I dreamed recently that I was giving career advice to young people, but they weren’t listening to me because I hadn’t had a successful career.
I couldn’t blame them because, although I don’t feel like a professional failure, it has been hard for me to describe my so-called career.
I really tried for a while, beginning in about 2004, when I began going to writing retreats, to think of myself as a writer. I still call myself a writer when a professional identification is needed, though I usually pair it with “editor.” “Writer and editor”–even though I do a lot more writing than editing these days.
But it has always felt artificial to call myself simply a writer.
For a long time I thought this was because I didn’t have the discipline to be a “serious” writer. I castigated myself for not writing every day, not embarking on a novel or essay writing or journalism, not devoting myself to promoting my own writing through to publication, to overcoming rejection and failure. For not having started earlier, for not persisting.
But now I know that writing is only a piece of my vocation and that, rather than feeling too big for me, the writer identity feels too small. I remember thinking, when I was getting A’s and praise in college writing courses, that I would write when I had something to write about. Gradually, over the years, I have done that.
Writing represents my ability to interpret and share with others what is happening in my personal landscape, inner and outer. It is not an end in itself. I am not a novelist or poet or even an essayist devoted to creative expression. What I am is a journalist of my own experiences, a reporter on my own trek in the world. Also, writing plays a role in moving that journey along. I write my life and then it happens and then I write about it.
Writing is not my career but it is a part of my vocation. While I can’t give great career advice, I do know something about vocation. In this week’s series on vocation, Richard Rohr says, “One sign of your vocation is that you would do it for free, even if there is no reward or social payoff.”
I’ve done a lot of writing for free. I’ve done a lot of other things, too, for little or no reward or payoff in conventional terms. Some things, such as immersing myself in other cultures and languages, building cross-cultural relations, loving family, seeking spiritual experience, and helping others implement their visions, are such strong calls that I pay a great deal in many different ways–money, time, attention, persistence, and doing necessary associated dirty work–to carry them out.
So I would add that a sign of vocation is willingness not only to do something for free but also to pay associated costs. Following your bliss but also getting your hands dirty.
I have great admiration for “serious” writers but I haven’t been willing to invest what it takes to become one. Nor do I know exactly what to call what I have become instead. Any career I can point to is very checkered indeed.
And that is my final piece of career advice, for what it’s worth. Careers may come with labels but vocations seldom do. A vocation is more path or pattern. Or mysterious, emerging purpose, visible only in looking back.