The summer I turned 61, I was still licking my wounds from the day my boss called me into his office and said, “I’m sorry. We’re letting you go.” I was still fighting the urge every morning to get into my work clothes and start my day the way I had for years. I was still explaining to people who hadn’t heard the news that my ego had been bruised, yes, but I was hopeful something great would come along.
By autumn, it occurred to me that my severance package would stop arriving in my checking account in six short months, and although I’ve never worried much about money, I began thinking of ways to cut back, something I’ve never been known for. I tried not to surrender to my bent for the dramatic, but once in a while—usually awake in the middle of the night— I’d see a vision of me in the future, popping open a little can of gourmet cat food, spreading it on some crackers and calling it a day.
Then I had an idea.
I tried out my idea on my neighbor, who’d kindly wondered why he’d seen me home so much. I told him I’d lost my job and had been applying for new ones, but nothing was happening. Of course I didn’t say it exactly that way. I think I used words like “transitioning” and “turning point.” The phrase that was my actual launching pad, “letting you go,” was still coming to me regularly in my dreams,—the dreams where I’d show up at my office and everyone there would have to remind me that they’d already “let me go,” and, ashamed (and, yes, naked of course), I’d slump back to my car and drive home.
I’d just met this neighbor, so he was a natural tabula rasa candidate. “I’ve decided I’m going to write,” I said, listening to how self-important that sentence sounded wafting through the air.
“Really?” he said. “I didn’t know you were a writer.”
If he meant had I ever made a comfortable living as a writer—or even an uncomfortable one—the answer was “no.” If he meant had anyone ever heard of me, nope. I didn’t mention that I’d won third place in my sixth-grade short story contest, but it was one of the consequential events on which I was building this new career. It’s amazing how reality hardly ever has anything to do with being a writer.
Then I sat down at my computer every day and wrote. Nothing much at first, and nothing good. As I worked at my writing, I tried not to replay in my mind those interviews—the few I got—that had not gone well. The ones where I could tell I was being seen as an overpriced worker with a depth of experience that no one was particularly interested in. As I felt the mediocre handshake that ended each of those interviews, I wanted to scream: “Just hire me. I’m a hard worker. I can do this.” Then I waited for the emails that all ended with the same sentence: “Best of luck in your search.”
That search had ended. Now I was writing and editing and querying editors with abandon. I celebrated every little success, even the pieces that could get my writing “out there” but offered no money. I wrote harder. I got better. And I waited for a sign.
Sometimes, when nothing was coming to me, I’d walk out my back door and sit in the little park next to my house. I’d jot down what I heard or saw in the notebook that I carry everywhere. One day a boy, about ten, sat down next to me on the bench. His dad was off to the side, watching expectantly. I’d seen him nod in my direction and say quietly to his son, “Go ahead.” The boy cleared his throat a little and held out a stack of copy paper, mercilessly stapled down one side. The cover read ROBOTS in bold lettering and had an ambitious illustration.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m a writer. I have this book for sale. It costs $1 if you want to buy it. But just to warn you, it might be scary in some parts for your kids.” I loved that he didn’t have a clue that my kids are now in their 30s. I loved his confidence, even when his voice faltered a little.
I took the book in my hands and thumbed through. “Stay right here,” I said, and I ran back to my house and got a dollar. After our transaction was complete, he kindly showed me where the scary parts were so I’d be prepared. His eyes were bright, the way I wanted mine to be. He was putting it all “out there,” while I was still struggling to do just that.
“Is it hard to be a writer?” I asked.
“Not one bit,” he said. And he took off for the swings.
Linda Hummel’s work has appeared in Newsweek, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and many women’s magazines.