Friday, April 25, 2014

The Time Machine

By Susan

I've been compiling books to deliver to the InternationalBook Project over the past few weeks. My dining room is stacked tall with cardboard boxes. For the past two years, every time I drive to Kentucky from Texas I fill my car with as many spines as I can, and this trip is no exception.
After a mad rush of spring cleaning right before Easter, I decided to thin my own shelves as well, and I filled a box with book titles ranging from John Grisham's paperbacks to marketing and PR titles from my prior life in advertising sales. For a brief moment, I thought about the working life I had before leaping off the proverbial cliff to write full time and to obtain my MFA in Creative Writing. I didn't dwell on that prior life on that day last week, instead I tossed the books into a box and set them aside.
Yesterday I shuffled and organized the books and one particular self-help type business book stood out to me. I couldn't remember buying it or reading it, yet there it was. I flipped it open to see the following inscription (in the photo below): April 24, 2005.

Upon reading that date, I actually stepped away from the book. Nine years ago, to the day, exactly. Then I picked it back up and carried it to my patio to read it. Each chapter was designed with questions at the end, and 80% of the book was filled with my own notes. It was as if I'd opened a time machine.

Nine years ago, my youngest daughter hadn't even started kindergarten, and right now she's planning for junior high (that put things in perspective!). I had a full-time job in advertising sales management, working fifty-hour weeks, striving for promotions and fruitlessly, endlessly seeking my boss's approval. The questions at chapter ends were designed to help the reader find a life purpose and mission. They were simple questions, yet I scribbled in the margins extensively, answering each probe as though my future depended on it.
Perhaps it did.
Here's an example question, and my embarrassingly fearful answers:

3. When was the last time you took a risk in the direction of your dream?
I'm afraid of myself—of "too much risk." How can I do what I want to do and take the time to write and be published and get it all done? … Then again, why am I so sure I am supposed to be writing? What am I supposed to write? … What is my direction? Maybe if I could figure it out I wouldn't be so scared.

And then, this, dated May 16, 2005:
I long to write full time. I don't even know what that means—retreats, conferences, a community of writers? Workshops? Accountability as a writer? (terrifying) Publishing a novel? (more terrifying) What is the answer here? If I wrote full time, I could be free. And yet I feel safe in my current world. I'm too afraid to branch out. Why am I scared of the words?

I was surprised at my own thirty-three year old voice. In other entries I wrote about feeling rudderless, about having no purpose other than going to work every day and being a mom (both important purposes, I'm not diminishing those roles in any way). From these entries, it appears quite clear that nine years ago I was seeking some sort of permission from myself to pursue my calling. And I was terrified of writing. 

And here I am now, following my purpose in delivering books to my favorite non-profit. Following my dreams of being a writer by finalizing the third draft of my novel. Yesterday, I talked to my agent-- a relationship I would never have dreamed of having nine years ago. In June, I'm returning for my second residency with my MFA program, and I'm planning creative writing workshops-- to teach, not to attend-- for the fall. 

What if nine years ago I'd given in to my own fears, and I'd never carved out those late nights to begin the painful (very painful) first steps toward writing a novel? What if I'd let the terrifying thought of leaving my career enslave me? Would I be sitting on my beautiful patio with a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers, a cup of coffee, and sleeping dogs on my toes, or would I be in an office, making split-second decisions, and hiring and firing, all while daydreaming of a writing life?

Thinking about those questions prompted me to write a letter from myself at fifty to the me sitting right here, right now. She's the same me from nine years ago (although a lot less fearful). I'm still not where I want to be as a writer. My mission is still in progress. So what is the best advice I can give myself? Here's a small snippet of that letter. 

It's all going to work out. Keep writing. Don't stop writing because you face rejection or disappointments or are getting older—you'll still get older, anyway. Embrace getting older. Love your face and lungs and legs and hands. Love your words. Love your work. Be hopeful about the future. Take care of your health. Look forward to all the love in your life. Keep writing and keep following your passions and your purpose. And don't ever, ever give up.

And so I'm passing this on to you, just in case you are the fearful me from 2005. Or maybe you're where I am now, in the middle and on the cusp of bigger things. Maybe you are the fifty-year-old writer looking forward to your next decade of your writing life and looking back on your success. I certainly don't have any answers about how to do it, this writing life thing. I have a lot less money now than I did back then, but I'd like to think I'm on the right road to gaining far more than I ever dreamed.


  1. I enjoyed this post. I started keeping journals in 2004. When I read what my past self thought and believed, on one hand I'm appalled at the time I've wasted, but on the other hand I'm encouraged at the growth I see. Growing older has its benefits.

    1. Steve, I can't believe it's time wasted at all (although sometimes I've certainly felt that way myself.) I don't think I'd be the writer I am without those experiences. I'm sure you wouldn't be without your experiences, either. And yes, I agree-- growing old definitely has benefits. I like myself a lot better at 42 than at 22, that's for sure!

  2. Beautiful post, Susan. And "finding" that book was a wonderful affirmation of your decision to follow your dreams.


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