When I attended my first writers’ conference a few weeks ago, I was (maybe stupidly) shocked that Every. Single. Person. I met was a professional writer in some sense. Some of them were teachers or instructors, others were freelancers or editors or proofreaders. While this was encouraging in the sense that it just goes to show that there are ways to make a living as a writer, it was also intimidating to feel like I was the only person in attendance who was simply an admin assistant that writes in the evenings.
Meeting all these “real” writers (aka: people who actually make a living writing) got me thinking about the fact that I’ve wanted to be a writer since that fateful day in Ms. H’s English class in 1996, and why I never actually pursued it as if it were a tangible goal. From the day I started telling people I wanted to be a writer, they’d often reply with a confused or amused expression. And once they realized I wasn’t joking, they would say, “Oh, so you want to be a reporter or an English teacher?”
For some reason, every person I talked to – teachers, co-workers, (some) friends and family, even strangers on the street – didn’t understand that I wanted to write for a living. And they became even more confused when I explained I didn’t want to do so for a newspaper or magazine, reporting about water main breaks or new restaurants. Then I blew their minds further by telling them I didn’t want to teach either. I lack(ed) the confidence to stand up in front of a room of people, especially a bunch of unruly students, and dealing with the US’s public education system is something that I’d like to stay as far away from as possible.
By the time I was midway through my high school career and it was time to start looking at colleges at the ripe old age of 16, I felt like my only options were the majors other people had suggested to me over the years – English or journalism. Although neither interested me, I had no idea that there were other ways to pursue a writing career. I didn’t know about grant writing, creative writing, professional writing, copy editing, proofreading. No one ever told me I could actually go to school for these things – including the schools themselves!
On top of that, once I had taken the SATs twice, I realized that getting into college was going to be nearly impossible. At college fairs, schools posted their entry requirements with the minimum SAT score at the top of the list. I had done so poorly on the test both times that I barely qualified for community college.
No one in my family had attended college before, so I didn’t realize that I could still apply to – and get into – schools with crappy SAT scores. My average GPA was around 3.5, I had a long list of extracurricular activities, and even though everyone balked at its importance – I was a good writer. But I automatically thought that if I didn’t meet the minimum SAT requirements that I wouldn’t be welcome at any school. So I never applied. I resigned to the fact that I was limited to community college, and so that was where I ended up.
A time out now. Beyond the logistical aspect of college and pursuing a writing career was the emotional and mental one. As if stressing over grades, SAT scores, college, and a seemingly unattainable career weren’t enough, my young life was about to get even more complicated. In April of my senior year, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. He died a week after I graduated, and his sudden illness and death devastated my family and completely changed my outlook on life. And there was more – the guy I had been dating off and on for the last two years of high school – the first love of my life – was forced to stop seeing me because his overprotective mother didn’t want her son involved with someone two years older. But we’re not done yet! Graduating also meant that I was no longer surrounded by the friends I had come to think of as my second family – people I had learned to love and be myself with as we spent 4 years in marching band. Band was where I had found myself, where I’d met aforementioned first love, and where I found inspiration for a lot of my writing. Band was the first place I had ever felt that I was able to be my true self, and graduating from it was one more painful amputation I had to endure that year.
So when I begrudgingly started community college that fall, I was, looking back, completely numb. I had endured more loss in the matter of a month that I had over the course of my entire life. Add that to the discouragement from, well, everybody, to pursue a writing career, and anybody could plainly see why I had no ambition and got absolutely nothing out of attending classes. (The one bright spot in my short-lived community college career was an English class I took during the second semester. An older, white-haired Italian man who wasn’t an inch over 5 feet tall somehow managed to intimidate the shit out of so many students on the first day that the class size was greatly reduced the following day. I personally was so terrified that I cried after leaving, thinking I was going to epically fail his class. The option of dropping classes was something else I was ignorant of. But he turned out to be an amazing professor. And on more than one occasion, he told me I was a good writer. I got an ‘A’ in his class and it was the first and only time I was proud of myself while attending community).
The other factor making me hate community college was math. Although I had scored so high on my placement tests for English that I opted out of the first two introductory courses, my math scores were so low I wasn’t even at college level. No big surprise there. All through high school, math had been my nemesis. I was in the slowest freshmen class available, and as a senior was in a class with sophomores and juniors. No matter what teacher I had, how many tutors I went to, I simply couldn’t grasp any kind of math. And here I was again – sitting in a college, taking eighth-grade level math, still not understanding a damn word anybody was saying. I barely managed to get a ‘C,’ and to me, that was a sign that the more advanced math courses required for any degree would never be something I could achieve. I saw math as the hurdle I could never overcome. If all the other previously mentioned obstacles hadn’t already been standing in my way, math surely still would. The thought of desperately trying – and failing – at math for another four long years was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t do this anymore.
I quit college after one year. I told myself and others that I might go back at some point, but I think deep down I knew I never would. Besides the stress of feeling academically inept, I was also still so emotionally broken over the changes in my personal life that I’m surprised I didn’t become a hermit.
Over the next several years, I took a few non-credit courses – some writing related, some not. I enjoyed almost every one of them and did well, too. I also completed two correspondence courses with The Institute of Children’s Literature, which allowed me to complete my first novel ever, a YA story that I eventually self-published in 2016.
But between the day I quit college and the day I self-published An Accidental Band Geek were twelve years of mess – in both my writing life and personal life. While not all of those twelve years were terrible (I did manage to meet my husband, get married, and buy a house after all), they were spent with my writing dreams in a dusty corner of my life. Until very recently, I thought that writing was simply a silly, childish dream I’d once had.
Thankfully I’ve realized that doesn’t have to be true. I continue to be surprised and inspired by the amount of writers making a living or simply living their dreams by freelancing, blogging, self-publishing, and landing book deals after decades of hard work. Sometimes that hard work is traditional, with multiple degrees and a consistent resume of writing-related jobs. Sometimes the hard work is banging out a novel over the course of two decades while you work two jobs and raise three kids, or blogging about overcoming anxiety and depression after spending years hiding under your blankets. So while I’ve let my lack of a degree plague me for quite some time, I’m finally beginning to realize that it doesn’t have to define me as a writer.