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Editor's Note: What I want to be when I grow up

Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 10:46 a.m. CDT

I  spent a day last week at a career fair, talking to eighth graders.

The topic I was asked to speak on was being a writer, not specifically being a journalist. As I suspected, most of the kids who had questions or things to say have their hearts on being novelists, and more power to them. I have a novel in the works myself, but find I lack the discipline of a fiction writer – my book has languished for years, worked on in spurts of industry then allowed to sit when I decided I was just too busy/tired/uninspired to work that day/week/month.

As I started each of my talks – they were in 15-minute sets over the course of about five hours – I told kids, “If you’ve told people you want to be a writer, very well-intentioned people have probably said, ‘That’s nice, but you can’t make a living at it. What else do you want to do?’”

Each time, I saw a couple of faces light up with understanding as their heads began to nod. Oh, yes. They’ve heard that before.

I then told them why that’s not true. While it is exceedingly difficult – but not impossible – to make one’s living writing fiction, or poetry, there are plenty of other ways one can play with words for a living.

Journalism, for instance. Or copy writing, or technical writing.

I laughed at lunch when a graphic designer who was presenting one room over from me said she was starting her talks the same way, for all the kids who have been told they can’t make a living making art. She, for one, begs to differ.

I think it’s good to encourage kids at a young age – I think eighth grade is pretty young to start sussing out career ambitions – to start thinking about where their skills and interests lie. Studying the “right” subjects in high school and college can help one day.

But I think it’s a shame to tell a kid with a passion and talent for the arts that they have no choice but to find some other way to make a living. Writers write more than novels; artists create more than museum paintings. Kids, of all people, shouldn’t be told they can’t do what they love doing. I hope they prove their naysayers wrong.

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