by Sarah Nove ’20
“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.”
You may have heard this quote before, delivered by a voice enveloped in static––the voice of the late American philosopher, Alan Watts. It’s an excerpt from his lecture, entitled “What If Money Was No Object,” a lecture that I’ve turned to for guidance often since I started high school. In it, Watts shares his thoughts on how American culture views a person’s profession as a means to an end, asking audiences what they truly desire.
So what do you desire? If you could do anything for a living, what would you choose? As we get closer to college, many kids decide to take a more “practical” or “realistic” route, which often entails choosing a career that makes them money but doesn’t make them happy. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Last Spring, I had the amazing opportunity to interview two authors and a Hugo Award-winning editor. They are living proof that you can have your dream job without compromising your future.
“What would you do if money was no object?”
Keith DeCandido, the author of over 50 novels, knew the answer to this question from a very young age. At the ripe old age of 6, he wrote his first story, “Reflections In My Mirror” on construction paper.
“I always wanted to be the guy who wrote that stuff [that I loved to read],” said DeCandido. “I don’t remember ever not wanting to write.”
Understanding that writing for a living isn’t easy, DeCandido honed other skills, working as an editor for his high school and college newspapers. Even after writing fiction became his primary job, he worked as an editor for various publications in order to maintain a stable income.
“[It] was really nice … I’d finish a writing project and then I could do some editing. [Editing] gave me a break from thinking about writing––I could still keep the creative muscles going without having to actually come up with things. I got to rest part of the brain while still doing something literary.”
Now, DeCandido does much more than write novels: he blogs, makes music, records a podcast, writes reviews for Tor––he even teaches after-school karate classes. Though his current résumé likely isn’t exactly what 6 year-old Keith envisioned, DeCandido doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
“How would you really enjoy spending your life?”
Neil Clarke’s answer to this question wasn’t always ‘editing.’ In fact, the award-winning editor of Clarkesworld Magazine wasn’t looking to become an editor at all when he began his career.
“When I started [editing], I had a job I loved. I worked in technology and education at universities and schools, but, over time, that career went from something I loved doing to something that the joy was being sucked out of,” said Clarke. “Meanwhile, [I had started] editing, [and] I was realizing that ‘I’m having fun doing this, I’m working with amazing people who have great ideas … and make great art.’ By that point I went ‘Oh, okay, this could work out.’”
Still, it took a few years before Clarke could make the switch to editing full-time. Changing careers is never easy, but, for Clarke, it is extremely important to do the things that make him happy.
“I had a bit of a scare six years ago where I almost died after having a heart attack at a convention. That shaped a lot of my decision making processes as well, because you come out of an experience like that with your priorities shifted and realizing … ‘life is too short to worry about things that really aren’t that important’ … We just get roped up in [worries], and then the universe gives you a bit of a kick and reminds you ‘Hey, stop.’”
As a full-time editor, Clarke has the freedom to work on more than sifting through hundreds of submissions each month––he can now take advantage of the opportunities that weren’t possible for him while he was working in academia.
“That first year [of editing full-time] I started saying yes to a lot of [opportunities] and ended up spending way too much time on the road,” Clarke admitted. “I’ve dialed it back a little bit, and I’m beginning to find that balance. The different opportunities that crop up when you have more time to do things have been really motivating.”
“What sort of a situation would you like?”
Day Al-Mohamed’s “situation” is atypical: a senior policy advisor by day, YA fiction author by night. As a student, she hadn’t planned to pursue this seemingly odd career combination; in fact, for a long time, she thought she had left her dream of becoming a writer behind in grade school.
“[For me, writing was] one of those things you think about when you’re a lot younger … and then get convinced that it’s probably not the best and most lucrative career––and not just lucrative, but stable” Al-Mohumed explained, “so, [when] that happened, I ended up changing my focus in college and picking a more secure, ‘safe’ career.”
Even after getting a job on Capitol Hill, writing always seemed to find its way into her consciousness. Her new job provided more free-time than she had expected, so Al-Mohamed joined a writing group where she put her writing abilities to the test outside of legislation. It was in this writing group that she realized her day job not only gave her the time to write but inspiration as well. In her stories, she often uses her political background to craft worlds that reflect the flaws she sees in American politics and culture.
“If you want to write realistic fiction, [you have to acknowledge the beliefs that] drive so many people in the real world. It makes sense to incorporate [them] into a fictional world as well, otherwise you’re leaving out a big driver of a lot of populations.”
Ultimately, Al-Mohamed’s decision to pursue a more ‘stable’ career didn’t mean the end of her writing career. Rather, it marked the beginning.
“And after all, if you do really like what you are doing––it doesn’t really matter what it is––you can eventually become a master of it.”
After conducting these interviews, I was stumped. I spent far too many hours pouring over questions and quotes, trying to write something that would link all of their stories in some artful epiphany. I wrote and rewrote until I stopped enjoying writing at all. I realized I wasn’t writing what made me happy––I was writing what I thought I should write. It dawned on me that the link between all of these people isn’t complicated or ground-breaking. The connection between them was the very thing that I had forgotten to do: instead of following the path they thought they should take, they followed the path that made them happy. I was reminded of the that old recording of Alan Watts, and I asked myself a question:
“What do I desire?”