I had a minor crisis as I approached college graduation. I was just months from leaving school – possibly forever – when it hit me that I had virtually no marketable skills. My Bachelors in Creative Writing essentially qualified me to be a starving artist, or to pursue more schooling so that I could teach others to be starving artists.
I took an administrative position with a consulting firm that specialized in increasing profits for quasi-public electric utilities. I answered phones and created spreadsheets. I took out my nose ring. I stopped writing.
Since I was a child, I’d dreamed of being a writer when I grew up. And I wrote A LOT. To this day, my father likes to tease me about my teen years, when he’d hear me tapping away at my typewriter at 2 am if he got up to use the bathroom. I was dedicated. I was determined.
For four years after college, I didn’t write a single scene or story. I still read plenty, spent hours walking the creaky floorboards of my favorite used bookstore, Green Apple in San Francisco, lovingly fingering the dusty dust jackets. While I loved going to the bookstore, the come down was often hard: my stomach contents turned to sour jello and my skin ached with a million tiny pinpricks of envy. I had fooled myself for nearly my whole life, thinking I could be a writer. That I was equal to – or perhaps even better than – many of the authors whose books I admired simply for the fact that I could hold them in my hands, flip through their printed pages.
And then I read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. At the risk of being overdramatic, this book changed my life. It’s a great book, yes, but more than that, it inspired in me a moment of profound realization. I was on the bus on my way to another administrative position at another consulting firm, nose buried in my book, when an odd feeling – one part awe and two parts envy – crept its way up from my belly and into my esophagus, lodging in my throat. I flipped to the back of the book and scanned Wally Lamb’s headshot, read his bio. Somehow a forty-something year old man had crafted a compelling coming of age story about a teenage girl growing into adulthood without any adults to guide her through her journey. I thought, I should have written this book.
But I wasn’t writing anything anymore. And that was the problem.
Of course, Wally Lamb was a teacher for many years before the success of She’s Come Undone allowed him to write full time. Long before he was a published author, he was sneaking ten minutes here, an hour there in which to write. In retrospect, it seems embarrassingly naïve but I finally understood that I didn’t have to choose between a day job or being a writer. That writers write because we are compelled to do so, despite how we pay our rent.
Within a month of that pivotal bus ride, I’d formed a small writers’ group with a few friends. I started writing again. And I haven’t stopped since.
I will end with two questions for anyone reading this post: What are the books that changed your life for the better? What are the books that you should have written?