We were the ones measuring our world against that of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, wondering whether it would come true.
|This edition of 1984 was EVERYWHERE when I was in high school.|
Our parents had free love; we had the specter of AIDS hanging over us, a disease that was only beginning to be understood. Our parents had protested a war in southeast Asia; we grappled with the eerie Cold War, an invisible battle with its aura of spying eyes and ominous shadow of nuclear annihilation.
Above all else, we worried about finding jobs. We started retirement accounts while we were still in our 20s. We saw the beginnings of the disintegration of the social safety net. (During the late ‘80s, I witnessed the street population in Philadelphia swell from a few individuals to legions of homeless people camping on the steps of public buildings, laying out their blankets dormitory-style at the subway stations.)
At 17—my age when I finished high school—I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t believe I could support myself that way. My anxiety was poorly suited to the capriciousness, irregular paychecks, and high rejection rate of a writing career. I’d also heard this advice: “Don’t be a writer if you can be anything else.”
I could be something else. I was good at science, and interested in it. And I thought that if I made that my major, if I found a career in the sciences, I could still write on my own time.
Which is exactly what happened. All the while I pursued a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s Degree in science, while I studied environmental science and found a job helping clean up pollution, I kept writing. I kept sending out stories to literary magazines, and occasionally getting one in print. After years of that, I took a second look at the YA novels on my shelves. The ones I’d lugged with me through move after move: from the cinder-block dorm rooms of college; to the room in Atlanta where I used a cardboard box as a dresser; to the place in Philadelphia with burglar bars on the windows and mice in the kitchen; to the much nicer apartment in Philadelphia with a doorman and no roaches (at last, the fruits of a stable profession!). And I asked myself: why don’t I try to write a YA novel instead of just reading them all the time?
I’m glad for my experience in the sciences—not just because it’s been a good “day job,” but because it gives my life a whole other dimension, another way to look at the world, another base of knowledge, another way to contribute and have a meaningful life. But I could never stop writing.
At the end of high school, when I had that choice between writing and science, it may have seemed to the outside world that I picked science. But in my mind, I was choosing both.
My third novel, Until It Hurts to Stop, is coming out this fall. It features a main character who likes nature and the environment.