As I prepare my Career Day presentation for 115 fifth graders, I’ve had time to reflect on my journey as a writer.
I believe my journey began the first time my mother read to me. The moments I climbed into her lap and snuggled up for a story were the moments a writer was born. And these moments continued well beyond toddlerhood. At five or six years old, I still thought of my mother’s lap as one of the most comforting places to be, even if, at times, the stubble on her legs itched the backs of my thighs. There were bedtime stories, too. Lots of them. My mother was an excellent reader, her voice full of enthusiasm and inflection. Dr. Suess books were my favorite. Especially this one:
And this one:
And I remember enjoying this one, too:
I always hoped I, too, might someday discover a Zug under the rug, or be able to blow bubbles while biking backward.
Fifth grade is particularly memorable for me because two things happened: I was promoted from the “spring” group to “summer”–summer, of course, being the brightest kids in my class–(and, yes, back then, we were all grouped and labeled; everyone knew who was smart–Summer–and who was not–Autumn), and my writing teacher complimented a short story I wrote. She said I was and excellent writer and very creative, and that I should consider becoming a writer someday. I didn’t exactly recall this particular compliment until many years later, after I’d considered many other careers. In fact, nine more years would pass before I would give serious thought to becoming a writer.
In middle school, I met one especially important criteria for becoming a writer: I became a reader. Sure, I’d been able to read since first grade, after successfully mastering the alphabet in Kindergarten with the help of the inflatable “Letter People,” such as Mr. F with his Funny Feet and his friends Super Socks, Munching Mouth and Tall Teeth.
But in middle school, I actually became a reader. Someone who craved books, someone who read for pleasure.
I have vivid memories of coming home after a long day spent playing and swimming at the community pool–my hair still wet, my sun-ripened skin tender to the touch and smelling of chlorine–and luxuriating in the comfort of my air-conditioned room as I plopped onto my bed and dove into a favorite book, while the mouth-watering aromas of my mom cooking dinner wafted into my room. (Yep, that was the life!) Sometimes I would listen to the radio while I read. Hearing Sting’s, “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” can immediately transport me back to this moment in time.
Back then I devoured books in the P.S. I Love You series by Barbara Conklin.
But it wasn’t long before I moved on to more sophisticated novels. Stephen King quickly became my favorite author and I read Christine, Carrie and Cujo in quick succession. I’ve been a huge fan ever since.
High school and it’s required reading list effectively put a damper on my enthusiasm for reading. As I laboriously worked my way through The Grapes of Wrath, Macbeth, Native Son, The Call of the Wild, and The Catcher in the Rye, I longed for my beloved thrillers by Stephen King. Reading Walden made me want to put my eyes out and almost turned me against reading altogether.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had not the slightest inkling what I wanted to do with my life beyond going to college, so I enrolled in Ohio University’s University College for “undecided” students. The barrage of Myers-Briggs-type testing that followed continued to produce unexpected and unsatisfying results that paired me with “potential careers” I had zero interest in: Social Worker, Teacher, Counselor, Therapist.
My father guided me with these words of wisdom: Choose a career that will be in demand when you graduate and in which you can make a good living. My Dad’s philosophy was threefold: 1) Education was the key to success. College was non-negotiable in my household, though, at the time, I was only the second person in my family to pursue a college education. There was never a time while I was growing up that I ever considered not going to college. 2) If you have to work the same number of hours in a day as the next person, you may as well earn as much as you can during those hours. 3) Money may not buy happiness, but it can sure make life easier.
I distinctly remember, sometime in my late teens, walking through a restaurant parking lot and admiring a BMW Z3 and my Dad saying, “If you work hard, you can have a car like that, too.”
My father believed I could achieve anything I set my mind to; my father believed in me.
Ultimately, I spent many hours in the campus “career center” searching for my dream career–the one that would be in demand in the mid-90s and would pay well. Finally, I found my answer: A pilot.
The idea both intrigued and terrified me. I strongly disliked math and figured becoming a pilot would require a lot of it. Quickly flipping through an aviation textbook at the bookstore both fueled and quelled my fears: there was indeed a lot of math involved, but I was pretty sure it was math I could do. And it was interesting. For the first time ever, physics made sense.
And so I began down the path to becoming a pilot, and I loved it. I loved flying, I loved that my classroom was an airplane, I loved that I could get out of any “mandatory” sorority event by claiming to be at the airport (school did come first after all, right?), and the fact that boys made up approximately 90% of my aviation classmates didn’t hurt either. I even joined Alpha Eta Rho, a coed international professional college aviation fraternity. And it changed everything.
During one particular AEP meeting, a speaker came to talk to us about careers in aviation and he said the one thing that spooked the daylights out of me. It went something like this: “You have to consider the possibility that you could lose your medical license. If your eyesight were to drastically deteriorate, or if you were in a car accident and injured your knees or your back and couldn’t get your medical renewed, your career as a pilot would be over.” And what options were there, I wondered, for a pilot who could no longer fly: Air Traffic Control? Airport Manager? Aircraft maintenance or mechanic?
None of these alternate aviation-related careers interested me. I either wanted to be a pilot or I didn’t want to be in the aviation industry at all. The reality hit hard: I needed a back up career, stat.
And journalism was it.