many) days when I am still near-crippled by fears, but the joy of doing work I love has brought some balance. Because I love above all to be learning new things and sharing those discoveries with others — and because I’ve got a short attention span! — freelancing is what works for me. No two days are alike, each successful project is a small triumph, and each new job is an adventure.

Not what I had planned, this career of mine, but I have a deeply satisfying sense that the way it’s turned out is (more or less) the way it was meant to be. And that’s just fine.

When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up? And if things had turned out differently, what might your career have been?

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. domestika

    Oh, I love that, Becca — “what now?” instead of “what if?” sounds like a great approach to life’s adventure!

    My friend Dave has a t-shirt that says, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” — too true, eh?

  2. Becca

    What a great post. I, too, kind of drifted. I often wonder “what if…” Instead, I should wonder: “what now…”

  3. mffnman

    dont turn back when you get up the path as far as you want to go. just go off the side on follow another trail or go make your own like she said about the water?

  4. DivineDominion

    Strange as it seems, I don’t know of a lot of successful freelancers in Germany. Every second blog is written by a freelancer in writing or marketing or whatnot, but here…?

    Deciding upon which path to try first isn’t easy. As Paulo Coelho said, one shouldn’t spend too much time deciding but rather pick a path which has “heart” and care for it, follow it until one reaches a point to turn back.
    Sounds as if I’d have to pick an appealing path and just walk it. Success will come, hopefully, and if not — well, Coelho also says that every well-chosen path has opportunities to return to some point and take a new direction.

  5. domestika

    Anne, you are too kind!

  6. Anne

    Domestika, you are a meme/tag magnet. Do you suppose that could be anything to do with your great writing skills?

  7. domestika

    Synchronicity such as this is the essence of life, Chris – and balance.
    Synchronicity and balance.
    And comfy chairs. ;-)

  8. Chris Garrett

    Great stuff. Strange how your story is so similar and yet so different. And not just the drawing and teaching – Your family went to england and came back to Canada, mine did things the other way round :)

Leave a Reply