This summer will be two years since I retired, or better said, since I stopped working for somebody else. My formal education is in mechanical engineering, and I spent my entire professional career employed by engineering companies, in positions that required a technical background. I was more involved with design in the beginning, and I gradually moved into management as time went on. My job was fulfilling and, given the circumstances of my life, my profession served me well, but since my teenage years, I had a different dream that I could not fully pursue. Let me explain.
I’ve always wanted to write — short stories and novels, general fiction, literary pieces. I know this may sound amusing to some, or childish, but it is true. It is who I am. This duality is not unique. There are many people who dream of an artistic career only to abandon it and take the practical path — the easy path.
I published my first short story at 18. I lived in Romania at that time. When I graduated from high school, I succumbed to pressure from parents and peers, and instead of a liberal arts college I selected engineering school. The truth is, I wasn’t sure then — I wanted to write, but there were so many other things I wanted to do, and the engineering school seemed the path of less resistance, the safe way forward, like postponing the decision somehow. I’m young, I said to myself. I can always choose later and place my diploma in a drawer. Let’s be prudent, and wait and see.
Throughout my life, willingly and unwillingly, the desire to write survived. And I wrote, at night or early in the morning, on weekends, struggling and fighting, yelling, complaining, boasting, being a bore, sometimes feeling encouraged, other times demoralized, first through engineering school, then through love, marriage, and immigration to America, through holding full time jobs, raising two children, caring for older parents, moving, traveling, making new friends, dealing with health issues, and so forth. But the more time passed by, the clearer it became that the early decision could not be simply reversed. Had I made a mistake?
When my dog was a puppy, I could not open the front door for fear he’d run out and I would have to chase him through the entire neighborhood. When he got old, the door could stay open for hours. He’d just lay in front of it. When it comes to writing, I feel like my dog. As a young man free to choose a career, all I wanted was to run out of every door. Now I don’t. I posses the patience and maturity to stay put. They say one should not attempt to write serious prose until middle age. I think there is some truth to it.
When I first came to America, I stopped writing for about ten years. I was adjusting, learning, experimenting, and understanding. Then I started again. At a wedding, I met a father who told me the story of his son, a young musician on the verge of loosing his well paying job with the band. “I suggested to him to pursue his musical career, and to go to law school as well,” the father complained. “Just to have a plan B.” But the son said, “If you want to become an artist, if you really want to succeed, there is no plan B.” In retrospect I wonder if I agree with the son.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Reiner Maria Rilke advised Kappus: Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write…And…if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour…
This type of commitment distinguishes the artist from the dilettante. There might be no other choice.
In my case, the duality was a double whammy: not only did I want to pursue one thing, and ended up spending a huge portion of my life doing another, but I started writing in Romanian, and had to switch to English midstream. This meant more than new words and grammar and language. It encompassed an entire culture, with different meanings, humor, musicality, usages, and nuances.
It was like walking on solid ground that suddenly turned to ice.
Yet in spite of all this, while still working full time, I produced five novels and a collection of short stories.
Now I know. I don’t have to wait and see any longer. This is what I want to do. I finally took the plunge, quit my old day job, and took on another one. Now I write every day, no matter what. EVERY DAY. I have a norm, and if I don’t fulfill it, it’s hell. I suffer. I study myself. I decided I am too careful and too calculated. I need to allow myself to flow, to let it pour out. Today I write a new novel and a weekly blog. I work on my short stories, and I market myself. It’s a full time job.
I’m reading a novel called Youngblood Hawke, by Herman Wouk, about a successful young writer who works like a maniac, mostly at night. His daily portion is 2000 words — that’s about six typed pages, double-spaced. I consider myself lucky if I can write two pages, consistently. Most days it’s only one.
Every day I ask myself if I made a mistake in my youth when I decided to go to engineering school. Obviously, had I come to America with a degree in Romanian Literature, my fate would have been different. My family and I would have struggled a lot to make ends meet. Actually, most likely we would have never left Romania, which was an option I didn’t even want to consider (the reasons might be the subject of another blog). But if my purpose in life is to write, that proof will be in what will remain at the end of however many years of writing I have left. If I succeed, if I write something great and valuable, than what I chose to do earlier in my youth was not a mistake. If not, than it may have been the wrong path to take. Then the true artists are right: there is no plan B. Then I had had a nice life, a common life, a balanced life, like so many other people, plus one silly regret.
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