I Don’t Know What I Want

I have a conundrum. First, some backstory, which I shall infodump below, and then the crux of the matter.

I envy those who have always known their calling since they were little. The kid who graduated magna cum laude, got into a great pre-med program, went on to John Hopkins, and now performs prenatal surgery. It’s the triple sevens of life: talent, self-awareness, and opportunity.

Most people, including myself, vacillated, switching from major to major, until there were only two years left of undergraduate school and you had to pick a major (or else!). Most people settled down, found a job that, if not satisfying them on a deeply spiritual level, at least pays the bills and gives them some pride.

That never quite happened to me.

After college, I floundered, working retail jobs for a year and a half until I got a position writing code for a company in Spring Hill. I got the job based on my prior experience as a web programmer at my alma mater, Warren Wilson College, which employs its entire full-time student body in a work-study curriculum. Later I got a job in Tampa proper, where I build websites for federal officials and campaigns.

Programming has never been a calling. If you asked me in high school, I thought of it as a hobby, writing QBASIC programs for my aging Tandy computer, in contrast to the more fascinating subjects of American Literature, or Pre-Calculus, or Theater. I would have thought even less of  the stories I wrote for my English assignments, or that “novel” I wrote one summer in middle school.

Funny thing is, I would have felt very differently just three years earlier. After I wrote that “novel,” a Sliders ripoff which I titled “The Whirlpool,” I found an ancient copy of The Writer’s Market at a yard sale and submitted it to some agents and publishers.

Not long after, my parents and I talked about career plans, and suddenly writing should be “a hobby,” that I’d need a “real job.” I was already considering writing as a profession, and the idea was demolished before I could express critical thought over my parents’ opinions.

So I continued to write (but not too much, I had to study for my “real job!”) as I jumped from subject to subject, major to major, looking for the True Calling, because buddy, you can’t write for a living, it’s not a real job.

And for years I thought I didn’t know what I wanted, what my vocation was. I don’t consider my college years wasted — after all, I did get a job that I reasonably enjoy and that keeps me fed. But when I discovered that, although some writers do make a living,  it’s perfectly fine to just have a day job while you write after work, I thought I knew what my vocation was.

But no, writing isn’t a real job.

After attending Viable Paradise, I decided to buckle down, finish any outstanding drafts I had, and get some stories published. Well, the first two happened. On the other hand, I got hired on at The Daily WTF as a guest contributor, which has taught me quite a bit about short-length storytelling. Overall, I had a fairly productive year.

Now, the problem.

My programming job has demanded a lot from me this year. I’ve tried pushing myself beyond my comfort zone to become a better employee, but it’s becoming clear that if I will continue to think of programming as a profession, I need to, as we geeks say, level up. I am seriously considering going to graduate school to get my Master’s degree in Computer Science.

However, I’ve reached a critical point in my writing career. I took this year off from networking to have more “life experiences,” since I’m 28 and, well, inexperienced. (I mean, I wrote a book that takes place in Boston, and I didn’t even visit the city until last year!) But now I have one book ready for submission, another that will be in a few months, and two that are over the transom at different publishers. Besides that, I still need to get more practice at writing to get to that apocryphal “one million words” to achieve mastery. I need to network at conventions and write my ass off.

I can’t do both at the same time. Graduate school is a serious commitment, and writing demands as much thought and effort as school does.

So now I’m digging through my study guide for the GRE, taking practice quizzes, and occasionally wondering, “what the hell am I doing?” I’m afraid that I won’t have the commitment I need to get through graduate school (and getting well into debt with nothing to show for it), yet I’m scared that I’m too mediocre a writer to get a book deal, let alone make close to a living after decades of building a fanbase.

So now I have to decide if I was that kid who knew all along, or if I can be happy in something that I enjoy but isn’t fulfilling.