Jan 08

Down the Rabbit Hole Or, How a Writer Became a Scientist… and then a Writer Again

I can still remember the day the course of my life shifted the first time: it was a cold, winter evening in Maryland and I was sitting at the kitchen table staring at a list of available courses for the high school I expected to attend the following year.

An offhand comment from a teacher about prerequisites had inadvertently sent me on a mission. We had pseudo-electives in middle school: each semester you could take any two of Art, Home Economics, or Shop class, and the decision for one semester didn’t alter what you could take the next. The revelation that I could choose my high school electives poorly as a freshman and lock myself out of interesting classes as a junior or senior upset and scared me, and I was determined to be ready when the time came.

I had been squinting at the documents for hours, trying to reconcile the list of available courses with the list of requirements for graduation as defined by the school and the list of requirements for graduation as defined by me. But I didn’t really understand what I was looking at and I hadn’t made any progress.

I glared in the fading light at the pages in front of me and finally looked up at my mother who was cooking nearby. “I don’t know what I should pick…” I paused to look accusingly at the pages again, “I guess I should pick something that will help me for college and my job and stuff… but…. “ I sighed and looked at her expectantly. “What do you think I should do?”

My mother stopped cooking and gave me her full attention, “What do you want to do?”

“I want to write.”

“Then be a writer. Pick classes that will help you with that.”

But I didn’t know what classes would help with that. More importantly, I couldn’t think of a writing job that wasn’t writing fiction, being a journalist, or teaching English and I didn’t want to teach or be a journalist. And my fiction was terrible.

I could have asked someone for advice or suggestions. But for some reason it felt like these were decisions that I should be making on my own. Like they were going to shape my life.

And they did.

At thirteen, I decided I would follow the third of my three passions – the first being food and the second being writing – and become a scientist. It was the “Plan B” that gave me something to fall back on until I could figure out a way to make a living as a writer.

At first, because I was interested in Astronomy and Cosmology, I was determined to be an Astrophysicist, but I realized early in high school that applied math (and as a result, Physics) was not for me. It was boring. And not just a little boring, but really, really boring. Fall-asleep-in-class-then-wake-up-to-find-a-puddle-of-drool-on-your-desk, boring. I started to think the whole Astrophysicist-thing wasn’t going to work.

I never made it to the high school whose course listings I had studied so intently all those years ago; we moved to Hawai’i the summer before I started high school and then to California two years later. The heavy sunshine and bright bird song that slipped through the slats of my bedroom window on the back of a cooling breeze couldn’t have been more different than the winter stillness of that fateful day in Maryland, but the scene was essentially the same: I was sitting on my bed pouring over college course descriptions and degree offerings and trying to figure out what to do with my life.

I had no intention of spending four years of college drooling on my desk just to get to the “good stuff”, so Astrophysics was definitely out. But now my senior year was looming and I hadn’t picked a replacement.

Once again, the prompt that directed my life came from something small. My family’s first computer had been a Commodore 64 and it came with a tutorial on programming in BASIC. Most of my early coding attempts were abysmal failures, but I had written one program, a number guessing game, that I had been very proud of. I decided I could stand to do a little more of that, settled on Computer Science as a major (Computer Engineering had too much applied math), and sent out my applications.

There weren’t any drool puddles to disrupt my course this time so eight years and two Computer Science degrees later I was working full time for a small biotech company in San Francisco. And that’s where I stayed for six years: first as a Software Engineer, then as a Senior Software Engineer, and finally as a DBA/DBE.

I enjoy working in Software.

I don’t particularly like the nitty-gritty, day-to-day of coding, but I enjoy everything else: the design work, tackling complex problems, distilling order from chaos, and the teamwork. Especially the teamwork. Coming together to conquer what feels like an insurmountable problem, what my father calls, “staring into the face of failure and making it blink”? That was the best part.

But something changed in those last two years.

We were working on a monolithic project – a Software/IT overhaul for a CLIA certified lab – and the documentation requirements were immense. As the only person on the Software team who actually enjoyed writing, some of the documentation work (as much as my other responsibilities would allow) was delegated to me. Maybe I had reached my saturation point for tech-related stress, or maybe I was just tired of doing battle with petulant database installations, but I eventually noticed that the days I woke up eager to go to work were also the days that had been set aside for me to work on documentation.

And I hadn’t been eager to go to work in a long time.

The realization hurt. It was like an old friend I really cared about but had been ignoring for years suddenly showed up in my cubicle, hugged me warmly, sat down, and asked me reproachfully, “Why don’t we talk anymore?”

If present-day me, high-school me, and 13-year-old me have anything in common it’s this: we love to write and we’re not afraid to follow through on life-altering decisions made between heartbeats. I couldn’t answer my friend’s question, but I knew how I was going to fix things. I sat at my desk, watching output from the latest Oracle installation I had bullied into behaving scroll by, and knew I was done working as a Web Developer. Or as a Software Engineer. Or as a DBA.

I was a Writer.
And it was time to write.

Little did I know then how different things would be on the other side of the looking glass…