The start of the New Year has me thinking about endings, beginnings, and the paths we take to lead us from one chapter to the next. How did you choose your direction? How did you decide to be a botanist, a nurse, or a stay-at-home Dad? For some, life’s course comes naturally–as for those who know what they want to be as early as high school. For others, those decisions come hard–as for those of us who struggle to find our way until a midlife crisis leads us from one place to another.
For me, the certainty that I would wind up as a writer became apparent when I was quite young–though other ideas cropped up along the way. At one point, I dreamed of being a psychiatrist who could help people heal from the disease my mother suffered from. At another, I was sure I would be a horse breeder, spending my life on a farm with all sorts of animals, as I had at summer camp. But the passion for writing won out during my freshman year in college, and when I turned twenty-one I started my first book.
After two decades of writing fiction, at forty years old, I discovered–to my surprise–that I had something important to say about myself. I had a new grasp on all that had happened to me and all that I, at last, understood about my own history. A strong urge to express these revelations and my conclusions about them led me to memoir. I decided to jump genres.
Memoir requires a particular kind of courage–a willingness to open up emotionally and go public with your understanding of your life, rather than putting your experiences and ideas into the mouths of imaginary characters. This sort of writing is a challenge for me in many ways. First and foremost, it’s about “getting over” myself and learning how to be humble. Then there is conquering the fear of being vulnerable with an unknown host of others. Last but not least, there is the complicated matter of writing about people who are so integral to the experiences I am sharing with the world.
I get questions from readers about all these issues regularly, and my answer to them is always the same simple truth: I am driven to reach out to others via what I have learned through my own life. I can’t flinch from writing about it. I often receive emails (or sometimes letters) from those who tell me that Searching for Mercy Street helped them to understand their parents better and to forgive the inevitable errors made while raising them. And others write to say that Half in Love has helped them to understand more about depression and suicide, or to move them to seek medical help, or to speak more frankly about their emotions with family–or just to take the risk of reaching out to me, a total stranger who might not answer, even though I seem to be a kindred spirit.
Every one of these reactions makes the fear of baring my soul to the world worthwhile, and this is what fulfills me. It puts into perspective any desire for better sales figures or stellar reviews. In the end, affecting other people with my writing is all that matters to me, and I’m grateful that my life allows me to pursue such a goal.
I have known many who have scrambled for a long time before being able to make a mid-life decision to flyin a new direction. One who left a flourishing law practice to write; one who ditched the security of a being a physician to take the risk of becoming a Silicon Valley entrepreneur; one who took years away from her career in journalism to sail the world with her husband and young children; one who decided to become a stay-at-home Dad so that his wife could pursue her dream; one who conquered depression over being childless and adopted instead; one who went back to school at age forty to become a minister.
The changes these people created for themselves required enormous bravery and a willingness to take a leap of faith. I admire them immensely. They gave me the guts to make yet another shift in my professional life, one over which I had been hesitating. Although it was not dissatisfaction that pushed me to leave the genre that I loved, however temporarily, at the outset of 2015 I tackled fiction once again. I chose to start a novel in spite of my insecurity and fear about critics who sometimes judge that my memoirs are my best efforts. But, of course, the decision was softened by the fact that I was lucky enough to be able to continue using my own personal stories in my newsletters, Huffington Post blogs and articles.
We might all look for inspiration, as I did twice, in the examples of the others I’ve written about above–particularly if we are unhappy with wherever life has led us thus far. The advent of a new year is the perfect time to try something fresh. Summon up your courage and unleash whatever it is that fires you up.