When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? I think my first answer to that question was a mommy. I would play with my dolls and pretend I was their mommy. I would change their clothes, pack a diaper bag, and have my dolls ride in a toy car seat buckled into the car. Basically, I would imitate how my mother took care of my baby sister.
Next, I wanted to be a teacher. I used to play school with my stuffed animals all the time. Looking back, I find this ironic because there were times when I hated school. I felt lonely and left out sometimes. Other times, there was too much attention when I would have preferred to blend in. Adolescence can be difficult for the meek. Thank God for great teachers, friends, my family, and a lousy guidance counselor (or was she?) who had reservations about me “making it” in college so far away from my comfort zone. At any hard time when I briefly entertained the thought of quitting, I thought about that guidance counselor’s comment and decided that succeeding—if only to spite her—was worth it.
Later, I wanted to work in an office, complete with all the paperwork I imagined, a computer, and a phone. My sisters and I played office many times during our summer vacations. Mom gave us the junk mail to play with and those credit card checks. I swear, I knew how to write a check long before I made the correlation of needing to have money in the bank to cover the check.
There was a time when I wanted to be a singer. I sang silly songs and dreamed of performing in front of a crowd. Dreamed, I say. I was terribly shy as a child and never would have actually tried it. There’s also the fact that—short of basic kid songs or singing along to the radio—I can’t sing very well. I also don’t like singing in front of people other than my children. I don’t even like to sing in front of my husband. There’s something poetic about being a singer-songwriter. Not all poems are songs, but all songs are poetry.
Around age 10, I became obsessed with archaeology after experiencing the Indiana Jones movies. I didn’t wish to go through quite the level of adventure he did, but I was fascinated by the history involved. I dreamed of growing up and exploring ancient ruins and making discoveries to share with the world. During that same time, I started listening to the “Oldies” station that played music from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. (I am still coming to terms that 90s grunge/alternative plays on a retro station now.)
Eleven brought on a new dream, as I wrote in my diary. I wanted to be an actress and casting director. Strange combination, I know, but it’s what I wanted—or what I thought I wanted. At the time, I felt so ugly and unglamorous. I wrote that I was a nobody. I thought being an actress would make me glamorous. It would make me pretty and popular. It would make me somebody. Oh, how naive I was. My sisters, my brother, and I made silly videos with Mom’s camcorder during the summer. (I don’t know where the tapes ended up.) I became obsessed with Winona Ryder and watched all of her movies I could get my hands on, including Heathers, which I watched at 12. If you haven’t seen it, it is a dark and twisty cult classic circa 1989, and I was way too young to watch it. People seem to either love it or hate it—there’s no in-between.
When I became a teenager, I realized that my heart was leading me to become a writer. Whether or not I could do that full-time was still undetermined. From 13-15, I wrote a handful of poems and seven book-length stories. I wrote them in pencil on notebook paper I placed in binders. (I have all of that writing scanned digitally now in all its unpolished amateurish glory.) I wrote from start to finish, beginning with character names, descriptions, DOBs, and outlines, moving on to the chapters in the book. They were all first-person stories about a girl and her current situation—a situation that I could control. The last story I wrote as a teen evolved into Caroline’s Lighthouse. Two others evolved into Jordan’s Sister. I have plans* for the remaining four, and I am currently working on an idea I had back then that never materialized.
*2023 Update: Of the seven stories and one idea I had as a teen, five are now published: Caroline’s Lighthouse, Jordan’s Sister, What I Learned That Summer, One Shot, and When Does Life Begin?.
I have some new ideas floating around in my head, two other teenage stories to rework, and a bunch of characters I scrapped during the rewrite of When Does Life Begin? who might get their own stories someday. And perhaps I’ll venture outside the YA and NA genre at some point.
I am not sure exactly what happened or why I stopped writing new books after age 15. It might have been life in general, my preoccupation with the fact that I didn’t have a boyfriend, or self-esteem issues telling me I wasn’t good enough. Looking back at my diary entries from that time in my life is painful even now that I am in my 30s. As a teenager, I was depressed, scared, and lonely more often than I was happy. I don’t want that for my kids. I gave up on writing for a while because I figured I needed to have a different career to support myself.
My mom wanted me to be a pharmacist. She thought I was smart enough to do so and that it would be a great career for me where I would make a lot of money. Money isn’t everything, though it is important. I didn’t want to be a pharmacist.
I enrolled at Arkansas Tech University as a psychology major with plans to become a therapist—a clinical child psychologist after grad school. I wanted to help kids like me who experienced childhood trauma as I did with the death of my father. It seemed like a good plan because the human mind is so complex that no one will ever completely understand it. It fascinated me, and I truly enjoyed those classes geared toward that major.
So what happened? In the back of my mind, writing was still bouncing around. I had submitted a short story and some poetry from high school to a creative writing scholarship contest at ATU after urging from my senior English teacher. I won 4th place out of all the entries, and the award paid for books for my first year of college. I was the only non-creative writing major in the group of six who won that year. I took art classes as a non-art major during my freshman year in college and wrote a ton of poetry. By mid-semester in the fall of my sophomore year, I had changed my major to creative writing. I was infinitely happier in my studies, even if my personal life was a roller coaster.
I started working at JC Penney (yes, it’s spelled with two Es) as a sales associate the summer after my freshman year in college in my hometown. When college started back, I transferred to the Russellville JCP and remained working there until I was halfway through grad school and got hired at ATU. Why retail? Because I’m a realist.
“Dickens and other nineteenth-century realists.”
As a realist, I knew that I probably needed a day job to support my artistic aspirations. The chances were slim that I would be as popular as Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark. I could still dream about it though, while I rang up clothing and home goods purchases. All the retail work also solidified my desire to do something else with my career even if it wasn’t writing full-time. I briefly toyed with the idea of going to law school after college, but I realized while working in a student fellowship position in the English Department that I didn’t want to leave college at all. Enter the master’s program in college student personnel. Basically, training to work on a college campus.
I succeeded in the program, but I’ll admit that halfway through it, I worried that I might have made a mistake. CSP is geared primarily toward a career in student services, not exactly in the background where I ended up. I’m glad I finished what I started. Also, halfway through the program, I met Jonathan, and we started dating. Not long after that, I was hired for secretarial work in University Relations (now MARCOMM) at ATU. I’ve been there ever since, though I have been promoted and given additional responsibilities, including writing, editing, and trademark licensing. I still interact with students who work in our office and students I volunteer to mentor. It’s not a bad day job to correlate with my passion for creativity.
Now, I am back to where my heart led me when I was a teenager. I’m a writer—an artist. You know what? I am also a mother, a teacher and a therapist to my children. I study history and the human condition to strengthen my writing, which is also helped by my appreciation for acting and casting the right person to portray a character. I adore music and wrote four songs for Jordan’s Sister, check them out here and here. I dole out medication like a pharmacist and coupon like nobody’s business during my “retail therapy” to take care of my family. I excel at my office job at the university and take pride in what we do for our students.
So, maybe, I am exactly where I should be. I’m still a realist both in life and in my writing style. If I ever finish growing up, I still want to be writing and creating art.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
-Brandi Easterling Collins