Nothing I’m doing now was part of any grand plan. I moved to Brooklyn from Atlanta on a whim; I had friends in the city, an MA in art history, some published clips in art magazines, and a few museum jobs on my resume. I spent my twenties working in development for nonprofits while freelance writing on the side. I started writing fiction, just for fun. By the time I got married, in my thirties, I’d published a few short stories, finished the manuscript of a novel, and started looking for a literary agent.
Then life knocked me sideways. I got divorced, and my daughter—then six—was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I had to rethink everything on the fly. I chose a suburb based on my daughter’s needs, but I didn’t have friends there or much of a life. It was a lonely time.
To make ends meet I took a ton of freelance writing gigs. I couldn’t be too choosy. Caring for my daughter was the priority; everything else was a distant second. I did find a literary agent, but she said I needed to brand myself more narrowly as a writer. I tried, but it just didn’t work out that way. I started selling drawings and illustrations, which was weirdly difficult emotionally. Nothing I produced seemed good enough to me. But a drawing sale might make the difference between having grocery money or not, so I kept at it.
In my late forties, I got an unexpected break when a photographer cast me as a model. It was fun, it paid, and I met a lot of interesting people. Modeling isn’t something I would have pursued as a goal, but that one job led to others. It was disorienting to have something work out so effortlessly, when other goals that I’d been chasing continued to elude me. Doing something fun and unexpected made me realize how joyless the rest of my career had become. Writing can be isolating work, and being a caregiver is isolating, too. My life had become very narrow, and as I pursued the goal of getting my book published, my agent kept telling me to narrow it even further. It had all become dull and uninspiring.
So, during the first months of COVID-19 lockdown, I started putting my drawings on T-shirts to sell and donating the money to different causes. That brought the sense of purpose I had been missing. I stopped obsessing about whether my drawings looked professional or polished enough.
These days, I apply that principle to my work as a writer, too. When I pitch, I try to follow my heart a little bit more. This has led to publishing a lot of pieces I would have hesitated to pitch in the past, because they seemed too easy or too fun. Of course, work is work, and it can’t be fun all the time. I still have bills to pay. But I keep reminding myself that the happiest people bring both discipline and joy to their work. You have to find a balance. It’s kind of funny that modeling, which was a random departure from my career path—and which seems like such a surface-oriented kind of work—led me to this breakthrough that has spilled over into the rest of my working life.
Submitted on November 18, 2020