The thoughts of youth, we are told, are "long, long thoughts." So the thoughts of the old, like me, must be short-shorts, right?
Well, not really. For us oldsters, we may actually be expected to ask ourselves the big (BIG) questions, like --
- If I had it do over again, what would I do differently?
- From my current perspective, what aspects of my life seem regrettable, and what are the achievements I'm the proudest of?
- How do I want to be remembered?
- What were the key turning points in my life and career?
And so on, and so forth... Answers to such questions are not short-shorts, and are also not based on the hopes and fantasies of a callow youth but on the real-life events or at least the memories of a reasonably sentient creature with clear recollections and mature reflections.
Such thoughts may or may not be worthwhile, even so.
The fact is - fortunately - there are more notable developments in the story of my career than points at which the course of things took an unexpected direction. In other words, there were more events pretty closely in line with what was planned than significant changes of course.
Going off to college certainly started a new part of my life, living 1,100 miles from any of my family and making just about all decisions about how to spend my time all on my own. ...But that wasn't really a "turning point," since it was always assumed I'd grow up and that I'd go away to college somewhere.
Was it a turning point (that is, is it worth discussing) that I chose to go to a big state university in the Midwest rather than to stay closer to home in Texas or move to the East or the West? The experience would have been different, to be sure, but I don't see any interesting way to think about how my whole life would have been different if I had. It seems likely I would have done pretty well in the West or the East (based on later experience) and that my major interests would have developed along similar lines...
Now, as I finished my (midwestern) B. A., that was a turning point.
My father was a well-known college professor; also, the Director of a School at the university. I knew from close observation what his life was like. If anyone happened to ask me during high school or college what I planned to be "when I grew up," I always said the same thing: "I don't know what I'll be. But I know one thing: I'll never be a teacher, or even more surely, I'll never be a college administrator."
Yes, okay. So looking back from this perspective, it is impossible to miss the fact that I spent over 20 years as a teacher and more than 20 years after that being a college administrator. We could emphasize the irony of all that, but then again, that's not really the story of my life: "He did do what he said he would never do." True enough, but frankly, it doesn't seem from this perspective to have really been a big deal.
What I would have said after about age 14 in those largely imagined interviews where somebody asked what I'd like to do with my life... is that I wanted to write. My going to graduate school and then pursuing a teaching career did not seem contrary to that more significant motivator. I had this, as-it-turned-out looney notion that an academic career would make it possible for me to write as my principal vocation.
As I approached college graduation, I was kind of expecting I would get on a Greyhound to New York City, where I would take whatever job fell into my hands - I thought maybe dishwashing might be a possibility - so that I could write in my free time, soaking up the energy and excitement of the big city. After having spent a year in France as a college student, I even thought maybe there would be some way I could do the "day-job/free time writing" thing in Paris.
I did know, by the way, that some day-jobs did nothing to facilitate the off-hour writing I had in mind. In the summer after senior year in high school, I had worked in a big local printing factory. It was such heavy work, and the work environment in the factory was so dirty, smelly, and loud that even though my 8-hour work day was over by 3:30 p.m. I was too used-up to get anything else done before falling into bed at night.
But my career game plan - ill-defined as it was - still was "any-ol' job, so that I could write, write, write."
That has not happened.
At first it seemed to be working out fine. In my two years earning enough to live on as a college teaching assistant part-time and a master's candidate part-time, I wrote one novel and eight or ten short stories. That production was pretty much according to plan. But there did already seem to be a possible problem on the horizon: no one seemed to be interested in publishing what I wrote. Hmmm.
But it still seemed a boost to my long-range career plans when I was able to snag a three-year graduate fellowship to support my doctoral work. The stipend was equal to what I'd been earning teaching part-time, so I could have just spent that extra time on my writing... I did teach a little, though, and put in ten hours a week or so in summers, assisting professors with their publishing work.
But I also wrote more stories, and discovered that most of those I had written could be put together to make up a second novel, with a few holes that I set to work filling in. Publishers continued to be uninterested.
In fact, it turned out to be a lot easier to get published some of the stuff I was writing for my graduate work ("the day-job") than any of my real writing. A piece on Joyce, one on Proust, a couple on Lawrence... And then, by the third year of my fellowship, my day-job itself consisted entirely of writing: writing my dissertation, that is.
So, more or less, I was proceeding according to plan: my "day-job" was grad work, and I wrote stories and novels in my "real work" hours. And it looked like that would continue even after I had completed my doctorate... since I was awarded a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship to France for the first post-doctorate year. That would be a fine day-job.
While conceiving my grand plan, I had never considered the possibility that I wouldn't succeed as a writer. Well, yes. Call it Dumb if you must; I'll call it Naive. Anyway, now after five years, without abandoning the grand plan, I did make a mid-course correction. If writing great fiction was not going to work... or not work yet... then I'd write popular fiction instead. Maybe in fact that could eventually become my day-job.
So, as I taught American Civilization to French college students in Lyon (my day-job), the rest of my time I spent writing a murder detective novel. I sent a draft of the first couple of chapters to a well-known literary agent in New York, who said it looked good and I should send the whole thing asap.
I redoubled my efforts to finish before Christmas, did that, and sent off the manuscript in mid-December. By what seemed like return mail, the guy said I had great talent but he advised just junking that ms. and going to work on something new. I figured he was just screwing me around.
There I was, in France, in January by then, with no prospects for gainful employment after June... and it had just so happened that it looked like - if I was lucky - I might have met the woman who would one day be my wife!
Now, you say, that must have been a real turning-point. But not so fast. No, the grand plan didn't exclude the possibility that I'd marry and have a family. I hadn't exactly planned that, because... well, getting my fiction published seemed by then only slightly more far-fetched than marrying. The day-job plan could include a wife and family just fine, thank you. But this at-the-time remote possibility of marrying certainly wasn't out of the question. It just made the day-job a little more prominent in short-term planning.
It happened that a man who'd played a role in my one-year Fulbright post in Lyon, who had been teaching at the University of North Carolina that fall, returned to his regular teaching position in Lyon in January. Learning that I was about to go on the job market ("day-job" market, right?), Professeur LeGrand mentioned that the English Department in Grenoble just up the road was in crisis because one of their two professors with doctorates had been killed in a car accident. It usually took, he said, at least a full year to find a replacement at that level. Dr. LeGrand could recommend me as a one-year fill-in if I was interested...?
That was good enough on the day-job side of the equation. I had also found a one-month post in Nice for June. I kept shopping my novels and stories here and there, or hither and yon, and went on with Plan A.
We did get married and spent a year together in Grenoble. The department chair whose college teaching job offer I had turned down to accept the Fulbright post in Lyon hired me for the next year, so by then my day-job had become what I would once have said is the job I would never take, being a college professor like my dad. But it wasn't really a turning point...
I still thought I could write in the "off hours," and everything would go along as planned.
After three or four more years, I'd had three or four stories published (and six or eight poems), so my writing career was still going nowhere. But I'd been tenured and hired at a small college as a department chair. We built a house and started family...
And after I eventually retired, my daughter convinced me I should write a blog. OK so it's neither a day job nor the "real work" I'd first started aiming for. But it keeps me out of more serious kinds of mischief...
Was starting a blog a turning point in something? No. Just another development taking advantage of the situation in hand, and moving on.
Oh, and nine months ago, a grandson was added to our family, a more significant development.
When I was a child, if the family on a drive in the country got stuck following a winding road, my mother would say the road was so twisty it would have broken a snake's back to travel it. There don't seem to have been twists and turns like that in my life or career. Or maybe I just didn't notice.