I have always loved to write, but if a gypsy had ever predicted that I would one day grow up to be a professional writer, I would have laughed. See, I knew all about writers. Writers were complex and talented people we studied in school. Writers usually lived in far-off places. And most of all, in my mind, writers were special, and I didn’t feel special. I was just a lonely kid who talked to myself about places that didn’t exist and people that no one else could see. (I also knew the main reason I couldn’t be a writer wasn’t that I couldn’t tell stories, but because my handwriting was sloppy, no one would ever want my autograph! My mom used to make me practice my penmanship during summer vacation.)It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a writer. I did. Desperately so. But I couldn’t admit my desire to write to anyone but myself. I couldn’t leave myself open to the criticism of friends and family and anyone else who might overhear my dreams.
And I was scared. Ever so scared of so many things. Of being different. Of not having any friends. Of not being good enough or pretty enough or smart enough. You name it, and I was probably afraid of it. I tried to hide it, holding my fears inside until they started to eat at me, truly, giving me anxiety attacks and constant stomach pains.
I’m an only child, and while growing up I lived in a neighborhood that didn’t have any kids around for me to play with. My imagination became my best friend. (Well, except for bedtime when I imagined lots of scary things.) Every night I would lie awake in bed, afraid to go to sleep, thinking about all the terrible things that might happen. Was there a monster under my bed? Maybe a dragon was hiding in my closet. What was that noise outside? What if? With those two little words, what if, a whole new adventure began. In time I learned to transfer the stories in my head to a blank sheet of paper. Spinning stories became a daily habit.
Was there a monster under my bed?
Maybe a dragon was hiding in my closet.
What was that noise I heard outside?
What if . . .?
I always seemed to imagine scary things, like monsters coming out of the light fixture over my bed, and me tucked in too tight to be able to get away. I tried to come up with happier thoughts.
What if I won a medal in a skating competition?
What if my mom bought me a new horse?
What if I was the long-lost daughter of someone famous, like a movie star?
Soon the game of “What If” became my friend. As I tried to fall asleep at night I began to rewrite my favorite television shows, always making myself the long-lost daughter or sister of the star. As I got older, I learned to transfer the stories in my head to a blank sheet of paper, and my addiction to words became a daily habit. If I wasn’t writing, then I was reading.
The more I read, the more I wrote—sometimes a poem, maybe a short story or a character sketch. Sometimes it was only a few lines scribbled on the back of a napkin to help me remember how I was feeling at a particular moment. Writing down my thoughts seemed to help the good times feel even better and the bad times not hurt so much. So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. But the more I wrote, the less I fit in with the other kids. No one else heard voices in their head like I did. No one else saw pictures in their mind of faraway places. I didn’t know anyone who would rather write about an adventure instead of watching one on TV.
I’m not like other kids, I thought. I’m strange. So I pushed my writing aside and tried to act like I thought I was supposed to. I went roller skating, rode my horse, took dance and piano lessons. I joined all the right clubs at school, but I never really belonged. I was trying to do the things I thought normal kids did. I still wanted to write. But I wanted to belong even more.
It wasn’t until I had graduated from high school and was pushing a baby stroller around the block that a friend helped me understand the facts—who I was and what I wanted to do with my life were up to me. I had two children, a hard-working husband, a house in the country and I was able to stay home with my kids. By today’s standards, I had it all, but I felt continually restless and unhappy. Denying your dreams can do that to you.
On one of our walks my friend asked, If you could do anything you wanted, if you didn’t have to worry about grocery shopping or paying the bills or cleaning the bathroom, what would you do all day?
I guess my dream was closer to the surface than I realized. Without thinking I blurted out that I’d write stories.
And she laughed at me and said, Well, if that’s what you want to do, why aren’t you doing it?
I thought it over and realized she was right. There was no reason for me not to follow my dream. I dug out all my treasured notebooks and scraps of paper. I read and reread what I thought were the world’s greatest stories. I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. I started to read books about writing, I took classes, and I studied the business. I learned that all those stories I had once found so magnificent weren’t all that great after all. So I studied some more and I wrote some more. Every day my writing got a little better. I learned how to type, how to structure a story, and how to market it. And most of all, I learned about rejections slips.
For years I had a sign in my office that said, Things Take Time. I kept it there to remind me that nothing good ever comes without hard work.
I didn’t sell the first story I ever wrote—or the second or the third. In fact, it took several years before I sold anything at all. It took even longer before I saw my first byline. And though my work continued to be rejected, it never occurred to me that I should quit writing just because I wasn’t getting paid for it. The dream, finally allowed to surface, had become an obsession and a way of life for me, as necessary to my survival as breathing, eating, and sleeping.
I didn’t just want to write, I had to write.
I had to write a poem about the way I felt when my grandfather died.
I had to write a story about the day I found the picture of my father—a father I have never met.
I have to write because with every book, story, and poem, I learn a little bit more about myself. And the more I learn about myself, the more I like me and the person I’ve become. That’s what keeps me going with my writing, even when books I write don’t sell. I love learning about who I am. Each new discovery about myself is like a present waiting for me to open it. Now that I’ve stopped hiding from myself, I’m a lot happier, and a lot healthier, too.
Now I’m all grown up and I’m not afraid to go to sleep at night. (I’m still working on the handwriting part.) I have to confess that I am obsessed with writing, the same way some kids are obsessed about baseball cards or movie stars. Writing keeps me sane. Not writing makes me crazy, cranky, and not nearly the nice person I want to be.
When I was 12 years old, I wrote:
I live in constant fear of being discovered.
Fear of someone finding out that I’m just me, and nobody else.
At that time I was filled with too much insecurity to follow my dreams, too afraid of being different, and too much of a skeptic to believe that just being me would be enough. Now I know better.
Now I know that if you have a dream in life that is interesting and challenging you have to follow it. You can’t live your life doing things that make other people happy unless they’re also the things that make you happy.
And if you don’t fit into the world’s idea of what you should be, then maybe it’s because you have your own ideas, and that’s okay too.
—Susan Taylor Brown