During the day, I work at a media non-profit and help young people share their stories and perspectives.
At night, after a jam-packed hectic workday, I tuck myself into bed feeling incomplete, like I forgot to brush my teeth or lock the front door. There is a lacking that lingers on my pillow; a lacking that is rooted in my inability to write freely and bravely like I once did. Every night, as my close eyes and float into semi-conscious dreams, I can’t help but feel like a part of me is failing simply because I am not writing.
For months, I justified my nonexistent writing with a litany of excuses, all of which were centered on being “too busy” to write. I believed my “busyness” was noble since I spent my time helping others write, rewrite, and publish their work. When my parents asked about my writing, I scolded them. Didn’t they realize I couldn’t find a spare second to indulge my social life, let alone “write” for the sake of writing?
I blamed writer’s block. The ideology of writing consumed me, but the practice felt daunting. Strings of sentences floated through my head like atoms spinning in every direction. Whenever I sat down to write, the words that flowed onto my page never danced in ink the way they did in my head. What I wrote never reflected the beehive of emotions and new experiences that encapsulated me. I felt paralyzed and defeated.
Unfortunately, when I ventured outside my head and into the real world, I didn’t feel reassured.
Among my creative-minded friends and colleagues, I was intimidated. I marveled over their writing, the breath and flair resonating behind each sentence. Their conviction. Their fervor. Did I have that sense of voice in me?
I worried I didn’t.
When I hung out with clans of 20-something Indians in San Francisco, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Routinely, I was the only one who worked at a non-profit, the only one who felt heated over issues like race, and class, and fair representation.
Among this crowd, consultants commiserated over grueling Monday to Thursday travel schedules, tech folks traded inside talk on recently funded, hot startups, while I floated between various clusters of young professionals, nervously fumbling my hands while desperately trying to come across as not “too intense” or “too artsty” for a set of ambitious, career-oriented Indians.
I found it tough to make small talk about my drink of choice or the latest top 40 hit when my mind was overwhelmed with other questions. Questions like: what is the best way to help young people who come into our office every week, clad with fresh wounds—on the inside and outside—from a weekend stabbing, shooting, or beating? Or what do you do when you feel so incapacitated to process or express that you can’t seem to press the correct keyboard keys to form the easiest of sentences? Or how do you have faith in our political system when bills like Arizona’s SB 1070 are being passed in this country? I felt overwhelmed by the gravity of the world around me, and the chaos inside my head. But I didn’t know how to discuss these thoughts among the circles of privileged Bay Area Indians, to which I belonged, without coming across as righteous.
To identify publicly as a writer or journalist publicly in 2010 feels a bit like being an investment banker immediately after Wall Street collapsed in 2008: we’re white-collared professionals desperately holding onto whatever jobs remain in our shrinking, increasingly bleak profession.
Since I hail from a community deeply rooted in professional and academic drive, I’m constantly showered with pragmatic, career-minded advice for how to stay afloat in this dying publishing industry.
“Learn HTML so you can take a web manager job!”
“Take a class in technical writing; content writing is a hot field!”
“Get your MFA; you’ll get paid better!”
Sure, I could take out student loans and pursue my MFA. An MFA would legitimize my interest in writing, especially among Indian circles. But let’s be real: If I did receive an MFA and couldn’t find a job, like most MFA graduates fare these days, people would say, “I told you so.” They would say the publishing industry was already drying up when I started graduate school, that liberal arts graduate degrees don’t hold a significant value in the workplace these days, that journalism is a thing of the past, Twitter and Facebook the present, maybe Foursquare and Blippy the future.
Wanting to be a writer does seem incredulously dreamy in a time when Americans have traded books for Twitter and magazines for Facebook’s FarmVille. How do you begin to write long-form narratives when nobody wants to read sentences that are longer than 140 characters?
Recently, my parents took my twin brother and me to brunch to casually discuss “our careers and graduate school.” My brother and I sat across from them, elbow-to-elbow, ying-to-yang. He’s fiercely rational, business-minded, and works as a product manager at an Internet company. I’m literary-inclined, idealistic, and work as an editor at a media non-profit.
“There’s nothing wrong with your job,” my Dad told me. “But the reality is that you’re not on a career track.”
His words sliced into me like a sharp knife. I feel disrespected by my parents, the two individuals I vie for approval from the most. I glared back at my parents and delivered my terse defense: Who are you to say I don’t have a career track when I’ve worked my way up from years of writing for free? I went home in a huff; my parents just didn’t understand my field, I reasoned.
The following day, my brother got promoted. Stock options, money, a new title—the works. I worked a twelve-hour day, no overtime pay or bonuses in sight. It was like a bad joke. The juxtaposition between our career choices was glaringly clear: my brother’s career advancement is exemplified by making more money, while mine isn’t. In my field, success doesn’t come in the form of quarterly earnings; success might be one hard-hitting reported story or a couple of young person finding their voices through our youth program. Success isn’t tangible or measured using Excel charts and cost analysis.
There’s no monetary reward to incentivize me to stick around in this field. The service towards the cause is my incentive, and if that’s not enough for me, too bad, there’s a line of jobless graduates who would love to take my position. The reality is the line of work I’ve chosen requires sacrifice and selflessness. Most days I love it. Some days, I’m just really tired.
Like all pragmatic-minded Indians, I’ve been taught the value of diversifying my skill set and choosing a profession with long-term potential. Writing speaks to me, but so does job stability and a 401K. These days, I feel confused because all the professions I’m interested in seem just as bleak as the next.
I want to teach, but the California education system is in shambles and more and more teachers receive the pink slip daily. I like non-profits, but the long hours and a meager pay can be draining. I’m interested in studying anthology, urban studies, and psychology, but I fear a graduate degree in any of these areas would just leave me with a pile of debt and limited job prospects.
So what am I to do?Lately I’ve realized the recession has become a convenient excuse for my lack of decisiveness in taking a risk or putting myself out there. The real issue may not be potential joblessness in professions that interest me; maybe the underlying issue is my impatience. Perhaps because I’m a young person accustomed to instant gratification via technology and accessibility, I want answers now to questions that lack concrete answers. I want to be a good writer now, even though I haven’t put in the necessary time or training to get there. I want stability now, even though I don’t urgently need it in the way that thousands of older, jobless Americans desperately do.
Over the last two years, I constantly searched for some type of reassurance that won’t come around for the type of work I’m interested in doing. Now that I’ve come to understand this disconnect, I’m learning how to find confidence in myself without others’ affirmation or approval. Stability versus struggle, money versus service—I’ll probably always struggle with what these values mean to me and that’s okay.
Maybe what we do isn’t really about the end goal—the dream job we may land if we do X, Y, and Z now. A friend recently told me “it takes courage to become.” Maybe this ride is really about the now, about how X, Y, Z—whatever jobs or experience those might be—shape who we may become.
It took me more than a year to write this piece, to become a writer who has found the courage to write once again.
Rupa Dev is an associate editor at YO! Youth Outlook/New America Media and resides in San Francisco.