This column is an edited excerpt from the “Dear Sugars” podcast, an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains an extended conversation and more letters; submissions are welcome at email@example.com. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
My career path has been shaped by fear and expectation. I had a fortunate upbringing, sheltered from financial struggles, but when I was in college, my mother went through bankruptcy and I began to understand financial insecurity. I dropped my pursuit of journalism to become a C.P.A. because seeing what my mom went through scared me. I convinced myself that I wanted to be an accountant. Isn’t it funny how we trick ourselves into seeing the silver lining? I’m not tricking myself anymore. I’m just 25, and yet I feel as though parts of myself have been obliterated: my creativity, my genuineness, my passion.
A few months ago, I had a dream that I wrote a book. The dream was so powerful that it woke me from my sleep in tears. When I have a bad day at work or feel hopeless about figuring out what’s next, I think about that dream. How do I get closer to it? Do I quit my mediocre-paying job with benefits to work as a barista and figure it out, or do I stay in it, though I feel depleted? Do I find a way to care less about work?
Cheryl Strayed I think you had that dream because writing is for you a powerful call, C. P. Listen to that. But also remember there’s a whole lot between having a dream and making it come true. Writing a book is drudgery. It requires an apprenticeship. I suggest that you begin by doing it. Sign up for a workshop or take a vacation and spend it writing. See where that leads you. You don’t have to immediately quit your job to become a writer. You need only to start writing.
Steve Almond Adam Smith talked about the invisible hand of the market. What you’re experiencing is the invisible hand of art, the desire to pursue a life of creativity. That’s beautiful. But it’s unlikely to lead to financial security, at least in the short term, which is important to you because of your mother’s experiences. So you have to do what every artist does: find a patron. It might help to think of your accounting gig as that patron, at least for now. It will underwrite your apprenticeship, and help you uncouple your artistic aspirations from financial expectation, so you can write what you feel called to write without worrying about whether it will make money. It’s worth thinking, too, about the role you want writing to play in your life and what you’re willing to sacrifice to make that happen. I realize this doesn’t sound very romantic, but there is a practical aspect to the pursuit of our dreams. You have to ask yourself a few candid questions about what you consider essential, whether it’s a decent car or a nice place to live or enough financial security to keep anxiety at bay. The last thing you want is for writing to become a source of stress, because you’ll come to resent it as you do your current job.
CS In asking these questions, you’re undoing some of the ideas you absorbed that led you down the wrong career path, C. P. That’s exactly what you’re supposed to be doing at this moment in your life. There’s an enormous sense of regret in your letter, but your job as an accountant is a part of your experience that will likely contribute to your writing someday rather than detract from it. For many years, I envied writer peers who spent their youths nurturing their artistic interests — getting to take lessons and go to camp and such. I was jealous of people who hadn’t spent their teenage summers working a full-time, minimum-wage job like I did — I worked at a Dairy Queen, among other things. And I felt the same resentment as I waited tables all through my 20s while writing on the side. I remember being sure that I’d be a better writer if I’d had those creative, literary opportunities that some others got. But in more recent years, I’ve come to believe with all my heart that I was the lucky one. I learned so much about the nature of our existence by working the sorts of jobs I did: mopping floors at 11 p.m., dealing with customers and bosses. I thought I was spinning my wheels, but now I see I was learning and developing my craft.
SA What matters to artists, and writers in particular, isn’t the quality of a particular life, but the quality of the attention paid to that life. And that includes your own life, Career Purgatory. I think it’s awesome that you’re a C.P.A. That’s a world I know nothing about. The creative impulse is ultimately driven not by your personal or professional history, but by a kind of uninhibited curiosity, the capacity to let yourself improvise, to play around without imposing judgment. So in addition to finding time to write, you’re going to have to find a way to let go of the fear and expectation you mention, because those feelings will crush your creative impulses and sap your energy and lead you down all kinds of false alleys. It’s a delicate balance, even a paradoxical one. You have to lower your expectations at the keyboard, so that you can free up your imagination and finish those first drafts. At the same time, you have to get yourself to the keyboard, which means you have to become your own boss.
CS So what you’re hearing from us is go. But know that going in the direction of becoming a writer may look different than you imagine it will. Maybe you need to quit your job as an accountant to pursue your writing. Maybe you don’t. It isn’t all or nothing. You haven’t wasted a minute. You don’t have to feel hopeless about what’s next. You get to decide what it is by doing the work you feel called to do. Now is a great time to begin.