Yesterday, my mother asked what I was working on.
"Oh, I finished copy editing that memoir and now I'm writing a marketing brochure," I said.
She shook her head. "And to think that your father and I used to worry about you."
It's true: they did worry. At one point, my despairing father even said that if I didn't focus on a real career, I'd end up "living on cat food."
They couldn't see where I was headed. Neither could I. In college, I tried on majors like shoes, swapping animal science for sociology, then Spanish for biology. Finally I decided to become a doctor, the sort who wears safari clothes and saves entire villages from infectious diseases.
My last semester, though, I took a creative writing class. I wrote my first short story and couldn't stop writing. I put off applying to medical school for a year.
A year went by. Then another. My desperate father sent me brochures about nursing school, dental school, and physical therapy. But I couldn't stop writing. To support my habit, I did the kinds of odd jobs all writers do: construction, teaching, editing, waiting tables. Eventually my tiny, poorly paid writing jobs led to better ones. I proofread telephone books, wrote marketing copy for a publishing company, served as a stringer for a newspaper, wrote press releases and newsletters for a school district.
When I had my first two children, day care cost more than my salary, so I quit working full-time and consulted in a public relations office part-time. I kept writing, too, when the kids were sleeping or throwing sand at each other in the playground -- and eventually paid for day care so that I could write more.
"You can't make a living as a writer," my father said, still despairing. He had also been against me majoring in English in college, because what could an English major do for a living?
A lot, it turns out, which is why I encouraged my own son to major in English when he went to college.
My paying jobs as a writer have included training manuals for a pharmaceutical company, feature articles for newspapers and magazines, ad copy, video scripts, view books and brochures for colleges, institutional newsletters, press releases, advice columns, humor, essays, and, yes, a memoir of my own. More recently, I have been working as a book doctor and ghost writer for celebrities, churning out four of these books in the past two years.
"Doesn't it bug you to write other people's books when you could be working on your own?" another writer asked me recently.
Not a bit. In fact, I love telling other people's stories. What other job would allow me to walk in another person's shoes so completely that I'd feel their blisters? Working as a book doctor or ghost writer, I have the opportunity to immerse myself in worlds as disparate as the priesthood, cooking, fashion design, and Tejano music -- I just finished ghost writing an incredibly moving memoir for Chris Perez, the husband of the fantastically talented Mexican-American singer, Selena. Ghost writing isn't just a paying job for me. It's a passion. Sharing stories is what makes us human.
I can hear my writer friend snorting at this. "Okay, maybe memoirs," she might say. "But university brochures? Really? Is that a passion, too?"
You betcha. I love interviewing students and academics, and finding whatever sets a particular college apart from all the rest.
In fact, I love everything I write. Being a writer for hire is sometimes like being a plumber -- you have to get on your knees and stick your head under the sink to fix the leaks. Other times, crafting sentences feels like a delicate, time-honored art that takes your breath away.
Either way, the joy is in the process of writing as much as in the final product, whether those words are for someone else, or all mine.