A Writer's Life List

The inspiration for my novel was found in an old cedar box. Tucked alongside my first bankbook and my grandmother's rosary, I discovered a yellowed piece of notebook paper folded into a tidy little square. In my flowery, 14-year-old cursive, I'd written Lori's List across the top, along with 27 goals I thought would make for a good life. I also included a sidebar called, Ways To Be, which included such pearls as, Don't be stuck-up. Don't talk about ANYONE.

I was pleased to see that many of my adolescent dreams had indeed been realized. But others I'd let others slip away, perhaps feeling incapable or unworthy of accomplishing them. I wondered, what happens between adolescence and adulthood that robs us of our chutzpah? Where was that fearless girl, who believed anything was possible? That's when the story of The Life List began to take shape.

I'm often asked, "Was Being a Writer on your life list?" Though I loved telling tales and writing stories, I never dreamed of being a real writer. In my small, middle-class town in Michigan, I knew teachers and nurses and a whole slew of General Motors employees. But I didn't know a single writer. Authors lived in New York City, or in glass-walled houses overlooking the Pacific.

I wonder now, what might have been on that list, had I decided at an early age to be a writer. Being the starry-eyed dreamer that I was, I imagine the list might have looked as audacious and improbable as this:

  1. Forget the college degree. Simply write. Time is of the essence.
  2. Find a stimulating part-time job where I meet fascinating people--a funky coffee shop, perhaps--and make enough money for goal number three.
  3. Live in a small apartment with a bay window, like in the movies, so I can sit at my desk and watch the leaves change colors as I pen the next Great American Novel.
  4. Publish my first book by age 30.
  5. Be Terry Gross's guest on Fresh Air.
  6. Receive a starred review from Kirkus.
  7. Sell the rights to at least a dozen foreign countries.
  8. See the adaptation on the big screen.
  9. Snag a spot on The New York Times Best Seller list.
  10. Win a huge prize, maybe even the Pulitzer.
Ah, the imagined dreams of a naïve girl. Call it a loss of spunk or healthy cynicism, today I know better. Having gone through many agonizing years trying to land an agent and a book deal, I believe an aspiring writer's life list
look more like this:
  1. Earn a college degree, preferably in a field that actually translates to a job.
  2. Find a job with health insurance and start investing in your retirement. Though you think you'll sell your novel in the next year or two and be set for life, you'll be surprised at how difficult the sale will be, and how low a debut advance typically is.
  3. Write the damn book, as Tom Clancy once said. Enough with the excuses.
  4. Never expect to be taken seriously. People, even friends, can be insensitive. They don't realize how important your craft is to you. Don't fault them for it.
  5. Listen more than you speak. Engage with the world. That's where ideas come from.
  6. Abolish all bitterness. Yes, there are published authors with less talent than you. And likewise, when you're published, there will be hobbyists whose skill far exceeds yours. So what?
  7. Learn to describe your project du jour in one succinct sentence, and do so if, and only if, someone inquires. And never, ever ask your friends to read your unpublished manuscript. Find a writer's group for that.
  8. Even though you're the most thin-skinned person alive, and recoil at even the mildest oath, rejection is coming. I promise. Deal with it.
  9. Write with joy and abandon. Use your creative gift in a way that would please its benefactor.
  10. Persevere. Know that the odds are against you, and celebrate the fact that you're willing to take that risk. Only give up when you've exhausted all resources--or if you're no longer in love with the project. Then dust yourself off and start writing another book, and then another. No whining.

Now that I'm a published author (debuting at age 52, mind you!), this is my writer's life list:

  1. Don't quit your day job until you've sold your second book and spoken to a financial advisor.
  2. Welcome all publicity.
  3. Appreciate and acknowledge feedback from readers. Respond to each person kind enough to reach out to you.
  4. Don't complain to non-writers. They don't want to hear it.
  5. Resist the temptation to compare yourself with others. Be happy for your fellow writers. Celebrate their success. Help them shine.
  6. Take yourself lightly. You're not J.K. Rowling, darling.
  7. Bad reviews are part of the gig. Learn from them.
  8. You are not your book. Whether it sinks or it soars, your work is not you. You are neither a superstar nor a failure. You're simply a person who writes. Don't lose sight of your humanity.
  9. Every now and then, allow that bubble of joy to rise to the surface. You've beaten the odds. Be ever thankful.
  10. Get back in your chair and do as Tom Clancy would do. Write the next damn book.