On Wednesday, I sold my condo and gave notice at my well-paid, comfortable, secure, government-job-for-life. Everything I own is in a storage locker, and I’m living on my friend’s couch out of a couple of sea bags. This Tuesday, I’ll shift to my buddy Pete’s couch and start apartment hunting in Brooklyn. Once I’m settled there, I’ll get a part time job a couple of days a week and go about the business of dedicating myself full time to building a career as a writer.
I’m absolutely terrified.
By any reasonable standard, I am self-destructing. I am walking away from security and wealth in the midst of a world rocked by recession and war. I am putting my faith in an industry marked by capriciousness and turmoil. I’m not sure how hard this statistic is, but I heard once that less than 4% of writers with book deals with major New York houses (like mine) can make a full time living at it. This move is, by all accounts, nuts.
So let’s scratch the surface a bit here: I’ve crammed in a lot of living for a guy under 40. I worked in a range of fields before I settled on armed public service. I was successful in every one of them. By the time I was 27, I owned a house with a white picket fence in one of the priciest suburbs in Northern Virginia. I owned a Mercedes and went on European vacations at least once a year.
I was beyond miserable.
When I look back at my operational tours, crammed into converted conex boxes or hot racking on a storm tossed cutter, with even less belongings than I have available to me right now, I am always struck by the significance of the experience. Was I happy? Not really, but I was alive. I was hip-deep in the resonance of a life lived significantly. It is those experiences, not the lazy Sunday afternoons spent watching my big screen TV in my air conditioned living room, that ring in me, that drive me forward, that leave me satisfied.
Because, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that my life has to be about something. For a lot of people, I think that “something” is family; loving a spouse, raising children. Maybe, if I’m very, very lucky, it will be for me too someday. But for now, that isn’t the case, and I’m not going to count on it. For a while, I got that sense of purpose, of significance, from public service of the most dangerous breed. If I’m exposing myself to emulsified oil, or rocket fire, then others don’t have to, and so I can look in the mirror each morning and say “I have lived rightly.” I go to bed every night in mortal terror of Erickson’s “Final Stage,” of being able to look down the long years and nod contentedly, to face the question of the angels in the Muslim Punishment of the Grave (from the al-Bukhari Hadith) “What have you done?”
Here’s the point: I’m most comfortable when I’m uncomfortable. My life has to be about something more than paying a mortgage. I have to mark the world.
And that means taking risks. Big risks. Risks that, to someone who doesn’t know me, seem incredibly foolish.
It’s not like I totally lack a plan here. I’ve got enough saved to live without any income for about three years (albeit very frugally). Because of the reserves, I have some guaranteed income and the freelance artist’s holy grail; health insurance. My resume is solid. I have competitive federal hiring status (front of the line privileges for a government job). Any time I want, I can raise my hand and go on active duty.
But yeah, I’m still terrified. It’s a big leap, with no guarantees that I’ll fly, or that anything will break my fall if I don’t.
But you know what? Three spins in Iraq didn’t kill me. Something tells me this won’t either.
So, for now, I’m balancing that fear with cautious optimism, with excitement, with determination.
Since I was a little boy, I’ve wanted to be a full time fantasy writer. I can’t say whether or not I will be successful in this endeavor. I can’t predict how the chips will fall.
But I’m not going to go to my grave wondering what would have happened if only I’d tried.
Life’s for the living, they say. That’s what I intend to do.
Hang with me, folks. Here we go.