May 15, 2016

You can go home: Just take Memory Lane

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

—Norman Mailer

By Jack Smith

This Norman Mailer quote pretty much sums it up.

My heart longs to write for a living, but my head says I’d starve.

I almost went to law school, but I hated my first job. I worked at the biggest firm in the state in a job I started a couple days after graduation. They stuck me in a room with no windows and not enough straight jackets to do tedious discovery work defending an insurance company—a massive company that ripped off a bunch of poor people who didn’t know better. I was miserable.

My girlfriend was four hours away that summer. The whole thing triggered one of my first bouts with major depression in my early 20s. I’d struggled before but never like that. I could not get off the couch except to go to work.  I had no idea why and never told anyone.

When I told the firm I was leaving, one nice lawyer said it’s a shame. He said I wrote good memos and summarized things well. I didn’t take it as a compliment. I remember wondering why he didn’t say, “You’d make a good lawyer, Jack.”

That’s all I wanted to hear. I have enough lawyers in my family to field a basketball team with good subs to come off one heck of a bench. For years, I’ve wondered why I was too scared to become one. I recently figured it out: I was too scared to become one.

So I did something I swore I’d never do. I went home and settled on a career as a journalist at a community newspaper. They were the best 10 years of my life and career. And the hardest. It’s not easy being Superman’s son, but flying is fun even if you’re afraid of heights.

Oh. I almost forgot about the third part of the quote up top: I have a tremor that on some days makes it hard for me to drink coffee in front of other people. Being a surgeon was not an option, even if I hadn't stunk at science my whole life.

I’ve sat through hundreds of lunches and dinners at restaurants and eaten entire meals without taking a single sip of water. That’s what I used to do when my tremor was bad and the waiter filled my glass too close to the top. I was worried I’d spill it everywhere.

I was mocked as a child just a few times and never really got over it until fairly recently. If someone were to make fun of me tomorrow, they might get a shaky middle finger back in their face. It feels good not to care what others think again. I know that's crass and I'm sorry to sound that way. Honesty is liberating, and that's honestly how I feel. And the rest of the truth is most days I do care what others think. And that's misery. 

You may have heard what Norman Mailer said about going home. Or was it Tom Wolfe, who stole his line and put it on the cover of his best book? Either way, I made up a word just now for what at least one of them did: Plagiarism.

“Don’t you know,” a lady once allegedly told Tom Wolfe, “you can’t go home again?”