Last month I quit my job of 12 years, without another job to go to. I quit so I could write.
While it’s still fresh in my mind, I want to set down for myself, if for no one else, how exactly I came to do it. Just a few months or years, to say nothing of the possible doubts or second thoughts that might arise, could begin to smudge what was once clear and imperative.
I must write. I must do it every day. I must work hard at it, with all my soul, and be the best that I can be. I made this change openly so that I could not easily turn back, so that my friends would ask me what I was working on, and I would need to answer them.
I have to make the time. I have to get out onto the page what is in the pains of labor to be born. I must not, should I be blessed with twenty or thirty more years, bear as an old man the attending regret of never having given myself the time and space needed to make a committed endeavor of writing – of wishing I had, but never having been willing to take the necessary risks of missteps, rejection, criticism and failure. I no longer fear these as much as I fear that regret for having avoided the risks and kept my gift locked away.
But how did I come to this resolve, and why did it take so long? That is what I want to put down now, before it fades.
I had wanted to leave my job for some time, six or seven years at least, but not with very much intensity. It was a small academic community for which I had lasting love and loyalty. But I was stuck in a job I didn’t love, although I didn’t hate it, either. All my attempts to find a different job at the college or elsewhere, or to change the job I had, were frustrated. But my biggest career obstacle was not having a career. Toward that end I considered graduate school in a related field. I attended seminary for a year. But I never uncovered a clear path. I knew I wanted to depart, but I didn’t know where I wanted to go.
In the last two years I turned 50, saw a couple of doors close at work, and took a 60-day trip across Europe with my wife.
Before I left I had written my first polished essay, and I decided that when we returned I would try to get it published. By that time I had already made up my mind time was a crucial issue for me. I wrote to myself:
I’ve come to accept an obvious but unwelcome realization about what I want to do with last third of my life, which is to write: I’ve never been able to write in my spare time, and I never will. That is because after dressing, commuting, working and seeing to all the other demands on my time, it turns out that my spare time is where I live my life. My leftover time is my life. So, I have a stark choice: write or live.
My life consists in the real living that I do every week, spending time with my family, with my friends, at church, walking, eating, sleeping, praying, reading. My life is not always easy, but it is pretty simple, and I like it that way.
But I want to write, and I don’t consider that living time is the obstacle. What I consider life – friendship and love and connecting with God and people and the creation – these are not the thieves, and they are not the things I want to sacrifice in order to write. No, I’m looking at the other side of my time – the job, the time it takes me to go to and fro, the 48 hours of my week – as the real thief. And I want to grab hold of it like I would a Neapolitan pickpocket, grip it by the wrist and jerk, and I mean jerk it back. It’s my time, and I’ll wrestle him to the ground to get it back. It’s this guy, not my life and my love that’s the problem.
While traveling in Italy, Spain, France and the UK, I was carried along by wave after wave of inspiration. A feast of natural, artistic and architectural beauty greeted us everywhere, every day. I had half a dozen ideas for new essays. At Dove Cottage I saw William Wordsworth sitting at the edge of Grasmere Lake, composing verses in his head. The lakes and ancient forests, the Holy Isles, the ruined abbeys, the Florentine tower, the great walled city of the Cathars, the Alhambra, the Alps, the Appian Way, all made me want to write – like Wordsworth, who walked in the morning from his doorstep to the bank on the shore and wrote without pen or paper.
THE sylvan slopes with corn-clad fields
Are hung, as if with golden shields,
Bright trophies of the sun!
Like a fair sister of the sky,
Unruffled doth the blue lake lie,
The mountains looking on.
People like Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, and Dali and Michelangelo, who had left their enduring and indelible marks on the world – marks we saw and were awed by and rejoice in – they had not given of themselves merely a portion of their time and passion to create what they did. They had gone all in.
And I was, etymologically speaking, breathed into: inspired.
When we returned home I was even more convinced I could not stay at my job, that I could not turn 60 there. I didn’t know how, but I had to carve out some time to write, to drop the 270 miles a week of commuting, and do something different and closer to home. I would have to leave. We had agreed that after Laura found a full-time job, I would once again look for a different job. As we considered our financial situation, it occurred to us that if I worked part time and she full time, we would be no worse off than when our situations had been reversed the previous five years.
I applied for part-time library jobs. My hope was to quit before the beginning of another academic year. And my goal was to get my essay published before I gave my notice.
I wrote my first story when I was about eight. It concerned a boy who was transparently me, who got his dearest wish. The end.
I think my grandparents had gone to Florida, and brought back a board game for me and my siblings, but I was the only one who really took an interest in it. Some assembly was required and I put it together. I don’t recall ever actually playing the game, but that was quite all right. It was called A Visit to Walt Disney World, and on the box cover Mickey and Donald stand over a picture of the theme park. Once constructed, it was a paper and cardboard version of the Magic Kingdom, which promised “a world of fun:” the castle, with fireworks, the haunted mansion, a spinning teacup ride, and best of all a monorail on the wall that surrounded the board, with paper cars that slid atop the walls.
