I was struck, recently, by a contrast.
I have a friend named Joe. Except that Joe is not his real name. In fact, he doesn’t exist: Joe is a composite of various people I’ve know. But he’s a convenient example.
Joe’s a big guy, about twice my size. If you put him in a movie, he would be either the martial-arts expert hero or the martial-arts expert villain. He lives in a small town in the South, and he owns his own business. Let’s say he’s in construction. He builds things, makes things, some work that gives him a relatively steady and reliable source of income. He has a home, a family, a community. If he wanted, he could live exactly as he is living for the rest of his life.
How do I know Joe? I’m pretty sure we went to high school together. Or not, it doesn’t much matter. He’s just an example, remember.
What struck me recently, rather hard, is that of the two of us, I’m the one who lives an unsafe life. I don’t mean physically, although I live in a large city and regularly receive reports of local robberies from the university police. No, I mean in another way.
I’m the one who ended up going to law school, working as a corporate lawyer. There were days when I got on a plane in the morning, and got on another plane at night. I made telephone calls that moved millions of dollars around the world. It was a world in which the stakes were high, the responsibilities great. And I left that world for the even less safe one of being a writer and scholar. Less safe because after all, corporate law had been a path. If you followed the path, you would do well. But a writer and scholar has to create her own path. She is rewarded for her originality, her insight — her ability to say what has never been said before. To shed light.
I don’t think I ever expected to be where I am today: teaching at one of the largest research universities in the world, whose freshman class is larger than the entire population of Joe’s town, and in a well-known MFA program. Publishing steadily, being respected as a writer. But it’s difficult too: I am responsible for performing, for producing. Standing up in front of sixty students a day, showing them what they did not know before. Flying to conferences, speaking on panels, reading my stories. Delivering new stories, hopefully (but not always) by deadline. There is a point at which people ask you to do things not because you have the right training or skills (like a corporate lawyer), but because you’re you. Because they want a Theodora Goss story. Which is wonderful — but which also means being an artist, doing the work to become an artist, always questioning yourself. Always pushing yourself. Getting better, going deeper. And, of course, accepting criticism, because you’re out there. Presenting yourself to the world.
If I make it sound hard, that’s because it can be very hard. At least for someone like me, who is an introvert and would love to dream her life away, maybe reading books or planting a garden.
I have no idea what the future will bring. Sometimes I sit in my apartment in this great city at night, and feel afraid. And sometimes I envy Joe’s life. It seems so peaceful, one day essentially the same as another. He can grow a garden. He can read for fun. But I realize, looking at my own life, that I’ve always chosen the more difficult path, as though by instinct. The path of greater challenge, and greater freedom. I’ve always gotten on the plane and taken off, to wherever I’m going.
I’m not quite sure why. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m an artist. I think perhaps living an unsafe life is the only way to create art.