Stuck in the Middle
As my high school career drew to a close, I watched as everyone around me began picking colleges and majors and planning the rest of their lives. While I knew that I still wanted to be a writer, I was confused and underwhelmed at the options that lay before me.
Despite excelling at writing and advanced English classes, the rest of my grades were steady B’s. Those slightly above average marks were bogged down by my C’s in math. And although I mostly enjoyed school and was, in general, an above average student, I did not test well, especially when it came to the SATs.
As college fairs came and went, I found myself stumbling from one booth to the next, collecting pamphlets and feeling my eyes glaze over as I read through their admissions requirements. The first prerequisite listed was the SAT score, and I didn’t meet a requirement for any single school except the local community college. I felt more and more defeated as my senior year wore on. Suddenly I felt like my 3.5 GPA and outstanding writing skills meant nothing. No one told me that I could still apply to a college even if my SATs scores weren’t great. No one explained that I could use my other accolades to still apply. Looking back, this lack of guidance was a huge contributing factor to the direction my life took after high school.
No one in my family had gone to college, so I had zero direction from that standpoint. And even though my teachers had been encouraging about my writing, my guidance counselors were anything but. When I told them I wanted to be a writer, they assumed I meant a journalist – articles, features, news casts. When I told them media wasn’t for me, they suggested teaching English. When I balked at the suggestion (a woman who doesn’t want to be a teacher? For shame!), they stared at me blankly as though waiting for the punchline of an off-color joke.
“An author,” I’d say proudly with a smile. “I want to write books. Novels.”
And then their eyes would glaze over, their lip would give a twitch of amusement, and I could see the inner monologue running through their brain as they shuffled papers and stared at their hands.
Poor, silly little girl. She thinks she’s something special. She thinks she can actually write a book and make money with it. Oh my. How do I tell her the truth?
Next would come the soft chuckle and a casual comment about how “we can’t all be J.K. Rowling.” Then they’d become very serious and ask, “How do you intend to put food on the table?” with a tone suggesting that my career choice was the equivalent of stage four pancreatic cancer.
I graduated high school with the bland and unenthusiastic plan to attend community college. In order to satisfy the prodding from family, friends, and teachers, I decided that I could take care of my core classes while I figured out how to become a novelist. I wasn’t really looking forward to college in the first place, but three other hugely significant factors added to my distress and confusion in June of 2003.
Remember the novel about marching band I’d started in 1999? It had turned into a four book series, each of which was based on the incredible experiences I’d had with the group during my high school career. In that time, I had made amazing friends, traveled to several cities, made lifelong memories, and become a confident young woman. In short, I’d found my niche, and leaving it behind was incredibly painful.
As if leaving those friends and times behind weren’t painful enough, I’d also managed to fall in love for the first time. If it hadn’t been for band, I never would have met the person who owned my heart throughout junior and senior year. Unfortunately, because of our age difference, we were forced to say goodbye once I turned eighteen.
Losing my niche and my first love and being unceremoniously forced into college would have been enough to send any eighteen year old reeling. But there was yet one more factor, one more loss, that dominated the summer that changed my life.
Still Stuck in the Middle
My maternal grandfather, the patriarch of our family, had been diagnosed with cancer that April. The disease moved quickly and aggressively through his otherwise healthy and active sixty-nine-year-old body. I visited his hospital bed in my prom dress and graduation gown, and he left us one week after I received my diploma.
I was bereft. Devastated. Spent. Drained. If it weren’t for the gouging pain in my chest, head, and stomach, I would have been numb.
Leaving high school and going into the unknown that was college would have been enough.
Losing my friends, my niche, my first love would have been enough.
But losing my grandfather changed my family and changed my view on life. And it was too much.
I started community college and my first part time job in a fog. I stumbled through classes, work shifts, and the occasional party feeling, quite literally, like a fish out of water. I could not breathe.
Time is said to heal all pain. But for me it simply numbed it, and this was true for my writing as well. Where in the past I had been able to channel all of my feelings into writing, I was no longer able to do so. There was no place for it. There were rare moments where I’d scribble something on a napkin while on my lunch break at the food court in the mall, and sometimes I’d even spend hours pounding away on the keyboard in my parents’ basement. But nothing would come of it. I had nowhere to share it. And there wasn’t anybody who cared anymore. (Remember – this was in the days before social media and blogging had taken off).
While my friends excitedly picked classes for their sophomore year of college, I knew that deep down, continuing my stint at community would only deepen my depression and fuel my anxiety. Instead of feeling empowered and opportunistic towards school, I felt trapped, bogged down, and stifled. There still wasn’t anyone interested in my writing. And no one could tell me how to make a career out of it unless I settled for journalism or teaching. No one told me about grant writing, professional writing, editing, proofreading, or technical writing. All I saw were dead ends.
I dropped out of college. My parents were a lot nicer about it than they probably should have been. But I started working more hours at my retail job and maintained a social life. And then one day my dad handed me a page torn out of a magazine.
It was an ad for an aptitude test for The Institute of Children’s Literature. I had never heard of the place and was suspicious about its promises to help students prepare a manuscript for publishers upon completing a course. But my always conscientious dad had the forethought to check it out through the Better Business Bureau. When he was pleased with the report, he encouraged me to take the free test.
I passed and enrolled in a course that walked me through writing professionally for teenagers. As I worked through the assignments and mailed them to West Redding, CT, I found myself thinking about that novel I’d started back in 1999 about marching band. The course helped me see the book’s potential, and more importantly, I was writing again.
When I completed my first course with The Institute, I was immediately recommended for an advanced course. This one would concentrate on the idea for my first novel and go so far as to teach me how to submit it to perspective publishers. I eagerly began the course, knowing that if I didn’t have assignment deadlines, I wouldn’t be writing at all.
While I worked towards completing this second course, my life was also changing and moving forward. I was working my first full time office job, and I had met the man who would eventually become my husband. But just as I lost my grandfather around the same time I graduated high school, another dark shadow was lurking around the perimeter of life in my mid-twenties.
My mother, who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 1991, had been a dialysis patient since 2005. In 2010, she contracted a serious infection that led to repeated life-threatening complications. For three months, she was in and out of the hospital, and my life was again in turmoil. I took a leave of absence from my writing course, spent hours crying in the bathroom at work, and was alienated by friends who simply could not grasp what I was going through.
By some miracle and my mother’s incredible spirit, she managed to pull through and make a full recovery. Shortly thereafter, I got engaged and completed my course with The Institute.
Life was fun again as I embarked on a new job, planned our wedding, and began looking at houses with my fiancé. But as I moved towards this new stage in life, my writing fell by the wayside. For two years I was too occupied with dresses, music selection, mortgages, and curtains to even think about journal entries, let alone a novel. And then, shortly after saying my vows, the wheel of fortune turned again.
I lost my job four months after I got married. I had hated the occupation for quite some time, but considering I had a house, a dog, and a husband now, I couldn’t very well just quit. The job loss was extremely difficult for me from an emotional standpoint. Feelings of inadequacy plagued my every move, even after I found a new position with a much friendlier company.
As I worked to become familiar with my new job and being a wife, my thoughts often turned back to writing. I tapped out blog posts here and there and even submitted the young adult marching band novel to two publishers (who both promptly sent rejections), but I hadn’t created anything of significance in years. It left a hole in my heart to be sure, but I knew that whatever I was going to write about had to be something that sparked that same passion I’d felt way back in sixth grade. And like most things in life, that spark came to me unexpectedly in a most unlikely place.