I thought about the real monorail, and Tomorrowland, Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, the go-carts, the Enchanted Tiki Room. This paper world came alive in my imagination. I knew there was no point in asking my parents if we could go to this magical place, because we could not. Instead I invented a story in my mind about a boy, much like myself, whose parents surprise him with the announcement that the family is going to Disney World!
I was quite happy with the two or three hundred words I’d written, and showed it to my parents and some other adults. I believe they all took it as more of a broad hint than a story, which was quite understandable. But there was something more. I felt a satisfaction that came from giving expression to my wish; it didn’t have to come true. The story made me happy as a story, because it had my own feelings in it, real feelings of longing, anticipation and attainment. It was enough. That story served and satisfied myself, but only a few years later, I saw how stories served and satisfied the reader; that good stories were a gift.
That was 45 years ago. I have been bothered by the fact that even though I returned time and again to writing, for different reasons and in different genres, I never gave myself permission to call myself a writer until I got paid to do it, and I never let myself believe I could write creatively in my own voice. I never gave myself completely to it. I lied to myself, or let myself be lied to. It was such an obvious and hateful lie. Why did I listen to whatever it was in me that was always decreeing what I was incapable of doing?
I loved writing when my friends and I made our own newspaper in fourth grade. I loved writing as a student journalist and columnist in high school and college. I began writing poetry and experimental prose in high school as well. Later, and for twenty years, I planned and wrote mostly unfinished screenplays, which no one ever saw. At 20 I began a novel, which I abandoned. In college I first struggled with but came to shine in the assigned essays I wrote. I wrote scripts for an audio book and a PSA. I wrote training materials and curricula. Eventually a friend invited me to join a dot-com startup as their marketing and web writer. It was the best job I ever had. It lasted 14 months, until the company moved to San Francisco and left most of us behind.
How could I have missed that writing was my gift and my love? It may have been a dismissal based the ubiquitous axiom that one cannot make a living at it, and therefore it is not worth one’s time or effort. It was also the pull of my competing interests. And deep beneath was a crippling doubt about my own voice, the one that doesn’t hide behind newsprint or format or objectivity. The real me that lived in my poems, and the stories and ideas I couldn’t figure how to write.
On the other hand, I did figure out how to put myself into words, and I did come to this resolve, however late in life, at the time when I was ready – and not before. Those years were not wasted, they were lived. Every day went to making to making me a writer, because in many ways I was always thinking like a writer, writing in my head, always germinating ideas. I am affirming myself as a writer at the only time I could have, and it likely could not have happened sooner than now. I’ve made peace with that, and I am willing to forgive myself my previous denials.
Four years ago I was writing a series of posts (starting here) on this blog that set me on the path to finding my voice. I had begun a couple of years before, but the real change came in 2012, when I read Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Nothing I have read has given me more encouragement and motivation to write. I had been telling stories from my life, that were organized around themes rather than periods of time or single episodes. But I put little effort into the style, adopting a casual tone that mixed fairly straightforward voice with occasional experiments. The stories were interesting enough on their own, I thought, and I was driven by the urge to tell them, not necessarily to create excellent prose. The results were pieces I sometimes didn’t even want to read when they were done. But I was making progress.
Ueland believed that anyone could write well, if they wrote from their hearts, from their authentic selves. I was challenged to write what I saw, what I felt, what I thought, because it is one’s personal outlook that gives their words real value: by writing what only they and no one else can. Turning to my life stories, I attempted to dig a little deeper into the emotional terrain and find the language that could recreate my sensations and feelings on the page. I felt I was getting a little closer to the voice of my heart.
Early the next year I wrote an essay that brought me all the way home. I wrote about something deeply important and emotionally painful for me, and I sang with the voice I had been looking for, that came as close as I had ever come to capturing and projecting the real me. I felt I had nailed it, not because it was so good, but because it was so me.
This was the piece I submitted for publication last year. As I submitted it to the first four publications, all literary journals, I was prepared for a period of rejections. I was unknown and unpublished, after all. I shortly received my first rejection, from a prestigious journal that was admittedly a longer-than-usual shot. Then I received an acceptance, from a well-established online journal. I was delighted and surprised: after only one rejection my first-ever literary submission was scheduled to be published. It had been my goal to secure an acceptance before I quit my job. Three months after it was published I gave notice of my departure. I wondered if a few people who know me might not understand or approve of this change. It’s all right. They’ve had their say; I’ve been heeding their voices in one form or another most of my life.
Now I work part time – at a library, where I’ve always belonged – and I am free to write every day. And to this amazing privilege there has attached an obligation – to create, to bear fruit in due season. But it is a happy obligation, one I accept easily because of its utter weightlessness. It is not something I carry, but which carries me.