Sun, 11 Apr 2010 04:08:00 +0000

A few months ago, I interviewed for a magazine editing job. These opportunities are rare.

I answered questions honestly. I hid nothing. And it went well until someone asked me, “What do you want to do in 10 years?”

“I want to be a writer — a storyteller,” I said.

And it all came crashing down.

He told me they were looking for an editor, not a writer. I panicked, so I said I could learn to love editing; I tried to justify my answer. But, at the core, the truth was simple: I wanted to tell stories.

I never heard back about the job.

That phrase — “I want to be a writer” — has shut several doors for me. I would’ve been better off saying I killed a guy. But in other interviews, my heart wasn’t set on the job. This time, I really wanted it. Still, I let this deadly phrase seep out of my mouth, knowing full well it could cost me the job. And perhaps it did.

Of course, I could’ve just told him I was OK with being an editor, because, frankly, I am OK with it. I could’ve sold it more and told him I wanted to be an editor, like him. I could’ve told him I love editing.

But I didn’t — I couldn’t.

For weeks, I regretted that answer. I wondered why I couldn’t just lie.

1. A few years ago, I volunteered at an adult literacy school. The students were convicts who were given the option of coming here rather than prison. So they came here.

No one wanted to be there; no one could leave. It was essentially prison — except we had to teach them.

One day, I was given a class to teach by myself. I came in with a solid lesson plan: a discussion on current events. I brought in a handful of newspapers and handed them out, thinking we would talk about war, politics and even sports. But some of the students scrunched up the papers into a big ball and tossed it around; others played games on their cell phones. The rest of them ignored me.

I tried to control the class. It failed. After an hour, I gave up. I threw away my lesson plan, sat back and just observed the chaos. That's when I spotted a Latino kid in the back of the class scribbling in his notebook.

I walked over. “Whatcha doing?”

“Drawing stuff,” he said. I peeked over: It was an anatomically accurate sketch of a human skeleton with precise details.

“That’s... amazing,” I said.

“Thanks. I like figuring out how skeletons work and stuff. It’s pretty cool, ya know?”

His name was Damian — it said so on his sketches. And, naturally, I asked him if he wanted to be a doctor because his No. 2 pencil doodles looked so real. But he looked at me funny and said, “I never thought about it. But I don’t know the first step to being a doctor. Don’t I gotta go to school or something?”

I laid out the steps for him — college, MCATs, med school, etc. — and he said, “That’s it? So I could be a doctor?”

“Yeah, and you gotta pass your classes.”

He thought about it, and said, “But wait. What if I want to be a dentist? I’ve always wanted to do that.”

Again, I told him the step-by-step instructions, ending with “and then you’re a dentist!” When I was done, he handed me his No. 2 pencil and said, “Can you write that down in my notebook?”


2. When I interviewed for grad school, there was a 40-year-old guy in the group. Everyone introduced themselves, and then it was his turn. He said he worked in business. He had two kids and a wife. He lived in the suburbs.

I wondered how a guy, halfway through his life, decided to change his life course and go back to school.

But just as he finished, he said, “You know, I never liked what I did. But I just always did it.”


3. My father used to be a businessman. He owned a dry cleaner, a car stereo shop and a vending machine company.

Back then, the only question I ever asked him about his job was, “How much money did we make?” And he would always answer: “One-thousand dollars!” If that didn’t cheer me up enough, he’d say, “Two-thousand dollars!”

I never asked him if he liked it, but that’s because I got the sense that jobs were things people inherently didn’t like — kind of like homework.

I never knew jobs were something you could love until he went back to school in his 30s and then started working as an engineer. He’d bring his work home and do it on the weekends — for fun.

Once, he even took me out to the construction site of a roller coaster. He showed me everything he did for project, and he told me where all the twists and turns were going to be. He waved his arms around, pointing and motioning.

Again, I didn’t have to ask if he liked his job.

So that’s why I couldn’t lie.