When Z tells friends her little sister is an attack helicopter pilot now aspiring to be a graphic novelist, their minds are completely blown. That’s so fucking cool! they tell her. What a unique combo! And so she tells you yesterday over iPhone magic bridging 4,850 miles and eight time zones. And you are secretly pleased and sit a bit taller while she tells you this. You downplay, and have since you were a very little kid, your achievements. You don’t want to get a big head. You don’t want to be an asshole. You want to stay humble. Yet greatness is expected in your family, implicitly. It’s hard not to think you have to be the best at whatever you tackle when your parents trained as lawyers and then started their own business, all your siblings are twins (two sets), and your own twin sister’s job rivals the one you just voluntarily left in terms of bad-assery (except you can’t say what it is, otherwise she’ll have to kill you). The pressure of having such a rockstar job means almost every male you’ve ever met is immediately cowed and intimidated (even though you’re only five feet, two and three-quarters inches tall), and avoids eye contact with you because their own self-worth is in jeopardy since “a mere woman” flies Cobras for a living. You have, apparently, metaphorically cut off their balls and manhood and eaten their masculinity whole.
But what do you do when you realize that flying attack helicopters for the United States Marine Corps – a job described as “the best thing you’ll ever do with your life” by senior officers in your squadron – isn’t what you’re passionate about? And when did that realization come about? You spent thousands of hours as a child playing sports, Girl Scouting, and attending various summer camps. In high school you joined almost every available extracurricular activity offered (including Science Club, Knowledge Bowl, Varsity Basketball, Tennis, and Track and Field, National Honor Society, One- and Three-Act plays, Jazz Band, Concert Band, Pep Band, Choir, and Drumline) so your resume for college would be thick and plentiful. You realized you spent over 18 hours in a single day at your high school on numerous occasions, and that you routinely passed out in your room, drooling on your Calculus book as you valiantly attempted to stay awake at night finishing homework. You ground through four years of college and NROTC training, waking up each weekday at 0500, having earned a full-ride scholarship. You figured out aviation was cool and you wanted to give back to your country by flying ever since 9/11 pushed you to seriously think about the military as a career. You withstood the rigors of Officer Candidate School – a six-week boot-camp-esque course for would-be Marine officers in Quantico, Virginia, where the grossest moment you remember is standing at attention on Brown Field – which isn’t a field at all, but the deepest, darkest blacktop apron ever laid down by man – and gushing sweat so profusely for so long both your palms turned wrinkly from your own moisture content. And then finishing school for Marine Officers, TBS, which was six months of infantry tactics, physical training, and classroom learning that set you on your way to becoming a leader of the few and the proud. Flight school tested every part of your being, as you nearly failed out with the title Fallen Angel, but you didn’t and instead went on to fly AH-1W SuperCobras with an east coast squadron, deploying twice to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. You would become proficient in formation flying, tactical flying, night flying, night tactical flying, shooting ordnance, shooting ordnance at night, formation tactical flying shooting ordnance at night, close air support, deep air support, flying as a single, flying as a section, flying as a division, and a host of other qualifications and designations associated with everything you think Air Wolf should have been.
So why did you daydream about writing fantasy novels while you were sitting at your desk, tucked in the furthest cubicle in the maintenance spaces in the bowels of the hangar, and drool over MFA program applications? Where did this seeming betrayal of job loyalties come from? As you investigate your feelings – a dangerous pastime in a field rife with ego-strutting male Marines – you come to understand your decision to become a pilot was probably counter to your natural self. Your six-year-old self, the self you keep trying to return to as your baseline stasis, loved nature. She loved animals. She loved reading and writing and drawing. She loved these things so much, she combined them in clever mixes, reading in trees and drawing in forests. She didn’t give a fuck about whether reading or writing or drawing was financially viable in “the real world.” She loved creating worlds and friends and enemies. She whistled and sang and made up nonsense words. But most of all, she loved inventing names. Names of people, names of places, names of things like ketyur and T’eh. When she got older, she started on an epic fantasy novel about a human general who was somehow transported to a world filled with anthropomorphic animal-human hybrids and who, in order to eradicate evil from this new land, had to team up with the bad guys so convincingly that the good guys thought he had become a villain. She invented a telepathic black lion to be his “familiar,” an animal companion who alone knew the truth. And so, as you sit watching your Marines sort tools and write reports, you know in your heart (ignoring that rational brain of yours) that writing is your true calling. You’ve been doing it all your life, even if you haven’t been conscious of it.
Throwing away the keys to the world’s coolest pew-pew machine reigning death and destruction down on anything that needs it is not easy. You struggle long and hard, arguing to yourself, deliberating with your mentor, venting with friends, about what you want for your life. You know the pay is great and the bonuses even better. The hours suck, as do some people you have to work with, but you have invested the better part of ten years (fourteen, if you count college) to get where you are and it’s asking a lot to simply jump off the ladder and grovel with the noobs in any different occupation you choose to pursue. But still.
So, here you are, talking to your sister about what to ask, or expect, for payment on an article. Or how to get a leg up with a good resume. Or what to charge for a motivational speaking event after you have your Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in hand. And you know that when people will ask about your new profession at some unknown time in the future, you get to respond, “Me? I’m a writer. Don’t be jealous.”