Should a person be sensible and find a job, or follow their passions? This is a false choice, although one many feel compelled to make. I’m not sure those two options often exist concurrently.
My insight into this choice may be the result of getting a new eyeglasses prescription filled. On Friday they were ready at the warehouse club, the first prescription I filled since before the pandemic. I can see clearly now and it’s a revelation. Well, no. That’s not it. Maybe it’s something else.
At our tenth high school class reunion in 1980, I described myself as a writer. Here’s the entire passage from the booklet the organizing committee issued:
Paul lives in Iowa City and attended U of I, BA 1974, and the United States Army Infantry School. He is a writer. He is also a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves. M.A. candidate in American Studies at U of I.Unpublished journal, Summer 1980.
It was out there. I was a writer. Decision made! Not so fast!!
One of the last nights I spent in Davenport in 1980 was with two friends at a bar called The Mad Hatter. We walked to the Palmer Student Union where another friend was performing with his guitar. We had a discussion about how a person had to give up her artwork after taking a job at John Deere. She was tired after work, raising a child, and found little time or desire to make art. I knew if I took a full time job after graduate school I might find myself in the same situation. I had just declared myself to be a writer! I decided to stick it out at least until I finished graduate school.
I had enough money saved to pay for graduate school with help from the G.I. Bill. After graduation I wanted to remain in Iowa City, so I got an apartment and found a low-level job without benefits working for the university. One thing led to another and I met someone, got married, and together decided we needed more money to afford a house and everything else involved in a long-term relationship. Things happen. I didn’t put my writing on hold.
During that first year after we married I made an earnest attempt to write the book about which I had been talking for so many years. The working title was Going Home, and I summarized it in a journal entry:
Going Home will begin with a descent from high culture – Vienna – to low culture – Davenport – á la William Carlos Williams. Then will come a rebuilding – a putting together of a new life from the pieces. A new ascent, with both feet placed firmly on the ground. So, from Vienna, to Davenport, to Iowa City, to Northeastern Iowa. Descent to the ground, but then both feet planted firmly, beginning a step at a time, making a new beginning.Personal Journal, Iowa City, June 17, 1983.
I’m not sure today what exactly that meant. The image of “both feet planted on the ground” recurred in my journals. It would also be an argument for a common life, free from external structures. At various times, I called the book the 1969 Novel or Going Home, yet it never became much more than an idea about Iowa contrasted with Europe… or something. I made outlines and wrote passages. I made reading lists and trip itineraries. I made research notes for much of 1983.
In each section of Going Home, I want to provide the reader with two things. First, I want them to be able to relate to the personal experience from which each scene is written, enabling them to say, “I’ve been there.” Second, I want them to be able to see that the given experience functions ideologically in the novel, giving the characters some sort of influence. Too, I want the sections to teach the reader a way of life.Personal Journal, Iowa City, Iowa, June 27, 1983.
I wrote about the book extensively in my journal without getting anything significant down on paper. I had the idea, likely from Emerson, of turning away from the courtly muses to everyday life. I did extensive reading to form a moral framework for the novel. This is all well and good, yet here’s the issue: I had no clue what it meant to be married.
It is significant that at this crossroads there was no real choice between following my passion to be a writer and doing what was sensible. In seeking to write, I sought realization of who I was regardless of any framework for living. The pent up desire to become a writer compelled me to continue to live as best I could: writing, earning money, having a family life, the whole shebang. It would have been easier if Morpheus had offered me a one-time choice between the blue and red pills.
It is important to refrain from framing life as a choice between options. This seems too simplistic. A dilemma means a choice between disagreeable alternatives, yet devising an arbitrary choice is just that: arbitrary. It would be a false choice.
While we might feel good about defining a choice and making a decision, the results seem unlikely to endure. We owe it to ourselves to accept complexity in life and deal with it outright. We can’t settle for second best when both choices are sub-optimal.
It sometimes helps to get a new pair of glasses, to see clearly, even if they are not responsible for choices we make.
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