When you quit your full-time, benefits paying job and tell people that you want to be a writer they, understandably, look at you like you’re crazy. Which is okay, because you are crazy. All good logic dictates that this is would be classified as a bad idea. Or, at the very least, not very smart. Then when you decide to go to back to school and get a writing degree the men in white jackets really start to circle. In two easy steps you have gone from a person who receives money on a regular basis to a person who pays money on a regular basis. Again, on paper, not very smart.
But paper is exactly where the alchemy starts to happen. I started writing—on purpose, with a purpose—and reading, and talking about reading and writing critically with my professors and classmates. I was spinning my own intellectual gold. And no, I can’t write a check with that gold just yet, but I have a real shot of doing something that makes me profoundly happy.
That sounds incredibly hokey, even to me, and I’m a person who cries at TV commercials. But in addition to the work I am doing, I’ve met some truly amazing people, who, like me, are doing this crazy thing that makes no sense. One friend in particular had a story like mine. She was working at a good job making good money with a 401(k) plan and medical insurance. And she quit. Just like me.
“I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” she said when we first discovered our shared insanity. “I needed to make a clean break from my old life to my new one.”
Recently, she and I visited Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home in the Hudson Valley. Irving built his charming little cottage on the banks of the Hudson just north of New York City at a time when he was one of the most famous men in America. The tour guide, a historical interpreter in period dress, explained that strangers would walk the wooded path and knock on his door uninvited.
“I guess they hoped some of the genius would rub off on them,” she said. She laughed. My friend and I joined in, but only as polite cover because we didn’t want to be found out.
“Our Washington Irving,” she said, always referring to him as ‘our’ Washington Irving, “…was the first American to earn his living solely from writing.” The guide explained that he had tried his hand first at the family business and then as a lawyer. But neither really stuck.
My friend and I exchanged glances again. Her eyes got wide and I caught a glimpse of a recognizable spark. I knew we were thinking the same thing. No, not that either of us would be the next Washington Irving, but that sometimes going all in does pay off. Even Irving had to be brave—or crazy—enough to try.
Inside Sunnyside, in the room with Irving’s desk and built-in napping spot, the guides tell the story of Washington Irving and a famous letter he sent to Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, as the fable goes, was struggling to find anyone to publish his stories. He sent them to the famous man of American letters for feedback. Irving replied with an encouraging letter urging Poe to not give up and to keep writing. And, as every 8th Grade English student knows, Poe did.
The postscript to the story is that later someone asked Irving about what he saw in Poe. He replied something like this: “The stories were strange and I’m not sure I understood them, but I never want to discourage anyone from writing.”
I, like our friendly guide in her enormous hoop skirt, am paraphrasing, but the sentiment remains the same. Irving knew this writing thing is a crazy business. He also knew that sometimes all it takes to keep going is a kindred spirit to smile in your direction. In my case, I not only have some amazing new writer friends, I also have an incredibly supportive family and my old, dear friends who probably knew all along I would do something like this.
Sure, we’re crazy. Sure, it might blow up in our faces. But I don’t think so. One of my oldest friends, who was with us for the tour at Sunnyside, took our picture by Irving’s gazebo. “It’s the two writers!” she said when we looked back at the digital images from that day. When I look at the picture I do see writers, but I also see alchemists, mad scientists, and yes, strangers knocking on Irving’s door hoping some of the genius rubs off.