Sean Michaels speaks to about 130 students in our school library.
Guest author in the school library
In the transition between his presentation and a brief Q & A segment, I spoke out. “You’ve presented your story in a such a humble, laid-back way, yet you’ve won this amazing award. We’re just so proud of you! It’s an honour to have you here speaking with us.” I had never before interrupted a guest author’s talk to say such a thing, but the subsequent burst of applause from staff and students in the library let me know I was expressing what we all felt. Friday morning, an author visited our high school to share with about 130 students the story behind his first published novel. For students who are budding writers, sculptors, painters, actors, or musicians, it is a real eye-opener to hear a first-hand account about what might be involved in making the art of their passion a part of their lives.
Michaels’ early writing
Sean Michaels (who had to clarify that he was neither the wrestler nor the porn star of the same name) was a local high school student at the turn of the millennium. He loved to write, and as a teenager, he started a website with a few friends called Tang Monkey – about everything from music to ice cream. In an aside Friday, he said he is now embarrassed by what he wrote during his adolescence but that he recognizes in those early posts the 10,000 hours of practice that, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, lead to mastery. After high school, Michaels went away to university, and as he earned his degree, he launched the website Said the Gramaphone, an MP3 blog still going today – that in 2003 was one of the first of its kind. Upon graduation, Michaels knew that he wanted to make writing a central part of his life, but he also knew that he was in no position to make a living off of his writing. End of story? No.
How Michaels set up his early adult life for writing
Here is the first part of his story that blew me away: Michaels decided to find a job that would cover the bills and that would also, and more importantly, leave him with enough energy at the end of the day to write. So the recent university graduate became a part-time legal secretary.
I don’t know about you, but all sorts of questions come to my mind about that move: What did your parents say? What did your friends think? Did people judge you for taking on part-time work? Did men judge you for working in a position typically held by women? Did you feel pressured to justify your decision? Did you feel uncertain as your friends accepted full-time jobs that paid well and allowed them to buy cars and houses? Did you feel not-quite-grown-up?
For six years, from 2004-2010, Michaels centred his life around his first novel. He worked his part-time job, kept up his blog, took on the occasional paid writing assignment for print publications covering the music scene – and wrote at least 300 words per day for his book. It took four years to complete and edit the novel. One year to find a literary agent and edit some more. And another year of countless rejections before . . .
. . . he put his unpublished manuscript in a drawer. It’s still there.
Here is the second part of his story that blew me away: He started to work on his second novel.
Again, questions: Didn’t you feel frustrated? Didn’t you feel defeated? Didn’t you feel depressed? Didn’t you feel you’d wasted 6 years of your life for nothing? What did your parents think? What did your friends say? Did you feel the need to justify your decision to try again?
For three years, Michaels worked on a story based on the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian scientist who in 1928 invented the theremin – an electronic musical instrument that is played without touch. In 2014, his novel was published. In 2014, Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, won the Giller Prize, the highest literary honour in Canada – and at $100,000, the most lucrative literary prize in the English speaking world.
For the love of writing
More than once, Michaels came back to this point: “I had to remind myself why I was doing this. It wasn’t for money, and it wasn’t for fame. I was doing it because I loved to write.” After his first novel went into that drawer, any sense of defeat was overcome. He had loved writing it. After his second novel won the Giller Prize, he consciously steered his head away from the intoxicating swirl of success. He had loved writing it.
I can’t fathom the clear-sightedness and the deep, quiet confidence it must have taken for Michaels to have pursued his passion for writing so persistently. So intentionally. So practically. Many people harbour the dream to incorporate their art into their lives, but few take those nuts-and-bolts steps required to make it a reality. Few can withstand the obstacles and rejections. And even fewer reach the point at which they’re satisfied to do what they love to do – without reference to money or recognition. I’m sure Michaels struggled with the fate of his first novel, and I’m sure he is thrilled with the success of his second novel. But I hope and believe that in the end, he will continue to make writing a part of his life for the simple reason that he still loves it.
What does this have to do with debt-reduction?
Those of us who are working our way out of debt have to be inspired. Our society is set up to normalize debt and glorify spending, so anyone trying to become debt-free faces pressures to capitulate. Besides societal forces, some of us also have to contend with our own sabotaging habits and thought processes. It’s a relentless effort, requiring mundane, detailed strategies that often feel like drudgery and deprivation. The “Why?” has to be pretty enticing. Is it for the love of financial freedom itself? I don’t think it can be. It’s got to be for love of the life that freedom promises. The only question is, do we even know what that looks like?
What would you do if you were financially free to do it?
After work on Friday, I was talking with a friend who said, “I don’t even know what I want, and I feel like I’ve wasted my life.” In her teen years and early twenties, she had felt powerless against the strong scripting she had absorbed from her family. The script was: Get a job after high school and wait until you get married. It struck me as incredibly sad.
Many of us who are fighting down debt are motivated by a negative: We’ve experienced the life-sucking pain of financial distress, and we want to shield ourselves against a recurrence of it. But I don’t think that negative motivation is enough.
Sean Michaels knew as a teenager that he wanted to write, and he set up his life – financially and otherwise – to follow that desire. There was no vagueness, no confusion in his pursuit. I think that many of us who have gone astray financially have done so because of a lack of clarity. A confusion of advice, societal and family scripting, peer pressures . . . And our authentic desires have become lost in a muddle of competing messages. Let’s find them again – and pursue them for simple love. I can’t think of a better motivation.
What would you do if you were financially free to do it? Does the answer to that question motivate you? Your comments are welcome.