“So, what do you do?”
It’s such a simple question, yet it yields answers loaded with emotion and history. The response is generally simple, yet the words are fraught with connotative meaning that only the speaker can unravel. The journey that came before is palpable. We haven’t made it to the present moment without baggage.
Many people believe that what you do doesn’t define who you are. But I’m not one of them. I have often defined myself by what I do. And today, when I say, “I’m a writer” in response that question, I say it as both a declaration and definition of who I am. I want it to define me, because the road getting here was not easy, and it was not crystal clear, and it was not definite.
But it was, in a way, destined.
I always knew what my response to that question should be, so now I’m proud to define myself by a word that describes both what I do and who I am—writer.
Over a decade ago, I started teaching. That was another defining role. My life was consumed by education. When I went to visit my mom early in my teaching career she was cleaning out the house—ready to purge the junk that had accumulated over the years.
“Do you want your wallpaper books?” she asked over breakfast.
“My what?” I didn’t remember wallpapering the house. In fact, all the walls in my childhood home were painted.
“The books you wrote in elementary school. Remember, you’d write a story and classroom volunteers would type it out and bind it between two pieces of cardboard covered with wallpaper scraps?” She got up and returned with the books.
When I held them in my hands for the first time in fifteen years I felt like I was being reacquainted with old friends. I ran my fingers along each title on the textured covers— A Valentine’s Day Card, Weather, Teddy on the Moon, and The Mystery Cave. Inside each of the four books were pages yellowed with age that held stories written when I was seven and eight years old. Some of the pages featured hand-drawn illustrations by yours truly, but most of them simply allowed the words to speak for themselves:
A Valentine’s Day Card
By Amanda Ronan, Age 7
I was in school waiting for the Valentine’s party. It was 7:45 and I was thinking, “Did everyone remember my card?”
Finally, it was time for the party to start. There are 23 other kids in my class, but I only got 22 cards. Then I remember Josh was in New York.
But I wasn’t sad because I still got a card from my friend, Raina.
Then it ended and it was time to go home. There was mail for me. I opened it and there was a Valentine card. The person who wrote to me had a green pen.
The next day, I looked in Raina’s coat pocket. Then she came in and said, “You’re probably looking for my eraser.” And she didn’t play with me for noon recess.
I looked in Stephen’s desk. Then he came in and said, “You are probably looking for my dollar,” and he told the teacher. Then I knew it had to be Sarah. I looked on her desk and there I saw the green pen.
When I got home, I called Sarah and asked her why she didn’t put her name on the card.
She said, “I wanted you to try and figure out who sent it.” I said, “Thank you for telling me.”
The last page of each book was the “About the Author” page. Each of the four books featured a slightly different version of the same information—some chronicled my love for Italian food and the movie Karate Kid Part II and others described my interest in jumping rope and ice-skating. But one thing that all four books had in common was the very last line, “When Amanda grows up, she hopes to pursue a career as an author.”
Destiny. My nonjudgmental, not yet jaded and cynical, totally confident eight-year-old self knew exactly what my calling was in life.
Of course, my teenage, young adult, and early adult selves were too insecure and unsure to follow the writing path that had once seemed to clearly defined. And, if we’re being totally honest here, part of the reason why I couldn’t keep down the writing path was that, at a certain point, I fell out of love with writing. What had been an enjoyable, artistic endeavor in elementary school suddenly turned cold and lifeless in middle school. The creative writing that permeated my young life, that inspired me to build new worlds and share my words, was swept under the rug. Informational writing, formulaic reports, boring research projects, and pointless essays planted themselves in its place.
The memories of creative writing faded into a distant glimmer, like the tail end of a shooting star.
So life went on, and I become a high school student, a college student, a graduate student, and a teacher. When I started teaching elementary school, working with my students during writer’s workshop was the highlight of each day. Yet, I was too far removed from writing creatively for myself to connect my love for teaching writing with my childhood love of writing.
My teaching life, my writing life, my destiny, my path, and my journey changed one summer during a professional development opportunity. I signed up for and was accepted into the Heart of Texas Writing Project, the local chapter of the National Writing project—a group whose mission it is to improve writing and learning experiences for all. The program consisted of four weeks of intense personal writing and discussion about writing instruction. The goal was for teachers to immerse themselves in the writing process in order to learn how best to help students view themselves as writers.
For four weeks I learned what it meant to write again. I learned what it meant to be a writer. The other teachers in the program were supportive and loving and all on their own individual journeys. Camaraderie and joy were built on a daily basis as we each struggled with insecurities, emotional blocks, and internal critics—yet we persevered because we had each other to lean on. Those teachers witnessed and supported my reawakening.
At the end of four weeks, I walked away a different person—I walked away as a writer. For the previous twenty years, my writing life has been nonexistent, and after the program, all I did during my spare time was write. It was the first time in my life that I felt like the work I was doing was my purpose, like I was answering my soul’s calling.
I stayed in the classroom for a few more years after I finished the Heart of Texas Writing Project. I wrote in the evenings and on weekends, working on novels and short stories during any extra seconds I could find—I wrote the draft of a personal essay, one that turned out to be my first published piece of writing, in a pocket-sized notebook while sitting in a theater waiting for a movie to start. As exhausted as teaching made me, none of the extra writing work I took on felt like work.
In fact, it felt like freedom.
So, I left the classroom and started writing for educational curriculum companies. Writing short stories for reading comprehension felt like a natural progression toward pursing a writing career. I reached out to everyone I knew who was a writer and asked them how I should keep going along this path. Each writer-friend was on a different journey, so I started to pick and choose advice to follow. I eventually found a publisher and wrote a children’s book series. I found RTC and started writing community posts. I found websites and marketing companies who wanted me to write blogs for them.
So now, that’s what I do. I write. I’m a working writer, as impractical and impossible as that once seemed.
And my heart is whole and my soul is fulfilled, because my childhood dreams have been brought down from the old shelf, dusted off, and placed firmly at the center of my life.
While this has been my journey, the bones of it are not unique. So many people I know have given up dreams to pursue what they believed to be a more practical life. Many of our RTC clients tell stories of feeling unfulfilled until a pivotal life event revealed to them the full realm of possibilities. Many people turn to RTC because they realize they have finally found a community who will support their process of reinvention and reawakening. There is a sudden electricity to finding the right people, at the right time, and under the right circumstances. At RTC we’re honored to be able to work with people who have discovered their own path, gone against the grain when needed, and come out stronger, and more fulfilled on the other side—all while seeking fulfillment.
Life is a journey. Sometimes it feels like the path you’re on is exactly right—the straight and narrow, smooth sailing, no dangerous curves ahead. And other times you feel a sense of discomfort, like maybe you’re taking that corner too fast or you missed a turn a few miles, or years, back. It’s never too late to explore a new terrain, or revisit an old haunt. Who knows what surprise might be lurking.