Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lend A Helping Hand


As a college professor, I get a lot of students coming into my office to discuss career plans.  And if they’re coming to me rather than to a counselor, it’s for one of two reasons: 1) they want to be an archaeologist; or 2) they want to be a fiction writer.  And I feel duty-bound to encourage them to do neither.

Seems harsh?  It seems harsh to me to, so let me explain.  From my vantage point, here in the nearly bankrupt state of California, I see students graduating with little in the way of marketable skills.  And I much as I love the idea of college as a time to find yourself, it’s also the best time to find yourself ahead of the competition.  Because that’s what all those other students are: the competition.  Do what you want in life, but you still have to put beans on the table.

Years ago, as a student, I attended a seminar given by the actor William Windom.  He spoke to an audience made up largely of drama students.  One student asked him what advice he would give an aspiring actor.

“I’d tell him not to be an actor,” Windom said.  “It’s too hard, too cut throat, too demeaning, and there are already too many people who want to be actors.  Your chance of success is negligible.”
The student who asked the question was speechless.  “I can’t believe you’d say that,” he said.  “It’s my dream.”
“Then get over it,” Windom told him.  “Look.  Everybody wants to be an actor.  Most will fail.  Some have it in them to really do the work, and take the chance, and be a grunt for years without recognition.  Most don’t.  So if I can scare you off, then you have no business being an actor in the first place.  You’ll never make it.  If you shrug off what I just told you, and you start acting anyway, then you might be one of the lucky few.  But it’s not my job to encourage you.”
I never forgot that talk.  

And that’s what I tell my students.  It’s not my job to encourage you to pursue your dream.  It’s my job to present you with the cold facts.  I love archaeology and I love writing.  So does everybody.  But these are hard dirty paths.  One involves a tireless commitment to drudging toil, hoping day after day that you will come across something of value, and the other involves digging in dirt.  

So when I tell my students to go be a nurse instead, or a programmer, I want to see their reaction.  Because if they laugh it off, and tell me they don’t care, and that they’re going to be an archaeologist or a fiction writer anyway, I’ll tell them to have a seat.  It’s time to make a plan.  And I’ll be right there to lend a helping hand.

(a mummified helping hand from the site of El Brujo, Peru)

Because if you’re willing to give up on your dream just because someone told you to, then it’s time to rethink your commitment to that dream.  If, on the other hand, you know the odds, and you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and spin the wheel, you might have a shot.

For more written words, please visit www.williamdoonan.com

21 comments:

Jane Turley said...

I think that is very sensible advice. Here in the UK I think there are many young people who believe acting and singing (not so much writing as that's probably too much effort!) are a fast track to fame and fortune. Unfortunately, the current ethos in schools (everyone's a winner) and the obsession with celebrity and reality shows don't help matters.

William Doonan said...

I couldn't agree more, Jane. It seems as if the aspirational goals of a generation are for great fortune or giving up. The new American ethos - get rich or die trying. It's disturbing.

Charles Gramlich said...

I need reminding of this sort of thing myself every once in awhile, with the writing anyway.

William Doonan said...

Charles, it's too late for you. You're already a writer, so you have to keep at it!

Sarah said...

Unless you have hardened in your old age, Bill, I think you do yourself a disservice. When you were my professor, and for years afterward, you cultivated and encouraged me to go down that dusty path of anthropology like no other professor I've had before or since.

Of course... I ultimately veered off into art history, a similarly do-it-because-you-love-the-work-not-because-it-pays-well kind of career path. Maybe you just saw that I had the damn-the-paycheck-I-do-it-for-the-love-of-doing-it look.

And wow, that's a lot of hyphens.

William Doonan said...

And that's my point, Sarah. Do you think if I told you to give it all up and go into tax law you would have done so? Of course not. But if you didn't have what it takes, and I encouraged you anyway, then I might have been doing a disservice.

john M. Daniel said...

When I'm asked about how to become a successful writer, I always ask the asker what they mean by successful. If they say their primary goal is money or fame I tell them the truth: the odds are against you. But if they want to be a writer because they have to write, then they'll be a success. They may be a successful hobby writer, or they may break through and earn some money and respect, but the success will be there: they're doing what they must do.

William Doonan said...

That's it, John. You write because you have to. If you need to run it by someone else to see if it would be a good idea, then it isn't a good idea.

Jewel Amethyst said...

This is really great advice. I just began teaching at a college and I am surprised to see students who are attempting the same class for the third time and still failing. Many of them are doing the bare minimum to get by. I keep wondering, when are they going to realize if their heart isn't in it, then it's not for them?

Lesley Diehl said...

Right you are. Dreams take work. It's important that the dreamer knows that.
I was a tough old bird as an advisor, too. I never crushed anyone's dreams, but I did make them work their butts off to get it. You sound like the kind of advisor I wish more students had.

Lesley

marja said...

I think everyone starting out should read your post.

However, if someone had given me that advice about ten years ago, I'd still be right where I am right now -- writing and making no money, but having the time of my life.

Outstanding post.

William Doonan said...

Thanks, Jewel! I see too many people who want to write because they think it will be neat, not because they have to.

Lesley, I'm trying not to crush dreams, just to temper them with a grain of THIS IS THE REAL WORLD YOU LIVE IN.

Marja, that's the point, right? You and me both. If I get rich from this, I'll be thrilled. If I don't get rich from it, so be it (actually though, I really would like to be outstandingly rich. I'm going to go buy a lottery ticket).

Terry Ambrose said...

Great post and one that hits close to home since I started out with a degree in anthropology!

On the one hand, it was a lousy career choice when I had no idea what career I really wanted. On the other, those lessons in how cultures worked have been tremendously helpful.

We can only hope that we wind up where we belong! And, your hard facts of life probably save a lot of kids from making a choice that might not be in their best interests.

William Doonan said...

I hope so, Terry. I think I wound up where I belong. Half of that is due to taking the right advice from the right people. The other half is due to ignoring the wrong advice from the wrong people.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Excellent advice. I know people don't much believe me when I give them the facts of a writer's life and the financial rewards they can, on average, expect, but I keep telling them.

William Doonan said...

Thanks, Graeme. I tell my students that on weekends I panhandle outside Starbucks just to afford cover art!

Anonymous said...

That can't be a real arm. A real arm wouldn't preserve like that.

William Doonan said...

It is a real arm. In coastal Peru, the preservation is incredible. Natural mummification is not an uncommon phenomenon. That arm is probably 1500 years old.

Liane Spicer said...

Great advice, William. I've met too many would-be writers who think it's a fast route to the big bucks. And I'm a bit tired of people, relatives included, who try to ask me in a roundabout way how much money I'm making because, yanno, they have this great idea...

Anyone who gets into this for the money is definitely in the wrong place.

William Doonan said...

I hear you, Liane. Whenever people ask me if I'm making money from writing, I tell them yes, which is true. But if they knew that royalties are more often than not paid in nickels, I think they would be less than impressed. So I don't tell them about the nickels.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

One of the issues of living in a small, very small territory, is that the professional options aren't very wide. The big money occupations here are law and building so the girls flock to law school and the boys leap into contracting. Anybody who wants to be an archaeologist probably won't return to the island after university. When I say I'm a writer, the response is a snicker or, from the more polite, a puzzled look. Writers are people who live in the USA or Britain, not on a little island. heaves a sigh.