On Day Jobs, Double Lives, & the Greatest Unrequited Love of my Childhood
Let us begin with two confessions:
One. A writer – and a rather fanciful genre writer, at that – is all I have really, truly, in the most mortifying, hopeful recesses of my heart, wanted to be. Growing up, I found less embarrassing ways of saying this: oh, I wanted to be a lawyer, or a journalist, or a professor, someone who worked with words in sensible, sustainable ways, and then perhaps in my spare time I’d make up fairytales for kids, or something.
Which leads neatly to confession number two: I don't remember any point in my life where I envisioned penning novels or plays or poetry without a day job. Given the constant anxiety around publishing, probably not a bad way to be!
I suspect my sensible physicist father had some hand in this. My arty fashion designer mom (that is, my bio mom, before my dad remarried) passed away young, so my dad was, by default, the primary adult influence in my formative years. This is not to say that my dad didn’t or doesn’t value the arts and humanities, but I got the early impression that my love of literature and history was like a garnish: useful for presentational purposes, but mostly there to enhance real intellectual substance, which was to be found in STEM fields. I took it into my head that “day job” meant I’d be a scientist like the majority of interesting, respectable adults I knew, which sounded great to me, since at that age, science still meant building dioramas of biomes and drawing comics about asteroids, and I was still pretty omnivorously a nerd for all seasons. I wasn’t so hot with numbers, but algebra was boring, not incomprehensible, and besides, I figured my enthusiasm for the comics could compensate.
I'll be real with y’all: my childhood was pretty cool, for a card-carrying nerd's definition of cool. Growing up as a scientist's kid in Princeton, that cradle of academia, meant I spent a lot of time in and out of my dad's lab, in the company of my dad's science bro friends, who would patiently humor my questions on everything from Steven Spielberg movies to neutron stars and binary pulsars, but would also later turn out to be celebrated string theorists or Nobel laureates or a dude who lived in Albert Einstein's old house, where I also definitely had a slumber party with my friends once. It was pretty rad. I could totally be a scientist of some sort when I grew up, I thought, and live in Einstein's house, and write really badass science fiction!
But then high school happened. Oh man, high school. I had the tremendous luxury of attending a local fancy boarding school as a day student, where I met a bunch of other clever, ambitious kids, some of whom probably really will win Nobel prizes for cool scientific accomplishments one day! Alas, I was not fated to join their number, because this high school full of crazy talented teenagers is also where I suddenly, tragically discovered my total lack of actual aptitude – or, if I'm honest with myself, sufficient sustained interest – for any of the STEM disciplines. This revelation was vaguely traumatizing to my wee teen self, in much the way I imagine young aspiring ballerinas are traumatized at discovering they have the wrong feet for classical dance.
I'd also, in the same window of years, lost one mother to cancer and gained a new one via my dad's second marriage, so despite a remarkable effort on the part of all three parents, my personal life wasn't exactly making great contributions to my mental health either. My family was in flux, my dreams were being slowly crushed beneath the heel of my quantitative incompetence, my dad kept making sad, bewildered faces at my lackluster problem sets, and everything was terrible! I could still write just fine, but what was mere word-slinging, given the looming horror of failing Honors Chem? Surely I was fit for nothing more than starving for bad poetry and perishing under a bridge somewhere!
Being surrounded by multidisciplinary high achievers was both a blessing and a curse, in this context. On one hand, having sixteen-year-old friends who can dance La Bayadère perfectly en pointe and make minor groundbreaking discoveries in biochem during independent study at Princeton University is great for providing you with a vibrant, stimulating social circle! It is, on the other hand, significantly less great for your adolescent self esteem. My childhood was basically an extended exercise in making peace with never, ever being the smartest person in the room. I became rather impressively zen to what I perceived as my relative uselessness.
But hey, I still wanted to write, and I still wanted not to starve under a bridge somewhere. Teen Me figured my dad, my mom, and my other mom's angry ghost would all be like, super pissed if I wasted all the money they'd thrown at my education by dying from pulpy writing and poor financial planning, like some Keats-ian wannabe. There was no help for it – I'd simply have to get over my unrequited longing for a passionate talent in STEM, trot off to a nice liberal arts college, and make do with what limited skill-set and interests I had. Surely, something sensible could be wrought from a head full of humanities!
Here, I actually struck gold. Growing up with a globetrotting family comprising a Chinese-American dad, a Taiwanese mom in early childhood, and a Korean mom in my teens – not to mention a coastal college town teeming with expats (and even a small but influential French consulate near my house!) – had bequeathed upon me (1) a passable knack for foreign languages, and (2) a deep-seated interest in cross-cultural communications. This paired quite conveniently with my literary inclination toward postcolonialism and diaspora narratives. When the summer between junior and senior years of undergrad rolled around, and my parents were like, "yo, you need a job," I wrangled myself a summer gig at the State Department, plus for good measure, a bunch of applications to graduate programs in international relations and area studies.
