When I was a junior in high school, the boy who sat next to me in Honors English—and who would the next year be named the valedictorian of our graduating class of five hundred—asked me what I was planning to do when I graduated. This boy, the future valedictorian, didn’t often speak to me. Usually, in the five or ten minutes we sat waiting for the teacher to arrive, I assumed some mindless Zen state, or read a novel. He mimed playing the piano, frenetically pressing his fingers against the blond laminate of his desktop as if it were the keyboard of a baby grand and he were an over-emotive Rachmaninoff. One day, he interrupted his playing and turned and said, “I’m giving piano lessons to the CEO of Monsanto. He’s coming along.” It wasn't clear to me whether his assessment of the CEO's progress was meant to suggest that the CEO had potential and he might be able to help him realize it, or, that the CEO wasn't all that bad but would still never be as good as him. What was clear, and what I felt he wanted to make clear, was that he, the boy, was already more accomplished, at least in this one way, than even a titan of industry. The evidence was uncontroversial: titans took lessons from him.
He was obnoxious and arrogant, but brilliant. I took the effusive desktop piano playing as further proof of his outsized intelligence. The news that he was giving lessons to a corporate dreadnought produced the awe it was meant to produce. The boy was a genius. He was made for success and already manifesting it. I knew that I wasn’t made for success, but I also knew that if one worked very hard one could achieve much and I intended to work hard and succeed.
When he asked me what I was planning to do when I graduated, I told him, without hesitation, that I was going to be a writer. “Good luck,” he said, “making a living!” There was more passion in his voice than I’d ever heard—and more derision. It’s still puzzling, the sneering bitterness of that “good luck.” He went on to say the only way a writer could make a living was to teach high school English and that our own teacher, Mr. S—, had to work nights at the 7/11, just to feed his family. If he said more, I don’t remember it.
I was stunned. Mr. S— worked nights at the 7/11? How exhausting. How humiliating. How precarious. I was suddenly embarrassed that I had cultivated this desire without ever considering finances. I wanted to write, as a profession, but I also wanted to be a writer. I loved reading. Through books, I had lived in a world far larger and more interesting than my own limited circumstances. I had tried on identities that had given me new ideas about how one might live. Reading had made me want to create imaginary worlds for other readers like me. Children’s books, novels, poems—whatever I had read, that’s what I wanted to write. But I’d never thought about “making a living.”
Only now did I see how impractical I’d been. For this boy, solidly middle class, the idea of earning a living and feeding a future family was an abstraction he was slowly but surely working toward, a guiding principle he’d inherited by example from those around him. For me, making a living would cease to be an abstraction the moment I finished high school. My truck driver stepfather with an eighth-grade education and my stay-at-home mother with a seventh-grade education had already said that when I graduated, I’d have to pay rent if I lived at home. I would immediately assume at least some of an adult’s financial burden. How had I managed to keep that out of my mind? Desire. The wish to be that thing one most loves—which was, for me, one who put thoughts on paper and crafted them into something. Now that the idea of making a living was in my mind, there was no room for anything else.
In retrospect, I’m struck by how easily I was convinced that I couldn’t have what I most wanted. I’d transferred my faith in the boy’s musical ability and general intelligence, and his adult pose, laughably cardboard, to an area he knew nothing about. I was shamed by his response, and unnerved by his sense of outrage and smug certainty.
I have become a writer. It took me a long time and I became other things first. All that time, the desire to write remained. Mastering other things taught me that one becomes something not by wishing to be, but by learning to be. Mastery is the result of hard work. And ardor. And the slow accretion of knowledge that comes from study and from practice. I recently completed a translation of Dante’s Inferno. The entire effort took six years. Which is about how long it takes, someone once told me, to become anything. He actually said it takes seven years. I think he’s right. If I had known that years ago, I wouldn’t have shrunk into some received notion of what I could and couldn’t do. I would have gone steadily forward, toward where I am now, and perhaps arrived there sooner. Or, as another writer once said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Mary Jo Bang is the author of six volumes of poems, including The Bride of E and Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Award. Her translation of Dante’s Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, was published in August 2012 by Graywolf Press. A brief review of the book by Elissa Schappell can be found at: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/just-my-type/2012/08/mary-jo-bang.... An interview by Zachary Lazar can be found at BOMB Magazine: http://bombsite.com/issues/999/articles/6751.