A friend left me a voicemail the other day. Right before she hung up, she added, out of nowhere: “I’m so happy you get to live your dream and be a writer.”
Expressing such a sentiment isn’t out of character for my friend, who has an MBA and a high-level corporate job but who also creates her own art. She understands how difficult it is to remain an artist for the long haul, and she has always cheered on my writing. In her version of utopia, the two of us would eschew the trappings of the real world to go live on a farm somewhere with our spouses and friends, where we could do nothing but write, make art, garden, and maybe tend to a few dozen rescue cats.
But of course that’s not real life. She goes to work every day for a multi-billion-dollar company, and while my employment situation has shifted over the years, I work and freelance to pay the bills. In fact, I listened to her voicemail while on a break at my library job. I smiled to myself when she said I was “living the dream,” and then I went back to work.
After my library shift, I attended my favorite Cleveland reading series, Brews and Prose. Between readers, Lydia Munnell, who had been a year behind me in the BGSU MFA program and who will take over next year as the Brews and Prose creative director, stepped up to the microphone to address the crowd.
“When you get an MFA,” she said, “all of your angriest uncles approach you at family gatherings to tell you you’re wasting your time.”
I laughed along with the rest of the audience, but when I pulled out a pen to jot down her line, I started. The pen was from a resort in Southern California that I’d visited several years ago in the final months of my corporate job, and seeing it after all that time jolted me into the past.
That trip had been something of a surprise, a gift, an accident. The event was an “executive summit,” where corporate leaders gathered at a fancy resort for three days to network, drink, golf, and attend a handful of meetings. I was far too low on my company’s food chain to attend such an event, but after our executives bowed out because of scheduling conflicts, I was sent to represent our company.
Usually, when I traveled for work, I spent long days in convention centers, where I rushed from sessions to the expo floor to the press room over and over. I wrote thousands of words each day and posted them online late at night in my hotel room. Only then could I collapse into bed so I could wake up early enough to make a breakfast meeting and attend that day’s keynote session.
This executive summit was something else. I had no responsibilities other than to show up to a few meals and host the reception my company had sponsored. Otherwise, I sat by the pool. I took a long walk on the resort grounds. I went to the beach. I signed up for a whale watching trip. Most of all, I drank champagne while warily eyeing the executives in their expensive clothing. Everyone was kind and welcoming, but I still struggled to make conversation.
I knew I was lucky to be on this luxurious trip, and yet all I could think was that I didn’t belong. When I walked around the resort grounds, I made eye contact with the employees, whom I identified with far more than the executives. I thanked those workers for every little thing they did in a way that seemed more like an embarrassed apology. This isn’t me, I wanted to tell them. I don’t stay in places like this. I don’t spend a fortune on tiny arugula salads. And I certainly don’t expect anyone to follow me around with a towel.
For many people, that trip would amount to “living the dream.” Doing almost nothing, eating and drinking for free, watching humpback whales surface in the ocean—all of that is preferable to just about any other job in a world. But the trip was temporary, and getting there in the first place came at its own price. I appreciated much about my job and the people I worked with, but I was also ready to move on.
During my time at that resort, I already knew I’d be resigning within the coming months to finally pursue an MFA. I’d thought that the excesses of the executive summit might make me feel bittersweet for all I was about to give up—the corporate card, the poolside cocktails, the expensed meals and free trips around the country—but instead, I felt impatient. I wanted to get on with my real work.
Several years later, at a literary reading here in Cleveland, I gazed down at the pen branded with the resort logo. I thought of my own version of Lydia’s hypothetical “angry uncles” who might think I’m wasting my time by writing literary fiction. Sometimes these are real people, but more often they are amorphous worries taking shape in my own mind.
But then I thought of my friend who’d called to remind me that I was doing it. I was writing. I was living the dream. Because even when I had the security and comforts of a corporate job, I knew who I was and what I wanted. I knew it so much that even back then, when I was packing to leave that resort, I grabbed the one souvenir from the luxury hotel that meant something to me.
I took the pen.