The Body (and Life) You Want without the Suffering

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Pleasure Principle

The best way to predict the future is to create it. ~ Peter Drucker

You know, this blog is me musing out loud on how to create the life I want. A bit of dreamlining, if you will. A lot of that involves money, but there is a backstory here. I am 31, how on Earth has it taken me such a long time to start focusing on my dreams? Long time, you say? Well, yeah, let's do a quick redux of Camille's Modern Life.

Late 1970s - My parents have a bouncing baby girl. The doctor said I was going to be a boy and I was supposed to be born two months later. Not really a preemie, just a fine-boned mother. Dad calls me "pinch-a-penny" for no readily apparent reason.

Age 3 - Pre-school. Things go swell until I follow the crowd and jump into the side of the kiddie pool one hot summer day. A spanking is swiftly delivered by the pre-school matron to my still-wet bottom. I ask her if she is crazy and get soap in my mouth for the trouble. Lesson learned: Following the crowd is anti-fun.

Age 6: My first job! Grandma lets me clean up discarded flowers and dust 45s in her record shop. I earn 50 cents an hour and spend all my cash on soda and candy for my cousins, I'm not allowed to have either treat. I reserve 10 cent for tithing at church. Work is awesome, free music and flowers are perks.

Age 8 - BookIt! enters my life. Spawns lifelong addiction to pizza and vampire novels, often at the same time. Family moves to Germany.

Age 9: Living in Europe is difficult. I go introverted and start writing poetry. A poem publishes in a compendium for U.S. students across the continent. Pretty jazzed, family is very happy. Lesson learned: I can express myself.

Age 12: Return to States to discover my peers are illiterate. Return to introversion and working for Grandparents.

Age 17: High School graduation. Mom had announced in 9th grade, "we don't have money to send you to college, so I suggest you get scholarships to get yourself there. Here's some information on a girl who earned $100,000." I read the article, decided I could do better. 4 years later, I've amassed approx. $200,000 in scholarships. I now work in a Roller Rink. There is a trend here.

College: I travel lots and write about as much. I edit the school paper. I contribute to an online magazine (in 1998 this was pretty slick). I organize some student government campaigns just to see if I can (I can). An invitation for a bag lunch draws me into journalism Copy Editing and I earn a Dow Jones Scholarship and internship at the Detroit Free Press for the summer. The Free Press gives free food from recipe samples and weekly mentor lunches. I'm hooked. Someone mentions The New York Times having the best perks and I decide I should go there next.

Another brown bag lunch is made available by the editors of the Times during a visit to campus, I show up and grab a few bags. I like to eat. We talk. They offer me a job. I think they are jerking my chain, but decide they are nice people and mosey off. I get paperwork 3 months later. Color me surprised. I graduate college having turned a tidy profit each year I was in school.

2000: I bomb. The gig at the Times goes well, but my life goes batshit crazy. Bad relationship, poor health, confusion reigns. I leave the Times and move to Indianapolis. I leave Indianapolis 8 months later, the worst winter in 20 years drives me off. I am also broke, having not worked since leaving the Times.

2001: I call up the Times and they give me another job at a smaller paper they own in San Francisco. I start negotiating salary from the pittance I'm offered up to a fair-living wage. I show up for work and my new boss/editor informs me he drove off the last woman in my position within 2 weeks. He looks at me expectantly. I look back at him. He can't be worse than Indianapolis, right? I'm a horrible employee, made worse by not understanding anything about megalomaniac managers. I devolve into sitting in my cubicle composing long letters, stories for online outlets, and flying across the country (or the Atlantic) for long weekends. I run out of sick and personal days, vacation, and seriously consider calling in dead.

2003: While recovering from emergency surgery I learn I've been fired. I'm relieved. I start an academic editing business, but can't figure out how to price my services and ultimately end up becoming a discount service. I fire myself when a functionally illiterate client refuses to pay because on the assumption I would edit her 200 page thesis for free since she was just learning to read. Having decided the gig is not for me, I focus on generating a few pages of fiction a day while collecting unemployment and wondering what I will do with my still-sickly self.

2004: A family friend says his medical practice isn't making money and asks if I can look at the books, he doesn't trust anyone else. What I find is startling, he's making plenty of money but he's giving most of it away. I write a six-page proposal for fixing the problem; he offers help me through the labyrinth that is Healthcare in America if I'll help him navigate the business of medicine. I suggest we start with Online Bill Pay.

2009: Five years, seven surgeries, and a lot of Percoset later I proceed to have a nervous breakdown.

