Fail Better: What Do I Want to be When I Grow Up?


Right now, I am sitting at the dining table in my new home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, working on one of three things I’m supposed to write today. It’s starting to get cold here, so I’m bundled up and drinking some hot tea. I’m still settling in, so boxes are piled up around me and the table is littered with books and magazines that haven’t found permanent homes yet. I’m busy, but I’m happy. I wound up here because of a series of mostly stupid events, but I’m now glad that they transpired.

A couple months ago, I was living in Oakland and working at an antiquarian bookshop in San Francisco. I had been living in the Bay for a little over a year, slowly settling in, slowly making friends. But this summer, things started going wrong. I broke up with the partner I had been dating for about a year, and shortly afterward, I found out I was losing my job. Needless to say, I cried a lot this past summer.

I really liked my job, and losing it felt like I was arriving back at square one. I suddenly started questioning what skills I actually had, what resources I could call on, what kind of work I was good at. I was back at the old question, the one that I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with for a while: What do I want to be when I grow up?

Amidst this deep identity crisis, I realized that I would not be able to afford my apartment once I was no longer receiving a paycheck. I explored various options: were there openings in any of the collective houses? Could I live on my friend’s boat? How much do the dingy hotels in the Tenderloin cost? None of these ideas seemed appealing to me. Grudgingly, I decided it was time to leave the Bay.

Let me expand on “grudgingly”: this wasn’t an easy decision. I was just starting to make some really good friends in Oakland; friends I still miss desperately. My heart was still smarting from a relationship that was loving but intensely, emotionally fraught. I felt like I was giving up on a place that had been pretty good to me, felt like I was a coward for leaving when the going got tough. But I was scared, I was bleeding money, and I felt more alone than ever before. The bigness of the life decisions that loomed in front of me were terrifying. I wanted to go home. I wanted to lick my wounds.

I decided to move to Austin, TX, which was close enough to my parents in Houston, and it was where my brother and several friends lived. It was cheaper, I knew people, I had connections. At the end of August, I packed up my car and started driving. As you could maybe tell from the beginning of this article, I never made it to Austin.

I stopped in Albuquerque on my second day of driving and stayed with some good family friends who live here. They alternated tough love with soft love, a good dose of home cooking and “get a job, you deadbeat.” I talked with my mom on the phone after I had been there a few days, and she advised me to stay as long as I needed. “It’s neutral territory,” she said. “A good place to stay for a while to figure out what you want to do, rather than focusing on where you want to be.”

Well, stay there for a while is what I did.

I spent a couple weeks on my family friends’ couch, crying about how the world is a big and scary place. I listened to Sarah Jaffe’s Suburban Nature a few times through. I complained to my friends and family a lot. I tried not to slip down the steep slope of depression that I saw at my toes. I drank a lot of coffee. And then I decided that I was going to try to make this freelance writing thing work out.

Because after a little bit of soul-searching, I remembered that as a kid, I always said I wanted to grow up to be a writer. But my adult-brain didn’t let me think I could make it work as a full-time, make-a-living career. I’m not sure what switch flipped in me to make me realize that my adult-brain was sabotaging my dreams. I guess it just seemed like the perfect time in my life to try something new and risky and fun.

I got a place of my own in Albuquerque, where rent is even cheaper than in Austin (which is not quite as cheap now as I remember it being) and filled it with furniture donated from aforementioned family friends. I started going out and meeting people. I’ve been to a goth dance night, a drag show, a zine fest, and a roller rink. I got some books on magazine article writing and on freelancing in general and started doing as much research as I could. I began pitching to editors of magazines and website, reaching out to people I had written for in the past, and asking everyone I knew for any connections to writing work they might know of. And I started writing.

I moved into my house in Albuquerque on September 22. Since then, I have not stopped pitching, hustling, marketing myself—and, of course—writing. Some editors have responded; some have accepted pitches. I have begun an email correspondence with some other freelance writers in Texas who are about my age and are also still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. This morning, I had a meeting with the music editor at a local newspaper who wants to “bring me aboard,” as he put it. The two other things I’m writing today are for him. If 14-year-old me knew I was going to get paid to write about music one day, she would totally high-five present-day me.

As somebody who considers herself a very reasonable and level-headed human, this career choice seems foolish to me. I don’t do well with things that are unpredictable, unstable: I’m a creature of habit. That being said, these past few weeks have been the only time in my life that I’ve rolled out of bed every morning and genuinely looked forward to my work. When people tell me that they like my writing, it’s incredibly validating. And all day I come up with ideas and try to turn those ideas into words that will inspire or inform somebody: it is the most fulfilling thing I can imagine doing with my time.

There is no “happily ever after” to this story because it’s still very much in progress. I’m taking things day by day right now, trying to find as much work as I can while also attempting to establish a social life in this new city. This is less a tale of “the power of positive thinking” or whatever, (because 1. fuck that bullshit, and 2. there were definitely some days that I was not thinking positively, let me assure you) but more like a “do what feels right, even if it seems stupid” story.

I still miss my friends, and I still miss Oakland. And some days, I still want to run home and cry to my mom and dad. But the important bit is that I’m feeling some other stuff too. I’m feeling proud of myself: I’m proud that I snapped out of feeling sorry for myself; I’m proud that I’m taking a risk, and I’m proud that I’m slowly but surely making it work out. I’m not so scared anymore, and I’m ready for whatever comes next.

Robin Babb

Robin Babb

Robin is a freelance writer and feminist killjoy living in Albuquerque, NM. She reads lots of comics, and lots of other things too. She secretly hopes that she can still get a good cappuccino after the revolution.

4 thoughts on “Fail Better: What Do I Want to be When I Grow Up?

  1. I really enjoyed this article :). I have a good idea of what I want to be when I grow up, or what I’d like to do, but I’ve always been taught that the realm of art has no profit nor support. I feel I have much talent, but in comparison to the millions of other artists who excel beyond me and work for far less… It’s hard to follow what I wish to do verses what was paved before me, how far do I go for a backup, in case my dreams fail, before it swallows me I don’t know, I just hope I don’t mess up so bad I wake up regretting where I’ve ended up in life.

    1. Myl, I was taught the same thing, if you decided to pursue creative work for a living it was either starving artist or in the rarest of incidences Stephen King. It was never in between.

      And it seems like if you at least give it a shot, that is something to be proud of.

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