I’ve often told the story of how I started writing fiction seriously in my forties. In a nutshell, I was going through a period of “self-unemployment” (I was self-employed as a freelance writer/communications specialist), and was in a period of transition between clients, wondering if I should continue down the same path. My sister, who knew how much I loved writing, kept telling me I should write romance novels. Finally, I listened to her. I bought some romance novels, read them, thought “I can do this,” and the rest is history (uh, learning it’s not so easy being the first step).
Why did it take me so long? Why did I pursue two music degrees instead of studying writing or something comparable?
In retrospect, it seems so obvious that I should have pursued writing fiction as a career earlier. I loved storytelling from the time I was a girl. I remember writing a play with my sister, something melodramatic, as a child. I penned short stories as a teen and young adult. The most exciting assignment for me in high school English was when the teacher asked us to write our own ending for John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which we were in the middle of reading. My heart was on fire penning that story, something that today might be called fan fiction.
And I continued writing fan fiction before it had that title. I wrote Star Trek stories. I wrote a story based on the television show Here Come the Brides, part of a birthday “gift” for a friend (I wonder how much of a gift it was to have to read my story!). And even after I went off to college, a music conservatory, I loved writing. I still remember the praise from the conservatory English professor for a story I’d written for a class assignment.
I even wrote stories in language class. When our Italian teacher gave us an assignment to write something about Easter, I didn’t pen some dry tale using vocabulary and tenses suitable for Italian 101. I decided to write a real story of an Easter memory as a child, something with humor and poignance. The teacher loved it, laughing as she read it, even as her red pen hovered over all the mistakes I’d made. It didn’t matter. I’d written a story that touched her. I aced it.
Yet none of this pushed me toward pursuing writing fiction as a career. Neither did actually making a living as a writer. You see, at some point, I ended up working in a PR office where my writing skills were noticed and valued. I was promoted, and then when I left to stay home with my growing family, I continued as a freelance writer, eventually picking up a number of trade organizations as clients. Yet, even getting checks for my writing didn’t convince me that maybe I should give writing fiction a try professionally. Not even that.
Why not? I think a large part of my reticence to embrace this career was rooted in my middle-class upbringing. Oh, it wasn’t that being a writer would be viewed as a pipe dream in my family. After all, my parents lovingly embraced and encouraged my singing aspirations. But something in me believed that people like me, people from a working class family, with no knowledge of the classics outside of school, didn’t become novelists. That was for folks who went to places like Yale or Harvard or Princeton, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s alma mater.
Come to think of it, maybe I thought of it as a man’s career. Or, if you were a famous woman author, you still went to prestigious universities and were from a completely different social set.
I put myself down, in other words, because I thought my background too humble, too suburban, too ordinary to qualify me as a professional storyteller. Keep in mind this was also at a time when suburban life was ridiculed and demeaned, that those of us happily living in our split levels and modern ranchers were made to feel incapable of serious thought, while hip city dwellers ruled the cultural world.
This unworthiness feeling continued even after some publishing success. Yes, I managed to get published in the romance genre, but I’d never be taken seriously as a serious writer because…well, reread the above.
I also think I harbored the notion that because writing seemed easy to me — it always surprised me when I was complimented on my writing because it wasn’t hard for me — that easy meant it wasn’t worthwhile. Crazy, huh?
When I look back now and wonder what would have opened the door for me mentally to pursue writing fiction earlier, I think it might have been a combination of things. Maybe if I’d been exposed to working authors at some point, in career days or just going to book signings, I would have seen it was an entirely accessible opportunity for me. Maybe if I’d read more about the business of writing, the mechanics of proposal submission, for example, it would have taken some of the mystery from the process, made it more accessible. I started writing before the internet age, after all, before such information was at the tip of one’s fingers.
All I know is I’m glad I did take the leap eventually. And I’m glad to live in an age now where the things that held me back shouldn’t be stumbling blocks for other new authors.
My latest novel, Fall from Grace (Bancroft Press, September 2017), is now available for pre-order in the Kindle store! Click here to go on over and grab a copy!