2010: I get my hands on a copy of The Fighters Mind and read it cover to cover during a cross-country fight. I'm particularly struck by the idea that "It never always gets worse" and the amount of mental commitment Mixed Martial Arts requires. I transcribe half the book into my journal and ask myself, possibly for the first time ever, what I want out of my life and the people in it. I want to be a writer and I want to be happy and I'm tired of standing in my own way on all accounts. I declare Thursdays "writing days," and I start taking night classes at Emory. Having continued to work while hospitalized for 7 months, and while coming apart in 2009, I see no compelling reason to give it up just because I want to be more creative. I decide the company can run a little more lean and get offered partnership for my innovations. Now I'm a business owner AND an aspiring writer, life is pretty sweet. I'm 31 years old, I have scars, and finally, I have some stories.

And now, something *really* entertaining: Po Bronson in a closet!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ms. Cleo & the Pursuit of Mfappyness

I don’t see a lot of reason to go to school other than to hang out with writers I admire. I did enjoy meeting Colum McCann at Hunter and was impressed at the thought of hanging out, drinking in a pub in the Village with this GREAT WRITER. However, hanging out with great writers does not ensure one will become a great writer, that’s more private, often terrible, labor.

To whit: I have harbored Toni Morrison dreams, but I’m not at all convinced I have that much talent. I have to hack this craft with what’s on hand – nearly debilitating insecurity, strong survival instincts, a penchant for hard work and a very thick thesaurus. I dig away at the obstacles until they crumble. Or I do.

I’ve not been convinced a Masters of Fine Arts means more money for work in the Arts and no one at the Open Houses I attended had good answers to my main questions.

1. How does a writer build a career? Most careers now follow the school-training-feet on the ground and experience trajectory, is writing the same thing?
2. Is there career counseling at MFA programs or job placement?

Question #2 is probably more wishful thinking on my part than anything, but I’m a girl who loves a good plan.

Among the professions listed in post #1, there aren’t too many that require an advanced degree. In fact, most of them are undergraduate degrees at best and it’s not uncommon to find someone with a high school diploma and a little chutzpah working as a blogger, editorial assistant, copywriter, or reporter. I asked a good friend who heads an advertising firm about the necessity of an advanced degree for creative work as a copywriter.

"No MFA. Writers come from eclectic backgrounds. They are amazingly creative in their ability to make the complex simple, understand how people think, what motivates and usually vey strategic thinkers. They will do a year at Creative Circus or the Portfolio Center- schools where they can build a book of writing and ads to show they have promise."

An aside, quite a few bestselling writers came out of the ranks of advertising, one of the most popular of the moment is James Patterson (who does have a master’s degree, though I’m not sure in what). Advertising has its own hierarchy and a recent development is similar to the push to drive applications to MFA programs – Advertising professional schools such as Creative Circus charge considerable fees to help students develop a portfolio for employment.

The Difference: Ms. Cleo and the MFA

Does anyone else remember the Ms. Cleo Psychic Hotline commercials? They were hilarious and on every 20 minutes. Ms. Cleo had a crazy Jamaican accent, gave out fabulous advice that was entirely predictable using tarot cards and eye rolls.

Ms. Cleo, it was revealed, was just an actress with a shitty accent, but she did quite well for herself, I thought. And it is in her honor that I’m naming my Masters of Fine Arts the Ms. Cleo – or Fake MFA.

The Challenge

To take the $10,000 - $40,000 per year I would spend for graduate school and commit it to my development as a writer.

That’s already enough to make me a little crazy, I don’t make that much extra scrilla, but if I take time from work to write, at least one day per week, then I’m taking a pay cut and I start making some numbers.

I had to inch my way up to this project, it’s been on my mind for years, but I couldn’t see myself giving up health insurance (which I need because I have chronic health issues) or a steady paycheck (which I also need because I have chronic health issues).

My first significant step came in Spring 2010 when I had an innocuous exchange with my great-Godfather Abner. He tossed a copy of The Teaching Company’s catalogue at me, asking if I’d ever seen it. An octogenarian, he was appalled by the prices for the audio and DVD courses.

“$60 for a class?” he said, snapping and yanking his red suspenders as we sat at the kitchen table, big band jazz playing in the background of the breakfast conversation.

I was astounded. “Do you know how much this course would cost at The University of Iowa, where the instructor is an…instructor?” I thumbed the pages, scanning the course description and brimming with incredulity at the bargain – 12 hours of instruction for $60 on my iPod, accessible whenever I wanted it, what a deal!

Abner stared at me a bit, then said, “School must be expensive now.” He lives in Menlo Park, people, home to Stanford University and bungalows priced in the high six figures.

Learning to Read Like a Writer

I purchased two courses from the catalogue that day, $130 bucks very well spent as far as I was concerned, and downloaded my first course in audio form. The first two “lectures” were difficult, it’s been at least a decade since I dealt with academia. I muddled through and by the sixth lecture (I did one a day) I was feeling something akin to epiphany.

I was learning. I was learning about reading fiction and I felt as though my brain had turned on for the very first time. It was awesome!

That pretty much opened the flood gates. I’d hacked every other area of my life and failed profoundly at my attempt to go to school for writing. So, I thought, “what if I hack this writing career thing? I’m in good company riiiiight?”