Other than post an album of photos of myself to show you my image (you don't want that), this is as close as I can get to today's topic. I wrote it after a recent appearance for a high school Career Day.
I don't know why I accepted the invitation to speak at a Career Day in the first place. The word itself has always conjured up disagreeable images (yeah, there's the topic!) of felt-lined cubicles, power suits, corporate ladders, and boring, high-stakes lunches. Just having a career sounds like a lot of work to me, let alone implementing one. But when the local guidance counselor called me, I was unable to refuse — the victim of my ego.
"We'd love to have a real author on our program," she'd said. I grinned. A moment later, however, I was brought back to earth. "When I have time, I'm going to write a book too," she told me.
Unlike rocket science and brain surgery, I've noticed, writing is what everyone thinks she can do, once the kids are out of the house, or when he can't golf anymore, or as soon as she can retire from a real career.
Well, I guess that's better than the even less flattering staple of party talk: "Al says you're a writer. Have I heard of you?" Or, another favorite: "You're a writer? I have an idea for you." As if we stand in line, unemployed, until someone brings us a morsel on which to build our next story.
The day finally came—Career Day.
I pulled into the high school parking lot behind a Cadillac with a vanity plate: SURGEON. Then an ambulance barreled onto the gravel, followed by a fire truck and a highway patrol car with its lights flashing. Not an emergency response, I realized, but more careers showing up. My competition.
In the speakers' waiting area, I met an attractive young woman. "What's your career?" I asked her. How great can it be for someone who still wears a ponytail?
She extended a lovely hand. "I'm Melissa, FBI."
Melissa flashed her badge and explained how she'd had no time to prepare her talk since she'd just returned from (Mumble)-stan on a special field assignment from the President. At her feet was a large duffel bag holding an overflowing supply of navy blue baseball caps with FBI in white letters. Giveaways. I wondered if I had time to go to the nearest office supply store and pick up … what? Yellow pads and pencils? A laptop? My own laptop was probably three generations behind what these affluent yuppies-in-training had in their backpacks.
In the next ten minutes I met a veterinarian (toting a cage with a small monkey-like animal that emitted jungle sounds); a woman who runs a modeling agency for teens (lugging a carry-on with a full array of free cosmetics samples); a transcontinental pilot (schlepping a crate of video games set in the cockpit of an SST), and assorted military personnel with razor-sharp creases in their pants and sparkling patches on their arms and chests. Even the nutritionist had come up with a gimmick — he showed off his briefcase full of breakfast bars and a calorie counter app. All that was missing — a rock star, or maybe the Pope's bodyguard.
I used to have stuff, too, in my former career as a physicist. I had things that plugged in and made noises, and I carried a cool helium-neon demo laser. I gave out T-shirts with an imprint of the world's largest laser.
I could have been a contender.
But as a writer, I felt naked, propless, unarmed in the battle for recruits to the writing life.
On the other hand, this might be good, I thought. Let young people choose the flashier professions, the ones with bright red, royal blue, or neon green parachutes. Do I really want more writers submitting to slush piles that already reach to Pluto? Let there be a hiatus for a few years — no more new writers until all mid-list authors are comfortably situated in their dream publishing house. Let editors beg for our manuscripts!
In the end I wasn't a total failure. I skirted around questions about starting salaries for novelists and career opportunities for writers of haiku, and managed to convey my enthusiasm for the creative process, the written word, the feel of a physical book or a link to an ebook with one's own name on the cover.