That Side of the Desk (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I spend a lot of time berating myself for being a failure.

By "failure" I mean a person who got an undergraduate degree in History and French. (What? Who does that, right? Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be liberal arts majors unless they have a very clear life plan. Or business majors. Or theoretical math majors. There are many "useless degrees," it turns out. Just—have a plan, is probably the best idea.)

Then got a Master of Library and Information Science. I was supposed to be a librarian.

Then I worked for about a year and a half as a children's librarian but just couldn't quite find what I needed in the storytime round. Maybe if I'd stayed in longer, there would have been more opportunities to find my niche.

But I went back to school instead and got an M.A. in English at a school that specializes in children's and young adult lit. I was supposed to be a professor.

Then I became one of the legions of adjunct faculty exploited by a broken and corrupt higher education system. (While you're complaining about the high salaries of football coaches, take a look at the inflated salaries and inflated sheer numbers of redundant administrators. That's where your college debt is coming from. Utter mismanagement. It surely is not going to pay your professors, adjunct or tenured.)

I tried and tried to do what I thought I should have done while I was drifting through undergrad, taking classes that (gasp!) interested me and filling my brain with history, French, and even sometimes, French history. I tried to get certified as a high school teacher. I even took a bunch of classes, but it never quite worked out. I was supposed to be a teacher.

Those are all the ways I tried, as an adult, to forget my writing dream. My dream wasn't sensible, it wasn't comfortable, it wasn't a sure thing, and there wasn't a clear Point A to B to C path to get there.
So for about the past ten years, I've been fighting back the nasty little voices in my head that say I'm a failure, that I didn't live up to my potential, that I should be a teacher or a lawyer or some high-powered historian who gets misquoted or told to say ridiculous things on documentaries. 

You know who wouldn't think I'm a failure, though? 

Ten-year-old me, who would be in awe of the silver IPPY medal and the Kirkus star and so jealous of all the places I get to travel. (I don't want to brag, but I've stood on Lexington Green. I saw the tavern where Rab Silsbee...well, spoilers. I fangirled out a little.)

Fifteen-year-old me, who was afraid I would become a "hack." My tenth-grade English teacher used to spit that word like it was the worst thing ever. At the time I was very concerned that the publishing industry would pay me lots of money to write crap. (Ha...ha...hahaha. That has not happened. Yet. Mid-thirties me holds out hope.)

Eighteen-year-old me, who didn't think she'd ever have a book published, much less have national reviewers look at it, much less have those reviewers say it was good.

Twenty-two-year-old me, who pretty much gave up on the writing thing.

The thing I have to remember when I feel like a failure, is this: I did it. I became a writer. I am a writer. 

A few months ago, I was a guest at a library conference, along with any other writers they could get for the low, low price of the chance to sell a few books. I was sitting at my table in the exhibit hall, being generally ignored like everyone but the Newbery winner, whose line was about a hundred people deep, when another writer I'd met at a writing conference said hi and congratulated me on my (in my mind, very dubious) success. 

I was halfway through my, "Oh, it's really not a big deal..." spiel, when she stopped me.

"You're on that side of the desk."

And that, I guess, is what I have to remember, when I think I'm a failure for not following a more sensible, if false, dream.

I'm on this side of the desk. Sure, I dreamed of long lines and movie deals and a spotlight that stayed off me but shone very brightly on my books. 

But I didn't really believe I would ever even get this far.

Ten-year-old me would be proud, and ten-year-old me was a smart kid.


  1. Excellent post! (said he who has similar degrees and gets bummed at times by the NOTs)

  2. I was an adjunct for several years too; it was very difficult to work multiple jobs just so I could eat and pay the rent. It was also difficult to listen to administrators talk about budget cuts, even though most of them had six-figure salaries.


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