Back to School

When my daughter suggested I sign up for her high school’s Career Day to talk about being a writer, my first reaction was, “OMG, MY TEENAGER IS NOT COMPLETELY EMBARRASSED BY ME–I WIN AT PARENTING!”

My second reaction was, “OMG, what am I going to tell these kids about being a professional writer?” Because even at the ripe old age of….. um… someone old enough to have a teenager, it feels less like a real job and more like a continuing struggle.

I didn’t have a clear career path from Point A to Point Z. A lot of the time, I had no path at all. Though I’d always loved to read, and did some fiction writing here and there (in secret), being an actual “writer” seemed like a totally unattainable goal. I didn’t know anyone who wrote for a living, and it seemed self-serving to think anyone other than my parents would be interested in anything I created. These days, there’s a term–“Imposter Syndrome”–to describe the self-doubt that holds people back. I was a few steps removed from that–I couldn’t picture myself even posing as a writer. Real writers seemed like a foreign species: super-intellectuals who lived in New York and quoted James Joyce.

Without no particular goal, I figured things out along the way. I majored in history in college (because I liked the classes), then got an entry-level job at a publishing company (because I liked books). Eventually, I went back to school and got a master’s in journalism (because I’d finally gotten up the nerve to at least try something writing-related). Years later, I worked on a novel during my daughter’s naps, because I’d finally gotten up the nerve to at least try writing fiction.

Looking back, I can see how all those decisions led me to where I am now: majoring in history, for example, taught me the research skills I use for my novels. But it was a pretty twisted path to get here, and I’m hardly a role model.

Eventually, I figured out the main points I wanted to share:

Uncertainty is normal. So many kids are urged to “follow their passion,” but what if you don’t have one? It’s OK to not have your whole future figured out in high school.

Creative fields are tough–financially and emotionally. I was very honest about how little money I make compared to what they might expect (for a $15 paperback, I typically get about $1). I talked about how long it took me to get an agent and publishing contract. I’m all for people following their artistic dreams, but you also have to be real about how you’re going to pay your rent.

It’s never too late. This sounds ultra-corny, but I hoped this was the message that would resonate. I shifted into journalism at 27, thinking at the time that I was already too old to make a mark. I was almost 40 when my first novel was published. The wonderful thing about writing (or painting or quilting or whatever) is that you can do it at any age.

I ended up presenting four sessions of my talk during that Career Day. Some kids asked a ton of questions; other slumped in the back rows, half asleep. I don’t think I changed any lives, but I couldn’t help thinking of my teenage self, who would have been encouraged to hear that professional writers are everywhere….. even the Chicago suburbs.

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