2013 was the year I had to decide how much it meant to me to be a writer. When the year began, I had a steady office job, a stressed-out husband, an apartment, and a baby, which meant that 26 hours out of every day were accounted for. How was I supposed to work on the novel that had been pacing back and forth inside my head, knocking occasionally on the floorboards, for years?
Since we all know what happens to a dream deferred, I figured that action must be taken. And yet I am not one to leave a job lightly—or a friendship, or a relationship, or a longtime association with a particular soda. “Til death do us part” is my default, even for brands of toothpaste.
Non-terrible jobs are hard to come by these days. Even if I were not as idiotically and ideologically loyal as a rescue dog, I would know that leaving one’s non-terrible job during a recession is what my family would call “D-U-M dumb.” My position, at an arts-and-culture non-profit, was safe: I raised money for a place that needed money. (Have you considered Development? You should consider Development.) I was good at it, too. My first year out, I covered my salary several times over. It helps that I may have been the lowest-paid grant writer in my postal district.
My coworkers were voluble, good-hearted, and intelligent. My boss respected me. I had my own office, with windows and a door I could shut. Could I really walk away from that—from a paycheck, vacation days, an identity separate and apart from Mama: The Lady With the Breasts? Going back to work after giving birth had been a relief. Raising a baby is 80 percent tedium and 20 percent supernovas—everything that is not ploddingly mundane is terrifying, heart-rending, glorious, exhausting. Taking eight hours off in the middle of the day to do something as straightforward as write letters to the Jewish family foundations is, by comparison, a Scandinavian cruise.
But: This book in me, it would not stop pacing and knocking. Over my time in New York, I had finished two manuscripts while working office jobs, thanks in part to writers’ residencies and fellowships, and to the fact that we did not have cable. Neither, though, had sold. Why not try writing essays, my first agent told me, before leaving the business. Why not try another novel, my second agent told me, before leaving the business too.
Maybe this book in me was third-time’s-the-charm. Or maybe it too wouldn’t sell—I would never know unless I tried, and while working and mommying I did not even have time to try. Something had to give and it could not be the mommying, because the baby was too damn cute and anyway had passed the point where she could be returned even for store credit.
And if I did not try now, how did I know I ever would? Maybe I would just end up a Shirley, like Marjorie Morningstar.
“Why don’t you take a year?” my husband suggested. I had never depended on my husband before for anything. No matter how much money he made, I continued being frugal enough that, should something happen, I could live on my earnings. Independence is important, right? This was a big leap of marital faith, to forego making my own money. Of course, making a baby is a big leap of marital faith, too.
“Okay?” I said, like that, like it was a question, and I tried to figure out how to tell my coworkers and my boss. And my mother. It helped that, as a finalist for the Graywolf Prize, I received a partial fellowship to a two-week literary seminar in Lithuania, and that an editor from an actual, real publishing house found my work on the Internets and asked me if I had a manuscript.
“Why yes,” I told her, “as a matter of fact, I’m working on one right now!”
“I’m going to Vilnius!” I told other people. “To work on my novel because an editor is interested in it, and I have to finish and deliver it fast, before she changes her mind and asks Logan instead, so I’m quitting my job!”
“Okay!” everyone said, like that, like it wasn’t a question, because apparently in your thirties you are allowed to do crazy, ambitious things like quit your job to attempt something at which only a tiny percentage of people succeed even when you have a stressed-out husband, an apartment, and a baby. Nobody called me stupid, which is my biggest fear. Or at least they didn’t do it to my face.
“Enjoy spending time with your baby,” said one co-worker, who didn’t like me very much. “Actually, I’m going to write,” I said. “Uh-huh!” she said. But that was as mean as anyone got.
So I quit my job, traveled to Lithuania, wrote like mad, finished the novel, and got yet another agent, one who promises me she is not going anywhere but who knows?
2014 is a dark room I am lurking outside of while trying to peek in through the cracks of the door. There could be dragons inside. There could be money in there for me, or no money at all. There could be a woman in heels who storms out, slaps me in the face, and says, “That’s what you get for hoping!” For now, I am grateful to everyone who supported me in 2013 in doing a crazy, ambitious thing, and I hope I live long enough to do another crazy, ambitious thing sometime, and maybe even, maybe, see this one pay off.