This was supposed to be a response to Magic Fantastic on another thread, but I delayed too long, so I figured I'd give it more visibility. The gist was that he has to decide things now that will determine his future career, etc., and it is the usual 'what I love' versus 'what makes sense' that many people go through. So, here's my take on that...
Growing up, I wanted to write novels. Or screenplays. Or anything creative. It was definitely more of an aspirational thing, as I wasn't one of these people who were always telling and making up stories. But that was definitely the idea.
I looked into going to Tisch at NYU, but the prices seemed (and probably were) astronomical, especially considering I was the first person in my family to go to college, and was raised for a long time by my single mother, etc. So, that didn't happen.
I bounced around in college for a while: as a music major, but dropped that; as a business administration major, but dropped that; and finally journalism seemed to be the best option. It was "writing," which is what I wanted to do, albeit not the *kind* I wanted to do. Plus, it was something tangible. Local people wrote for the newspaper. Stephen King wrote novels.
So, I went on that path and eventually wound up, as one might expect, as a newspaper reporter, and by the end of my run there, I was covering the criminal justice system, where I would end up covering all the rape, murder, and other sorts of trials on a daily basis.
I was actually doing pretty good at it, writing massive Sunday investigative features, playing pranks on other media with murder suspects, etc., but I always felt like something was nagging me, that this wasn't what I wanted to do. But that was 10-11 hours a day, and it didn't lend itself to cranking out a novel in my spare time.
I remember covering a murder trial and thinking "This guy probably killed his wife, which is horrible, but at least he actually did something. My existence is based on people like him actually doing something passionately."
Around that time, the Internet was just barely making a dent in people's consciousness, and because I knew a lot of geeks online through gay networking and having met many of them at the 1993 March on Washington, I was very aware of things changing, and being at the verge of watching it happen. Everyone assured me there were tons of jobs in Silicon Valley, and I should come. So, I saved up $10K, quit my job, packed up a lot of boxes, and shipped them to San Francisco. I flew out to San Francisco having never been here before, having boxed myself into a corner by quitting my job and basically had to try to figure out getting an apartment, a job, etc., in short order.
Despite my best efforts, I was able to get a journalism job at a computer magazine, since all of the jobs at software companies were very specific, and although I understood technology, I wasn't experienced enough to get in most places. So journalism was able to ramp up my knowledge about the computer industry, and it's a quick ride, within the first month I meet Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, etc.
Between the move and the new job and being in San Francisco, the creative stuff is on the back burner. After 3-4 years, I move from the magazine to writing press releases for Macromedia, doubling my salary.
At Macromedia, I finally settled in enough and tried to work on a novel again. Some of that was motivated by Fight Club. I even took writing retreats where I worked with Chuck Palahniuk's teacher, Tom Spanbauer. But it was hard to develop a routine around full-time jobs, etc., and aside from one short story I really liked, my supposed aptitude at this creative life was still largely intellectual.
Macromedia ended up having a sabbatical program that changed all that. After four years, you got to take 6 weeks off, more if you have saved up vacation time. I didn't have the opportunity to stay longer than 6 weeks because of my role at the company, but I booked a flight to Thailand for 6 weeks.
I didn't have an itinerary, or a budget really, just a backpack and a plan to lets whatever happens happen. What happened was that I didn't see much of Thailand, but it was the first opportunity I had to fall into a creative pattern. I read Lolita and 1984 and all of these classic books on a hammock next to a private cove. Eventually, the short story I'd written started bursting out of its restraints to show it was really the blueprint for a novel. And most of my trip ended up with a stack of notebooks and a handwritten first draft of a novel. I didn't see much of Thailand.
At work, upon my return, I became horrible. A switch had flipped that didn't lend itself to the corporate world. It was one thing to say "If I weren't here, I could be off writing novels," but I'd gotten a glimpse that this was possibly, in fact, true. Without the shackles of a corporate job and expensive rent, and all of the trappings, I immediately fell into a creative life that nurtured me like no job ever did.
