Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an adult. I am an adult by any legal or biological definition, but I don’t necessarily feel like an adult. I’m not sure I think like an adult. I don’t particularly live the way a stereotypical adult may live. In most ways, I’m not sure I live up to the expectation of what an adult should be. Part of this feeling is the fact that I’m holding on to goals and ideals that I developed in childhood, either unable or unwilling to let them evolve into something different – like being a writer.
In a few months I’ll be turning 28 years old. In those 28 years, barring some sort of feverish inspiration or the miracle of being “discovered,” I’ll be able to point to a lot of minor successes. Black belt in a martial art that most view as more of a hobby than a threat, college degree I’ve never really used, regional dodgeball championship, writing and assistant directing an independent film, working as a “professional” – even if I was fired twice.
When I try to think of my life in those terms, it doesn’t seem so uneventful. My ambition has led me to some cool places and I’ve accomplished some unique things. But most of those accomplishments aren’t directly related to what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to write. Not to say I’ve failed, because I don’t think you can fail at something that is A.) completely subjective and B.) never given up on. If you never give up, the match is never over. You can’t call a winner until the match ends.
Still, I decided I wanted to be a writer and/or a filmmaker when I was young. I remember when writing first became a major thing for me. It was third grade. I wrote a story about a toy that turns out to be a time machine. The time machine and I go back to prehistoric times, where it loses a bolt (which was obviously the source of its time traveling powers) and we’re stranded. It was fun. It gave me a way to inhabit a world that was better than the one I’m forced to occupy day-to-day. I’ve never looked back.
But I’ve also never really figured it out. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t taken it seriously enough as a field of study until recently. So I think, “Gee, maybe I’m a late bloomer and I should focus on not being a starving artist well into my 40s or 50s.” I enter the adult world a toe at a time, always keeping an eye on my aspirations because if I don’t, they might disintegrate in the sunlight. First I move away from everything I love. Then I get a job in an office. I still write, more seriously than before, but don’t manage many steps forward. Eventually my priorities shift and things like a family, a career, and full independence seep their way into my skull, pushing the (perceived) glitz and glamor of becoming a screenwriter and working in Hollywood to the far periphery of my vision. It dawns on me that maybe it’s not as important as it once was. Maybe, just maybe, childhood dreams should be left in childhood.
Adults are supposed to live and die by routine. Adults are supposed to be responsible and hedge their bets – plan for the future while mitigating the risks that inherently presents. Adults are supposed to contribute to society in small but meaningful ways. Adults are supposed to be doing things I most definitely do not do.
The problem, in my eyes, anyway, is that being nearly 28 years old and still telling people that I want to be a writer reeks of pretension. It conjures images of people with fake glasses (“C’mon man, those fucking things don’t even have lenses.”) sitting in a coffee shop working in their own criticism-free bubble because they can’t afford an internet connection. It feels like showing off something I haven’t actually earned because to say you’re a writer automatically gives people the impression that you are, in some way, learned and disciplined and intellectual when that is rarely the actual case. It feels like I can say I want to be a writer instead of a carpenter or plumber because I have reached the pique of humanity and no longer need to develop the necessary skills to survive. Like the greek philosophers before me, my contribution to humanity will be in the form of thoughts that no one else has had. That, my friends, is not something I feel good about.
But then I pick up Bradbury. My hero. My idol. And, as it may very well turn out, my savior.
I’ve been reading his Zen in the Art of Writing and he speaks of writing as never growing up. It’s how he kept himself young until the day he died at age 91. He held onto his childhood fears and explored them as an adult. He viewed the world through the curious and giddy eyes of a child and used that constant inspiration to fuel his imagination. He didn’t let the pressures and expectations of a typical adult seep in and poison what he knew to be his creative lifeline.
The world places pressure on us to be a certain way. In childhood, it’s to conform to the latest trends – to fit in. We’re taught to follow direction, walk in line, be complacent. In adulthood, we can more easily let go of those things as we grow comfortable in our skin. We stop caring so much about fitting in. We totally ignore trends. We get better at choosing when to follow direction and when to improvise. We break out of the line. Our ambition ensures we’re never complacent. Instead, adulthood leads to new tics and commands. We’re told to be responsible. Start a family. Pay your bills. Keep out of trouble.
It’s not that I don’t agree with these lessons and commands. My problem, then, is the question of whether they can be separate from the creative life that is necessarily stuck in childhood or if there is a way to intertwine the two without undue stresses? Can I work a professional job to pay my bills while balancing a family and live half of my life in a fantasy world driven by my imagination and fears?
A better question, then: Is there a choice? Writing is what makes me happy. Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve found the chances of success as a writer of any kind slowly seeming slimmer and slimmer as my ego takes its beatings like a good soldier. Money and success are becoming less of a motivator to keep going. It has to be that way because, as I’ve learned and have had to accept, 95% of people that call themselves “artists” either hold other jobs to make ends meet or barely eke out a living in their art form. Plain and simple, that’s the reality of pursuing this sort of dream. Artists, by and by, are contractors and contractors work job-to-job with no guarantee that the one they’re working now won’t be the last one they ever work.
There has to be more to keep going. For me, it may come down to the fact that I don’t want to let go of childhood. I have the same friends I’ve had since I was a kid, why can’t I have the same ambitions? Not only does it feel safe, it makes me happy. In a world where every day can be a struggle to please someone or to get by, my friends and my ambitions help me to look forward to the next day.
Ultimately, then, maybe becoming an adult isn’t about letting go of the things we held so dearly as children. Maybe being an adult is fulfilling those responsibilities while holding on to a youthful exuberance. Maybe the act of retreating into my childhood aspirations and letting them act as a reprieve and solution to the pressures of adult life is a good thing.
Maybe, like Bradbury, writing will keep me as young as I wish I still were.