One Sunday afternoon in 1920s England, two schoolboys were walking across the fields near their school. One of them asked the other whether he’d ever considered writing poetry.
I never had, and said so, but I knew
That very moment what I wished to do.
That boy was called Wystan Hugh Auden, and he went on to become one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. The lines are from his poem Letter to Lord Byron, where he recalled the conversation.
On a bright morning in 1950s Italy, a young film director boarded a motorboat, heading out to the ship where he was to film a scene in his first solo feature film.
I couldn’t stop asking myself: What am I going to do? I couldn’t remember the film, I couldn’t remember anything. I only had a strong desire to run away. But I had hardly set foot on the ship than I was giving instructions, demanding this that and the other, looking through the camera. Without knowing anything, without being aware of any objective. In the few minutes’ voyage from the harbour to the ship I had become an exacting, pedantic, self-willed director, with all the faults and all the merits which I had always loathed and admired in real directors …
Federico Fellini went on to direct over twenty movies, establishing himself as one of the major filmmakers of the century. (Quotation from Fellini on Fellini.)
Auden discovered his vocation almost by accident, at a friend’s suggestion. Fellini was clearly ambitious enough to get himself into the director’s chair – but to judge from his account, it was not until he started directing that he really started to believe he could do it.
It’s also possible for a creative vocation to emerge from a hard-headed career decision:
I went into the business for money and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.
That was Charlie Chaplin, in his Oscar acceptance speech from 1972.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy for us to see these decisions and vocations as inevitable. The names Auden, Fellini and Chaplin are so closely associated with their art forms that it’s almost impossible to imagine them doing anything else.
Auden the pianist? Chaplin the novelist? It doesn’t quite ring true.
Yet for each of these creators there came a moment, or a period, when they discovered they had the talent and the desire for particular form of expression, and committed to it for life. Almost like falling in love.
Just like falling in love, it doesn’t make much difference whether you were childhood sweethearts, introduced at a friend’s wedding, or met via a dating site. All that really matters is how you felt when your eyes met.
Personally, I discovered my vocation via homework.
At secondary school I had two superb English teachers, Sue Dove and Geoff Reilly. In Sue’s class I realised I loved to write. I also discovered that reading poetry was a far richer and more rewarding experience than reading prose. Then one day Geoff set the class a homework assignment, to write a ballad based on Robert Westall’s novel The Scarecrows.
I started writing the poem in the English class, and had to break off when the bell rang. Next up was chemistry, which I loathed. But something had followed me down the corridor from the English department – an invisible goblin made of words that danced and sang around me as I sat on the bench and tried to concentrate on the Bunsen burner.
Surreptitiously, I eased my jotter out of my bag and started scribbling stanzas. And on and on, all the way through chemistry, history, maths… Even cycling home, I couldn’t get the rhythm out of my head. I still can’t.
How About You?
How did you discover your creative vocation?
How did you know it was the real thing?
Any tips for readers who are still looking for their vocation?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For tips on creativity, productivity and creative entrepreneurship, sign up for free updates from Lateral Action. And for bite-sized inspiration, follow Mark on Twitter here.