My mother asked me to tape the television show Ed for her last night. She saw a preview somewhere and thought it looked like a good show. So I slipped in the tape, hit record and went to my computer to work. I sat at the opposite end of the room but I could still see it and hear it so I semi-watched the program out of the corner of my eye.

Part of the show was about this kid. He was at the age where he should have been going off to college but he wanted to skip it to pursue his dream of becoming a talk show host. He thought if he failed he could always go to college later but if he succeeded as he believed he would, any time spent pursuing other avenues in college would be a waste of time.

His parents enlisted one of his teachers to convince him to go to college. But when he spoke to her about his dreams she was reminded of her own high school dream of being a writer. She decided he might be right and she wouldn’t tell him to go to college. This of course outraged his parents, the school, etc.

I could really relate to this kid’s so-called unconventional aspirations. I wanted to attend university, but my program choices were frowned upon. I had always been creative, involved in public speaking, radio, drama, creative writing etc. Nobody should have been terribly shocked when I announced I wanted to study theatre.

After several discussions with my parents and high school guidance counsellor, I came to understand that little girls from Blackville don’t become actresses or playwrights. To try such a thing would be to doom myself to a life of poverty, welfare and shame.

I compromised and settled upon journalism. Of course, journalism was only slightly better than the theatre in their opinion. It was still a pipe dream, but at least I might be able to get a job at the local paper and eke out a living. At least I might be able to return home one day with my dignity intact, if nothing else.

To be honest, at that time I didn’t even understand journalism. I believed it would be a stepping stone to writing novels and plays, directing and even acting. I didn’t realise it was another kind of writing that would take all the adjectives, alliteration and foreshadowing out of me leaving nothing but the bare facts.

In the tenth grade when I first set eyes on the city and fell in love, I began planning my escape to university in Toronto. I was the odd eleventh grader who spent every noon hour poring over the university calendars to see what programs were available and making plans. I made the guidance counsellor order course information from out of province especially for me. I was that strange kid who knew exactly what she wanted to do after school and where she wanted to do it. So, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone when I announced I’d be going to school in Toronto. But it did.

The only schools I seriously looked at were U of T, York and Ryerson. My guidance counsellor forced applications to some in-province schools as a back-up, but my mind was set on Toronto. It was frowned upon; nobody wanted me to go that far away. But on that point I wasn’t open for compromise. I studied at Ryerson’s School of Journalism.

I don’t regret my education. As it turns out training to be a journalist involves many useful skills for anything else you might do in life. Time management, meeting deadlines, communicating with people, extrapolating ideas from things that might at first seem mundane or boring, etc. And I met some lifelong friends that I wouldn’t have missed meeting for anything in the world.

But watching Ed I was reminded of my original high school dreams and how I allowed myself to be coerced into trading them for a more practical back-up plan. You see, that’s what the argument was against this kid becoming a talk show host — that he could do that later but first he should go to college as a back-up in case he failed. That’s what his teacher had done. She became a teacher as a back-up in case she failed as a writer. But by creating an alternative career path just in case, she planted the seed of doubt about her ability to become a writer and essentially set herself up for failure. She wondered if she didn’t have the back-up what would have happened. Would she have become a writer? She didn’t want the same thing to happen to this kid.

This is something I think about sometimes. I want to write novels, short stories and plays. That’s still my ultimate dream. I’ve wondered what would happen if I put myself out into the world and demanded I make a living doing that without relying on my back-up. Would I starve and bring shame to my family and myself? Or would I publish short stories in magazines, get a literary agent, produce a play, land a publisher and win the Governor General’s Award? If I took the net away would I fall and perish or would I walk the wire? I’ll probably never know for sure because my net is sewn out of the same kind of material as the wire so I’ll probably be content and not have to take the chance. The materials come from the same family but make no mistake — they aren’t the same.

A lot of other writers think I’ve got it made. I’m getting paid to write after all. All aspiring writers dream about the day they can eke out a living solely by writing. But as far as getting me closer to achieving my goals, the non-fiction journalistic type of writing I do everyday is almost as far away as writing memos and contracts. All writing is not the same. And I know some writers who have held similar jobs and share similar aspirations who argue that working in the non-fiction genre everyday actually crushes the creative spirit and stunts their progress toward writing novels and plays.

So, by working in non-fiction writing they believe they grow farther away from where they want to be than in other jobs like waitressing, bartending, housekeeping, babysitting, etc. I can see where that might be true for some people, but I don’t think it holds for me. I seem to be doing more creative writing and submitting fiction to magazines and generating more ideas than when I worked completely outside the realm of writing as a waitress or in a call centre.

I think this job will only help me to achieve my goals because it feeds my creative soul rather than stifles it. I tend to believe I can have it all, my cake and eat it too. I don’t see why I can’t publish the short stories, get a literary agent, produce a play, land a publisher, win the Governor General’s Award, the Giller Prize and whatever else, and still write for and be the editor of Bread ‘n Molasses. The only challenge I have to overcome is managing my time so all the different types of writing get a fair shake and none of the work suffers from a lack of my attention.

I got lucky because my field to fall back on is close to the one I dreamt of as a child. But even still I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had thrown caution to the wind, ignored everyone’s opinion and just gone for it. Then I think if I still wonder about it and I’m so close to doing it, what about the people who wanted to be astronauts but studied law instead? Or the ballerinas who studied dentistry? Or the other writers who became pharmacists? Or the film directors who took up accounting? How often do they wonder where they would be now if they hadn’t had a back-up just in case?

What about you? Are you doing what you always wanted to do or did you go with your back-up? Anyone else swayed in high school by practical adults? What do you think of the whole concept that by creating a back-up plan you’re setting yourself up for failure? Agree? Disagree? Click on the Comment link below and let’s talk about it.

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