Another thing about Macromedia, on this topic, is that the notion that what you studied in school had any bearing on your career. This was totally untrue. A senior vice president of marketing studied French Literature at Yale, and across the board it was a total grab bag of people who ended up very far from their field of study, all taking wildly diverse paths to get there.
In an effort to ensure my path as a writer, I worked hard to save money and get fired. I then took three years off, without a job in San Francisco, trying to finish that novel. Progress was made, but it never got done. Odd retail jobs never morphed into interesting jobs that would leave my creative side untouched. As my debt mounted, I had to give in, and got a contract job at eBay. With my massive debt, most of this contract was paying off the last three years, with very little else.
With a long commute three days a week that made me tired and cranky, eBay started me packing on all the pounds I lost when unemployed and the novel stayed dormant. The day I finished my eBay contract 15 months later, I was on a plane the same day for two months in Thailand, seeing if I could recreate the magic of that first trip.
This time it was planned. I booked a room at a more upscale place, with a suitcase now and not a backpack, and planned to work on the novel. And let's hope that happened, since I booked two months on a small island that most tourists spend 2-3 days on, and even then only to attend the Full Moon Party. So, if I didn't work on the novel, I'd be bored here fast.
Once again, I read amazing books, worked on the novel, and turned around a great new draft, this time on a laptop.
Upon returning, I needed to find work, and found a job that would prove horrible but paid the bills, barely. With the economy being bad, I figured I would take it until I found something better. It took almost a year and a half to get out of there.
The vibe there was so bad that very little got done. Toward the end of that job, I had effectively stopped working for them, and would read entire Ayn Rand and Stephen King books at my desk, right on my monitor. They were waiting for me to say I needed work, and I was waiting for them to give me work. So, I had free time, but the negative energy wasn't good for creating art.
Which brings us to my current job at Symantec. Again, a bad commute, which was killing me, so this time, I moved, in advance of probably relocating to NYC in the near future. So, my 3 hour commute came down to 10 minutes, round trip. Took a while to adjust to living in a suburb with a bicycle and no car. And I was finally carving out a space where I could finish the draft of the book that has been dragging out for nearly a decade now.
And as soon as I carved out that space, another company offered me a short-term editing gig. I tried to resist by giving them my "leave me alone" high-end rate. They said was my rate negotiable? I said no. They said, OK, we'll pay it. So now, with my schedule finally carved out to be productive, I'm working for one company by day, another company by evening, and the novel keeps waiting... I do intend to finish it this summer, though. But who knows?
So, there is an example of taking the safer path. I highly recommend NOT doing it. I usually resent the work I am doing, which pays ridiculously well, and long for the time where you can focus on other things.
I know novelist friends, who work at non-profits, jobs where they aren't renting out the same creative part of their brain that they need for their art. And they live cheaper than I do, they may struggle a bit more. But I'd trade places with them in an instant.
Once you get into the corporate mindset, though. It is hard to shake. Once you start making a certain salary, you don't allow yourself to easily shift to something else. Especially given that novels and such aren't really a cash cow. I will make more money doing this part time job than I'm likely to get as an advance for my novel when it's completed.
David Mamet says "If you have something to fall back on, you will." He's right.
You're better off not learning marketable skills. Stay removed from that world entirely. But also learn to build your life around the creation of your art. It needs to be the only thing you know how to do effectively. You may need to have bad jobs to pay rent, but never attach them to the skills attached to your art. Keep that pure. A lot of my difficulty writing a novel was years of learning how to write good newspaper articles, and having to unlearn it all over again.
This isn't to say you'll be a successful artist. There are no such guarantees.
But it will remove any regret or pontification about what could have been, which is worth quite a lot.
Make art your goal and settling for less your fallback. It's a subtle but life-changing shift.
And recognize that many of the voices that will oppose this decision don't want to see anyone go on the path that they decided wasn't a viable option.
By doing this, you aren't just pursuing your dream, but making people remember theirs, the ones they didn't follow through on...