Thursday, December 29, 2011

When I Grow Up

Elizabeth Zelvin

Writer Patricia Harrington says she “was told once by a psychologist: Ask a woman what she wanted to be when she was nine years old, and for a boy what he wanted to be when he was twelve years old. There will be elements of that desire or avocation later in life.”

Pat herself is a professional grant writer and mystery writer. She uses the idea that childhood aspirations mirror in some way, if they don’t duplicate, what people do become to develop characters in her mysteries. She says she “asked an Episcopalian bishop what he wanted to be at twelve. He answered, ‘a baseball player, and to play second base.’” She thinks his status as a suffragan bishop (“an assistant or subordinate bishop of a diocese” according to echoes the childhood dream.

Pat says she asked a public housing tenant “what she wanted to be at nine, and she said, ‘a hooker’. Made me wonder....” In fact, I’m less shocked, however saddened, by that response, than many would be because of my years working with alcoholics and drug addicts who ran the socioeconomic gamut from homeless to rich and privileged. The premise did make me want to know more about what people wanted to be when they grew up. So I asked the question on Facebook. It turned out to be more popular than many of my posts, but most the responses it drew were not quite what I expected. In retrospect, I was hoping for discrepancy rather than correspondence, along the lines of “wanted to be an astronaut...became a lion tamer.”(Come to think of it, there is a common thread in that pair: a tolerance for high risk.)

Some of the kids’ ambitions were imaginative:
“An opera singer & surgeon. At the same time.”
“All I wanted was to be a teenager like the girl down the street who I thought looked just like Annette Funicello.”
“I wanted to meet Roy Rogers & Dale Evans and have them come to the Bronx with their horses.”
“I wanted to be Dallas QB Roger Staubach. The only thing we had in common was I had concussions too.”
From a woman: “I wanted to be President of the U.S. I’ve since regained my senses.”
“At 9: mother of 12 kids. At 13: truck driver.”

Sounds like this last woman also regained her senses. I can’t tell you what she does today, because all the information on her Facebook page is in Finnish, a language that is known for bearing no resemblance to any other language (except Hungarian and Estonian; Basque is the language with no living relatives at all).

Many of my Facebook friends are writers, along with mystery-loving librarians and other readers, and that probably skewed the results. But quite a number of the writers have wanted to be writers since childhood. Of course, in today’s economy and publishing climate, many of the writers have other jobs as well. Mystery author Vicki Lane, for example, wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid; besides teaching and writing, she’s been a farmer for the past 36 years. Digging in the dirt...digging in the dirt. Makes perfect sense to me.

I’m one of those who wanted to be a writer from well below the age of 9. Of course, my plan was to become a published novelist at 24, not at 64. But luckily, writing is an occupation in which ability is not confined to any particular age group. In a creative residency I participated in a few years ago, all the composers of postmodern music were in their early twenties, the visual artists mostly in their thirties; the writers ranged from 20 to 62.


Diane said...

Actually, I never had an 'I want to be..'. At least not that I can remember. I was a military brat, and traveled the world. I loved that. I suspect that is why I married a military officer. Kind of a given for a lot of brats then: guys went into the military, girls married military.

But I had loved math - 'higher' math - from 7th grade on. Eventually - in my early 30s - I became a computer programmer, and loved it. I think kids need to just explore the world - and themselves. Too much pressure on them these days to 'become something'. Most will find their way.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Diane, I remember my son at 9 saying, "I know you don't think I really will become a baseball player, but I still think I will." He became a computer programmer, and now he works for a fantasy sports site. Hmm.

Diane said...

Liz, I think that qualifies. And the upside is all the fun, but with no sports injuries.

Sandra Parshall said...

I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. I worked as a newspaper reporter for a while, but that didn't qualify as the answer to my dreams. Publishing companies seemed determined to keep me from being what I wanted to be, but eventually I made it.

A lot of dreams are derailed when people grow up and realize it isn't simply a matter of wanting something. A lot of other people have to be willing to let you have it, especially if your ambition is to be a professional in any of the arts.

Marilyn Levinson said...

When I was 9 or thereabouts, I wanted to be a writer or a ballerina. Good thing I turned out to be a writer because by now I'd be way past my dancing days.

Anonymous said...

I always wanted to be a teacher, as I loved school. And I did teach many years - Latin, Drama, Modern Dance. Ancient History, English,Religion, lots of subjects! In every job I've ever had I was always " teaching" or counseling - and some of my franker friends today will say I'm still kinda bossy! Go figure.
Thelma Straw

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post!

I wanted to be a writer at 9. At 10, I wrote in a diary of the Christmas play that a cousin & I had created (at the behest of an aunt), "it hasn't been published yet." So apparently I was confidently assuming that someday I'd be a published playwright. I wrote one play for my college creative writing class.
--Brenda, aspiring writer

lil Gluckstern said...

I loved Psychology, and what made all the characters tick in all those books I read.What is funny to me is that no way did I want to become a psychotherapist, I wanted to be a writer, and write commentary. I wasn't very good at any other kind. So I became a psychotherapist, and wrote tons of notes, and letters to judges, and family service worker, and backblog. I am known to write good letters, and a pretty good psychotherapist-you never know.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lil, for me, being a writer and being a psychotherapist don't feel too different. The connection is connection, whether I'm listening to or revealing the inner lives and relationships of myself and others.

C.C. Harrison said...

Oh, what a great topic!! I knew I wanted to be a writer when my mother took me to the library for the first time and I checked out my first book, Val a Dog. I turned the last page and said to my little self, "I can do that." And, like you Elizabeth, I wish it had happened for me at age 24.

And speaking of children's multiple aspirations, my 8 year old granddaughter says she wants to be an actress, a singer, and a baby doctor. I told her she had to be an actress and singer first so she could make enough money to go to med school.

Great topic, Elizabeth. And by the way, DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM is next on my reading pile. Have a great New Year.