This essay originally appeared on the First Books blog hosted by Meg Waite Clayton.
I can tell you exactly when, where and why I decided not to be a writer. It was half-way through college, standing on the marble steps of Linsey-Chittenden Hall, scanning the list of students accepted into the fiction writing seminar that I was desperate to take. My name, for the fourth time, was not there. Up until that point, I had always assumed that I would be a writer (apart from a brief archaeology phase at around age 8, driven – I dimly recall – by pride over the fact that I could pronounce, and spell, the word archaeologist). I was good at writing, I loved it; what else would I do?
But this simple logic fell apart once I arrived at Yale. I was a small town, public school girl who never had to work very hard for her A’s. At Yale, I was suddenly surrounded by a whole lot of kids who had succeeded in radically different – and much tougher – environments than my local school. Kids from elite private schools and big cities, kids who’d been tutored since they could speak, kids who’d already published books, won awards and national recognition, kids with clear-eyed ambition and unshakeable self-confidence. These kids intimidated the hell out of me and I felt my own successes, my own shaky sense of self, made small in comparison.
At the time, the Yale English department offered only one fiction writing seminar to undergraduates. And admission was by application only. That is, you first had to submit samples of your work and then wait to see if you were accepted. I tried every semester to get into that class. Every semester, I climbed those wide marble steps to read the list of names pinned to the professor’s door. Every semester, my name wasn’t there. After that fourth attempt, I decided to change majors – from English to history. There were plenty of tears, bolstered by some cheap beer and pizza, and I told myself and the friends commiserating with me that night that, clearly, I had made a mistake: I was not a writer. After all, if my writing wasn’t good enough to impress one college English professor, how could I possibly rely on it for my livelihood? Who was I kidding?
Instead of spending the remainder of my college years deconstructing George Eliot and working on my iambic pentameter, I focused on medieval European history, a time rife with drama and gore. I traveled and studied in Spain and France, I wrote my senior thesis about the Caribbean, where I was born. And, for the next 15 years, I got on with my life.
Here are some things I didn’t do because of that day at Yale:
- Get an MFA
- Get published in my 20s or 30s
- Find a mentor
- Make friends in publishing
- Build community with other young writers
- Learn to deconstruct George Eliot
Here are some things I did do:
- Traveled to a lot of different countries
- Held a lot of different jobs
- Got a law degree
- Supported myself financially
- Met and married a pretty spectacular guy
- Had three amazing children
- Kept writing
Despite my firm instruction to self that I was not a writer, I always kept writing. I maintained a daily journal, scribbled stories and parts of stories, bad poetry, outraged essays. I treated this writing as a guilty secret. I didn’t share anything, I never thought of revising a story for publication, I never told anyone about it because it just didn’t seem all that important. Some people knit or paint or ride horses, others collect porcelain dogs or antique biscuit tins or lava lamps; I wrote.
One day, about six years ago now, I began writing a story that I could not simply file away and forget as I had with all the others. The story took place in 1850s Virginia and involved a slave doctor, Caleb Harper, and a woman he tries to help, the house slave and artist Josephine Bell. I thought the story was good, better than anything I had written before, and I wanted to explore the characters further. So I did. Over the course of the next several years, that story eventually grew into my first novel, The House Girl, out from William Morrow/Harper Collins on February 12, 2013. I no longer practice law and am actively working on my second book (when not running after the afore-mentioned three children).
Looking back now at my 19-year old self, part of me wants to shake her: Believe in yourself! Don’t give up so easily! But the other part of me wonders what would have happened if I had been admitted to that fiction writing class. If I had indulged my dream of becoming a writer when I was younger, how would things have progressed? Would I have lost the sense of joy and wonder that writing still brings me? Would I have become discouraged and given up, really given up, in a way that my 19-year old self couldn’t quite do? Or would I have written The House Girl 20 years earlier, and now be on my tenth novel, with a bank account full of royalties and 5,000 Facebook friends?
It’s a dangerous thing to entertain the sliding-door ‘what ifs’ and I don’t do it very often. I don’t know the answers to these questions and, of course, I’ll never know. But what I do know is this: I can’t imagine a different life and, to be honest, I can’t imagine having anything to write about when I was 21, or 25, or even 30. I think there was a reason I didn’t get into that class, and I don’t mean a spiritual or religious reason. I mean the simple, straightforward reason that, back then, my writing wasn’t very good. But writing is not modeling or competitive tennis. Writing welcomes the late bloomer. Every bump along the road makes you wiser and your writing richer. As a wonderful friend once said to me: if you write, you are a writer. So keep writing.