Monday, July 21, 2008

The Best Advice

For some time, now, I've been concentrating on my writing. Fiction writing, that is. I've joined a couple of critiquing groups, one of them in what can be referred to as "Real Life," "Meatspace," or "First Life," and one of them in Second Life.

I've had several of my stories critiqued now by insightful people—most of whom are themselves unpublished—who have uncanny ability to point out any problems I have.

I'm about to attempt to get something published. Toward that end, I decided that I would use Ralan to find markets.

Late last week, I discovered a writing contest. It was for a literary magazine, and the idea was to write a 750-word essay on the best advice you ever got. Two possible sub-themes are "...And Took" and "...And Didn't Take."

It truly is amazing what having a word-limit can do for your ability to edit your own work. I wrote it, and it was hugely over 750 words. So I edited it, honed it, tuned it, cut it mercilessly, and finally got it down to precisely 750 words.

And only then read the requirements again and realized that it was supposed to be writing advice. Ah, well.

So...what to do with a 750-word non-fictional account of the best advice I ever got and took? Why, post it on my journal, of course. My "serious" journal.

In 1999, I had been working at a job I loathed for nine years. It had been great for four of those years, but by then I dreaded going to work each morning. Phil, the man who had hired me, had moved on to another opportunity in 1997, but we still kept in touch by e-mail.

One morning I got an e-mail from Phil. His new company was looking for software developers. He thought immediately of me. He knew I was dissatisfied, knew my work, knew he could trust me, and knew I would be a good asset for his team.

At last! A light at the end of the tunnel! For the first time in years, it wasn't an oncoming train.

But the job was in Atlanta, Georgia. I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, within 35 miles of my mother and grandparents. This nearness was important to me. I had been raised in the same small, rural town where they now lived, and where my father, David, had lived his entire life. He had died young of lung cancer twelve years before.

I also wasn't sure I could hack the position Phil was recruiting me for. After nine years in a place that didn't value me at all, would I be able to make it somewhere else? Had my programming skills atrophied? Was I doomed to stay at a job I hated because I was suited for no other?

Still undecided, I drove to Atlanta and interviewed with Phil's company. The interview went well. They liked me and I liked them. An offer arrived in the mail the following Monday. The salary was a substantial increase for me, and they wanted me to start ASAP. I had one week to decide.

I lost sleep. I didn't eat well. The decision gnawed at me constantly.

On the Thursday before the deadline, my mother called. She knew I was wrestling with the decision, but knew I had to decide for myself. But as a mother, she wanted desperately to step in and make it all better. To tell me what I should do.

"I know you're struggling with this decision," she said, "and I think I know which way you're leaning. Before you make a final decision, I want to tell you a story about your father.

"David majored in Accounting at the University, and he was very good at it. Before he graduated, he received a job offer for after graduation. The firm was in Crossett, Arkansas. It was a very good offer, but he knew that if he accepted, we would be comfortable, but you would grow up in a bigger city and likely never know your family.

"You knew your father; he would have been miserable away from home. He was uncomfortable with change.

"David turned down that offer. He started working for Uncle Wilson and lived here all his life.

"I thought you should know what HIS decision was before you made yours."

It was crystal clear to me what she was telling me. On top of that, I felt closer to my father than I ever had. He had been faced with a similar dilemma, and he had chosen family, the simple life, and safety over money, big-city life, and risk. He had been happy.

I faxed my acceptance letter the next morning.

I called my mother. "I've decided to accept the offer," I said.

"Oh, I'm so glad!"

We talked for a few minutes more. Then I said, "You know, that story you told me really helped me make up my mind."

"You're so much like David, I was afraid you were going to give up a chance at happiness because you were too comfortable. Change is uncomfortable, but I think you made the right decision."

I still live in Atlanta. I've never regretted the decision I made for a moment.

Years later, telling this to some friends, I realized that the story she had told me could actually have been interpreted either way. I had interpreted it to match the decision I had already made—but didn't realize—in my heart.

I called her on it.

"You're right. I figured you would interpret it however you needed to, but I was really hoping you'd do what you did."

"Why didn't you just say that?"

"Because it wouldn't have been your decision."

The best advice I've ever gotten, and I find out it didn't actually say what I thought it said. That's a mother for you.