I decided, perhaps back in high school, to become a writer because I was extremely shy and writing seemed a good way to express myself without having to actually open my mouth. But the teachers back then told us constantly that a good writer writes what she knows, and what I knew best in my life was not something I was ready to write about. If you took away my secrets, I didn’t know anything at all really, certainly not anything unique and worth reading.
The way I saw it, I had two choices as I prepared to move forward in life: I could either forget about writing, or I could ignore what everyone insisted was the central rule regarding it. It was not an easy decision for me to make. I was not much of a rule breaker—unless you counted the rules my mother imposed on my social life. Why not teach? my left brain whispered. No; students targeted shy teachers in those days with spitballs. Nurse? No, I never cared for blood. Secretarial work? No no no. I wanted to write.
Since I wasn’t ready to write my first novel anyway—I would be attending college part time and working part time to support myself—I decided to go all in and apply for a freelance gig writing for a magazine about computer chips. This was back in the early days of IT, when hardly anyone understood how computers functioned. If I could write successfully about their chips, it would prove that I could write what I didn’t know when the time came for me to start my first novel.
I got fired from that job, right after I turned in my first article. I just couldn’t make sense of the background information the publisher had given me to support the work he wanted me to do. I would have been devasted if not for the fact that at about the same time I got an A + on my first paper for my World Lit class. I tried another writing job, this time writing restaurant reviews for a small community newspaper. The job didn’t pay much at all, but I got free lunches (yeah, that’s another thing they’ll tell you you can’t do) and I didn’t get fired—though I did quit when I started gaining weight. I took an office job after that, and I also got my first response on a short story I’d sent to a literary magazine. At the bottom of the boilerplate rejection someone had scribbled: “Please try us again; we like your writing very much.”
And I did; and I got published.
My story was about a man who sits at his apartment complex pool daily watching everyone else swimming in the water but afraid to jump in himself because, while he’s memorized the mechanics of the strokes, he’s afraid he’ll choke when he tries to use them…and drown. But one day he finally gets up the nerve and takes the plunge.
Being afraid to swim was not a subject I knew about—I was a good and confident swimmer—but I’d combined it with something I knew very well—fearfulness, the antecedent of shyness. I still puzzle over those early writing teachers who failed to explain the rules of writing in a way that would have made sense.