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How I became a full-time writer
It’s what I wanted to do in the first place
When I was in fourth grade I loved to make up stories and my teacher recognized that I had creative writing talent. She encouraged me to write and illustrate in my free time. I loved the worlds I created. I kept diaries and wrote all kinds of adventures.
I was an avid reader as well, devouring C.S. Lewis, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume. I wanted every book in the montly Scholastic book club.
I looked forward to trips to the historic public library downtown, which felt more like a church with its spiral stairs and quiet corners. I dreamed of finding my own books on those sacred shelves someday.
Robin Williams inspired me
I’m not sure when or how exactly, but along the way I lost sight of that elementary school passion and I let the world tell me who I was supposed to be instead.
In 1990, I was 18 and I had no idea what I wanted to do anymore. I floundered through my first year of college. I took TV and radio broadcast classes but I was terrified to be in front of the camera or microphone. I worked as an intern at an art gallery on campus and met a couple of famous artists so I started drawing and painting again. I played violin in the orchestra and made a clumsy attempt at tennis.
Inspired by the movie Dead Poets Society, my friends and I formed a DPS of our own, and I felt pulled to write once again. We met at midnight inside a large storm water drain pipe that stayed dry because it wasn't connected to anything. We poured our hearts out to each other. We felt like we were the only ones, the outsiders.
I ended up failing out of college because I lacked the maturity or focus to apply myself, study, or consistently attend class. I was crushed, and my self-esteem plummeted.
Life keeps going, then takes a twist
In my 20s I worked long, difficult but rewarding hours as a certified nurse aid. In my late 30s my feminist husband encouraged me to go back to school, and I completed a BA in International Relations with the aim of working in a governmental agency.
In August 2010, as I stared down my final semester of college, I was married, raising a young family, and already working in politics. I regularly had to crank out 5, 10, or 20-page papers for my classes. I spent nearly every waking moment writing, arguing, debating, analyzing, reading government policy, sitting in wonky lectures and rigid public meetings—and I ‘d grown to resent all the choices that led up to my pessimistic attitude, poor health and high stress.
I needed a creative release, so I started writing a story. Over the course of one weekend, forty-four pages flowed through me. I laughed. I cried. It felt amazing and…horrible.
I knew I had been forcing myself down the wrong path for several years and I wasn’t sure how to switch gears after investing so much money, time, and energy. I continued writing the story as an outlet for the next two years, caught between wanting to be a full time writer and needing to pay bills.
Can I do this?
In December 2012, my part-time local government job was eliminated from the budget process and I was laid off. My husband found a way to increase his income enough to replace what I was losing, and wholeheartedly encouraged me to finish my book to get it published.
I had the rare luxury of a supportive spouse and kids, as well as extended family cheering me on. When it comes to the tender egos of writers, having this web of enthusiastic support is priceless.
I began calling myself a writer, and gradually admitted it to other people—even in public. More often than not, people would smile and say, “Wow, good for you. I wish I could do that.”
On the inside, I wasn’t sure if I was really a writer yet, but I was following that old advice: fake it ‘til you make it.
Message from beyond the grave
About a year ago I was cleaning out a box that managed to remain undamaged when our basement flooded. The box was full of a lifetime of writing. First, a precious pile of old letters between my father and his mother, my grandmother, both deceased. They read like a direct message of encouragement for me to keep writing and how proud they were of me. I caught my breath when I opened one letter and a clipped college newspaper article fell out. I’d forgotten about writing it because I had left school full of shame about my failures. The article was terrible, but it still made me smile to remember how passionately my younger self had felt while writing it.
Ruby slippers moment
Next, there was a stack of old notebooks, brimming with journal entries, feelings, poems, beginnings of stories, what ifs, and aha moments. I even found one notebook of poetry from the days of secret meetings in the drain pipe.
Underneath it, there was a stack of magazines that had published several of my articles, written when my kids were toddlers—reflective musings on holistic living, family, and spirituality—proof that someone not related to me thought I was talented enough to put my words in print.
Then it hit me.
I’ve always been a writer.
I’ve been compelled to write. I am happiest when I write. I realized being a writer has nothing to do with my job title. It is about wanting to inspire people.
Thank you, Robin, rest peacefully.
This week, with the shocking news of Robin Williams’ passing, I cried off and on for a couple of days as if a member of my own family had died. I revised a sad part in my book, in an attempt to use my grief for something good. It may sound crazy, but I always felt a connection to the kindness and pain in his eyes. I loved his ability to do any accent, any gender or ethnicity, literally anyone. I loved his laugh. This incredible loss was another reminder for me—his extraordinary role in Dead Poets Society made me want to write things that made people feel alive.
I remember our young voices echoing off the walls of the drain pipe like it was yesterday. We always ended our clandestine meetings by reciting the "O Captain, My Captain" part from the movie. Robin Williams and the rest of the cast brought that beautiful script to life, inspiring a generation of outsiders like me, and let us know that we weren't the only ones.
I have attempted to convey that same message of validation and belonging in my upcoming YA fantasy novel, The Recollection of Trees.
I am a writer, and I always have been, even when I didn’t know it.