A Storytelling Serial
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Harry Potter fans probably know that after the magic, J. K. Rowling adopted the pen name Robert Galbraith to write a very adult series about a London detective, Cormoran Strike. A lifelong mystery fan, I’ve read a few, but she’s so prolific that I’ve fallen behind.
One of the Galbraith books on my bedroom bookshelf, where I see the title often, is Career of Evil. In American English, the temptation is to assume the meaning of career that’s common this side of the pond: a profession, field, or pursuit we’re trained for, follow permanently (according to Merriam-Webster), and achieve progress in.
But we’re talking about a British book, and the title wasn’t written for Americans. We need to lean in a little further on the definition of career. The novel itself reveals other meanings: a course or passage, a path followed with headlong speed, a charge at a target. Here career denotes movement—specifically, for Galbraith’s detective, toward evil.
Merriam-Webster explains the British origins of career:
In medieval tournaments, jousting required knights to ride at full speed in short
bursts, and the noun career (coming from Middle French carriere) was used to refer
to such gallops as well as to the courses that knights rode. The related verb came
to mean "to go at top speed."
“Full Speed in Short Bursts”
I can see how the idea of moving along a course eventually incorporated the notion of following a profession, but I’m puzzled that my favorite dictionary includes permanent in its job-related definition.
How did “short bursts” morph into permanent? And are we allowed only one career per lifetime?
As a former career counselor and a practiced career changer, I feel as though Merriam-Webster hasn’t caught up to the reality of today’s work world.
Of course, maybe it’s actually me stuck in the past, clinging to medieval England. My multiple careers have resembled jousting: flinging myself (often without a lance or armor) “at full speed in short bursts.”
In a previous post, I discussed ways of learning. I’m a habitual holistic learner, so I’ve finally made peace with my lack of career permanence. I figure out who I am and what I want (or don’t want) through experience, reflection, and construction of meaning.
It’s no surprise, then, that my career approach has been full gallop, getting knocked off the horse a few times, and then thinking about whether I care enough about the jousting match to stay in it. Even when bruised, if I’m sure of my authentic desire to keep charging at the target, I eventually head back into the fray.
Unfortunately, determining authenticity can be my fatal flaw. I was a porous child, and one of my adult challenges has been learning to define and defend personal boundaries. I still tend to be chameleonlike. When in an environment I enjoy, I not only start to admire its practitioners but also want to become like them. For that reason, I have to beware of the company I keep.
When I started my word business, I didn’t intend to copyedit fiction; but one unexpected thing led to another, and novels began landing on my plate. Suddenly, I was immersed in the world of fiction writers. They’re wonderful people, and I admire them.
I also deeply believe in the power of fiction to create empathy and transformation. I’m convinced novels can and do change the world, and the work of their authors is profoundly important. I celebrate the sheer entertainment value of novels too; we all need escape.
But experience has taught me the songwriters are right: “The Heart Wants What It Wants.” And there’s a difference between resisting what we know we need and walking away from what we realize we don’t. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make the heart want what it doesn’t want, either.
Many want to write a novel. I, on the other hand—despite the thousands of fiction books I’ve read—had never held a novel in my hand and thought, I want to create one of these. It was always enough to appreciate someone else’s abilities.
Yet as I increasingly surrounded myself with novelists, I felt the familiar urge to mimic. Curiosity grew irresistible. So a few years ago, I jumped on the bandwagon of National Novel Writing Month and tried out the identity of a novelist. It was a dramatic shift for someone who had long preferred writing nonfiction and consumes it avidly.
Thus began my career of novel writing. It hasn’t been a career of evil, but it hasn’t been good, either. I’ve thrown myself into learning how to write and publish fiction by becoming steeped in novel-writing courses, books, webinars, blogs, magazines, and online groups. And the more knowledge I’ve collected, the more my writing soul has withered.
Every time I open one of the two (or is it three? they’re starting to blend together) works of fiction in various stages on my computer, I find it an interesting intellectual exercise to apply at least some of the extensive how-to information I’ve gathered. But everything below my head feels neglected.
My heart isn’t in dissecting the pieces of a novel, an operation that destroys the sense of magic I receive from reading fiction. Deconstructing imaginary worlds brings me so little joy that I’m not even interested in using all my learning to become a book reviewer, beta reader, or developmental editor.
I’m beyond grateful others don’t have the same reaction, or we wouldn’t have a world full of magnificent fiction.
As I’ve said in previous posts, writing is hard, no matter how good it is for the writer or the world. And it’s not just initial creation that’s difficult; publishing and marketing and the entire writing business are much more demanding than the nonpublished realize. Getting a novel into the world—and repeatedly, consistently alerting potential readers it’s there—requires a level of desire, determination, and hard work I haven’t been able to summon for fiction.
Plus, depending on which of several publishing routes taken, the journey can be very expensive. It isn’t an absolute; but in today’s book-publishing world, a substantial upfront financial investment is a real possibility that often surprises the unprepared author.
Although the prevalent novel-writing advice is to focus on finishing a good book before addressing the challenges of publishing it, I for one can’t separate the tasks of writing and publishing because I write to communicate and connect with others. I’m unmotivated to produce a manuscript I won’t publish and market.
Just as I’ve never possessed the intrinsic drive to write a novel, I’ve never wanted to write for myself, no matter how meaningful the writing process.
Popular culture urges us to follow our career dreams and check off our bucket lists. The trick, though, is making sure it’s our dream and our list, rather than the heart’s desire of another. It might take hands-on experience to figure that out. One way or another, though, eventually we all must discern our unique paths.
If we long to write novels, with or without publication, we must give it our all, no matter the cost. In fact, if we’ll have deathbed regrets because we didn’t pursue any deeply held yearning, then damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.
As for me, I’ve returned fiction to my reading bucket, and I’m deliberately spending more time with nonfiction writers than with novelists, to keep my chameleon self the right shade of green for a headlong return to my Career of Telling Stories through Nonfiction Writing.* Admittedly, even Robert Galbraith couldn’t turn that title into an interesting novel—but my soul is glad to once again charge at a target I can genuinely claim.
I’ll miss one thing about novel writing, though: the self-protection of being able to reimagine and disguise the use of my own life. In my career dream, writing nonfiction demands personal transparency and allows me no place to hide; so I’ll continue to joust without armor. But would it really be my course if it were safe?
(*Not a real title; italicized only for effect.)
Are you chasing a dream that might not be yours? In the comments below, please feel free to share any story of a path you’ve followed at headlong speed, only to learn from experience you’re not on the right course for you.