Back in high school, I envied my friends (aspiring doctors, most of 'em) who knew exactly what they wanted to pursue after graduation. Over time, I've watched them make incremental, beautifully linear progress to realize these dreams.
My own path's been a bit more crooked. At times I often wished for more clarity ("Now, please!") but looking back now, I'm really grateful for the way things turned out.
Has your writing path been "less-than-linear?" I'd love to hear about your journey.
Here's a bit of my own story...
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At 23 I left a broadcasting job at a small NPR affiliate in Harrisonburg, Virginia to move to Washington, DC. I'd discovered photography as a college senior, and I wanted to learn more and develop my craft in an urban environment.
I got a job waiting tables and informally apprenticed myself to two friends: one, a syndicate photo editor, the other, a freelance photojournalist. I tagged along with them, following them around the D.C. streets as they documented news events (the Million Man march, various protests) and street life. It wasn't long before I enrolled in fine-art photography classes at the Corcoran School of Art. My plan? To apply to photography MFA programs as soon as my portfolio was competitive.
Then I got Hodgkin's lymphoma.
While I was blessed with a positive prognosis, major abdominal surgery followed by weeks of weekday radiation treatments kept me clinic-bound and house-bound for half a year. I continued to study photography, but my progress definitely slowed. (Damn, cancer was inconvenient!)
After my treatments ended, a friend and I celebrated my recovery with a road trip. Armed with a small inheritance and a decent set of whells, we took three months to drive across the Trans-Canadian Highway, down the Pacific Coast and deep into the central plains Mexico, where my father was based at the time. I kept a visual journal and returned from that trip with ninety rolls of film.
Not long after we returned, I learned my Hodgkin's had returned.
My second bout with cancer was more intense. For six months I was so sick from the chemo that I had to learn to conserve my energy between treatments. Photography classes and lab time were no longer an option for me. Creative writing was, though.
Tucked into my two-bedroom, ground floor apartment, I discovered Neruda and Rich, Forche and Ammons. As my poetry library grew, I began taking writing workshops and literature classes at George Mason University. I wrote and wrote and wrote.
A year-and-a-half after my second diagnosis, I was able -- at last -- to apply to an MFA program. I'm incredibly grateful for the time I spent practicing writing and learning to critique my own and others' work. I loved learning about poetic form and took to literary theory like ink to a page. I probably realized it somewhat at the time, but now I see clearly just how lucky I was to study poetry at George Mason! The MFA program gave me a strong foundation for a lifetime of reading and writing.
Sometimes I'm still surprised that my MFA was in poetry, not photography. If there's one thing my cancer experience taught me, it's that the time to do what matters most isn't later. It's n-o-w.
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Are You Doing What Matters Most?
I hope you won't wait for a life-changing event to get you to think about the "big picture" in your creative life. Consider:
- What are you doing to realize your creative dreams? Are you doing it on a regular basis?
- If you are trading your talent for money, are you also honoring your creative gifts by working on your own projects?
- Are you getting your work out there in ways you're proud of?
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or did you travel a more crooked path (like me)?
Whether you freelance, parent or work another gig during the day, are you still finding time to write what matters most? What questions do you have on this topic? And what tricks & tips work for you?
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