Now, here in my freshly grown-up twenties, I'm a geopolitical analyst, and proud to report that I have not yet starved under a bridge! Instead, I get paid to write a lot of pedantic translations and monographs and war gaming analysis. I also get paid – albeit much, much more modestly – to write a lot of fanciful fiction. Like most writers, my grown-up career is a bit of a balancing act. Shockingly, the adult world is generally more inclined to provide a steady paycheck and benefits for pedantic translations and monographs than for my made-up stories about robot dragons and space privateers, so I'm not throwing away that day job any time soon.
Would I, if I could? That's a complicated question. To my mind, the root of both good writing and good analysis stem from the same sort of inclination toward speculative thought – i.e. the skill you cultivate in plotting fictional worlds is not entirely unlike the one you use to extrapolate how real life global actors might think or move. A working knowledge of international affairs has almost certainly informed my overarching approach to making art, by the same token that writing for fun (and occasional profit) has probably, in some bizarre way, shaped my brain into a more bankable analytic mind. I'm sure other arty types with brainy day jobs (lawyers and journalists and yes, scientists all come immediately to mind!) have similar thoughts on how their work informs their storytelling, and vice versa.
But, in an effort to be more publicly emotionally honest, I'm not going to pretend the balancing act doesn't stretch me painfully thin sometimes. I'm penning a YA sci-fi query when I could be drafting an extra paper for a defense conference, or I'm staying late at the office to get through a tough translation when I could be getting a head start on short story edits. It's an exchange I'm mostly happy to make for the benefits I reap on both ends, but the fear of double-whammy failure is a constant, low key buzz in the back of my mind: striving to be enough for both ends of my double life, but never enough for either. This is especially legit when I’m simultaneously drowning in my day job’s research deadlines and weathering rejection after rejection on story submissions, which is unfortunately, an unavoidable reality of both gigs.
I brood from time to time over the first novel an agent ever signed me for, a YA action-adventure which died a brutal death in publishing acquisitions while I was clawing my way through my first grown-up Washington job at age twenty-three. I’d been too busy learning how to investigate global money laundering ops to grieve my book (hey, I never said it wasn’t an interesting and ironically plot-relevant job!). I've wondered aloud more than once, in drearier moments, if I irrevocably screwed up my life by spending too much time building up geopo wonk credentials, and not enough time focused on creative writing or MFA programs. Then, naturally, I second-guess myself wondering if an MFA would have tanked my relative financial stability (thus disappointing dad, mom, & ghost mom all over again!).
But then I third-guess myself, because frankly, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a thrill out of the sheer range of human experience that the international affairs community has allowed me, and what are writers, if not total sluts for experience? My entire adult life often feels like a weirdly adolescent exercise in either overcompensating for The One That Got Away: STEM, That Elusive Rogue, or proving that I can build an awesome, non-bridge-starving life for myself despite tragic math skills. Of course, that I'm a young woman of color navigating both (1) the defense/security industry, and (2) SF/F literature – neither of which are always super friendly to people who look like me! – does not make any of this easier, and could probably be its own essay.
That said, where I am right now is a product of immense privilege. I get to work a secure, interesting, well-compensated day job in the humanities because my field privileges the same expensive brand of education my family encouraged, and the convenience of respectability is super real. My greatest sources of angst are like, the ultimate in first world bookworm problems. Moreover, I have the remarkable fortune of friends who have, during difficult weeks, patiently endured such self-pitying bawling as "I AM A BAD WRITER WHO WRITES BAD ART AND BAD ANALYSIS" and "I have become a dog of the military-industrial complex for the sake of my own ambitions, and I AM NOT EVEN A VERY GOOD DOG." Possibly, I watched too much FMA as a kid, and therein lies my true fatal flaw.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except I suppose, to remind folks – most of all, to remind myself – that work and art and life are never precisely easy. Everyone’s got their own weird balancing act, and probably their own weird leftover adolescent hang-ups, and almost certainly their own weird hurts and fears and insecurities. None of that really goes away. But I do like to think that we grow more comfortable with our warts – physical and mental – as we age. Writing navel-gazing personal essays on the Internet about them is certainly one way to manage the process, but really, even this is just another way to reach out to some sort of communal human experience: to touch a hand, or three, and say, “hey buddy, I’ve got ‘em too.”