Monday, July 14, 2003

Life, Work, Career

I had to write an autobiography for my Career and Life Planning Class. With minor modifications, I'm posting it here. The structure was dictated by the professor; the content revealed some things even I wasn't fully aware of.

Yes, I am now posting my homework. Deal.


We always had books. Money, food, attention might all be scarce, but the books were dependable. The tall, unsteady shelves my father built were crammed with my mother’s poetry books and nursing texts, my father’s histories of war. Each of my three sisters and I had our own small library, first Little Golden Books, then books given at Christmas and on birthdays. On her evenings off, my mother read bedtime stories to us, or recited the poems she had learned from her Aunt Mabel.

When I was six, my mother handed me her own copy of Little Women with the words, “This is about a family of girls just like you and your sisters.” This tacit permission to live vicariously through the printed word changed my life. Stories gave me freedom when I felt trapped in our violent household, friends when I was lonely, hope when I despaired. The characters in novels became my secret family, role models for the kind of life I couldn’t find in any other way. Jane Eyre survived neglect and abuse; I could adopt her staunch sense of self-respect. Jo March of Little Women grew up poor, the second of four daughters, yet she lived out her dream of becoming a writer. I could see her path and try to follow it.

Already I knew I wanted to write. Words on paper transcended their physical circumstances. In one sense, books were just smears of ink on sodden rags and wood pulp, glued or stitched together. The materials had little intrinsic value, yet the printed word could reach across the globe through centuries to link the minds of the reader and writer. The better, clearer, truer the words, the more powerful the story and the book became. Reading let me learn without being mocked or insulted. Someday writing would give me a chance to speak the truth and to liberate others who were isolated, abused, imprisoned.

I can’t say I never wanted to be anything but a writer. I wanted to be a nun, an opera singer, a ballet dancer, a doctor, and Granny Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies. (I watched TV, too.) But other careers were passing fancies. Whatever else I did, I always wanted to write.


My first day of school I wandered from one first-grade classroom to the other. Although my mother had registered me, I wasn’t listed among either teacher’s students. Though the administrative error was eventually ironed out, that experience prefigured my career in the public schools: I was there, drifting around the edges, never quite in the right place. I got through courses by virtue of a good memory and a fluent pen, but most of the time I was daydreaming or reading my way through class.

School was as big a disappointment as the Brownies. When I was younger, I used to play heroine. Garbed in a hand-me-down Brownie uniform three sizes too big, I went forth to rescue the helpless and save my country. I thought Brownies were a cross between Joan of Arc and Robin Hood. When I joined at last and discovered that they never rescued anyone, I lost interest. Making paper baskets out of construction paper was too great a comedown from my dreams.

I longed to go to school. I wanted to be as tall and free and glamorous as the ninth-grade girls who lived down our block. I was prepared for excitement and challenge. What I got was a lot of undecipherable marks on the blackboard (nobody realized yet that I couldn’t see), plus storybooks that extolled the ordinary life of Dick and Jane, which made even less sense than the writing on the board. My home life was nothing like the world of those pink-cheeked, unworried children in their idealized suburbia. Their lives puzzled and bored me.

In eighth grade the guidance counselor suggested I skip a grade. For the next few years, I was allowed to take independent study for almost all my courses. It was sheer heaven from my perspective. I worked in the library and learned what I wanted. At 16 I graduated and left home. From now on I would be working, supporting myself, making all my own decisions.

My first three years of college were joyous. At last I wasn’t the only one reading Shakespeare. Then I decided to take some time off. After a couple of years of intensive reading while working a series of dead-end jobs, I went back to school, this time at Temple University in Philadelphia.


My first professional job was as a proofreader in a type house. I’d worked a dozen low-wage jobs already—I’d been a missionary, a janitor, a waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts, a file clerk for the IRS, a telephone survey taker, and more. Although this job was a temporary position, I gained enough experience to get a student job at Temple University Press, where I learned to be a book production editor.

After I graduated, I couldn’t continue working at the press, though I did do some freelance editing and indexing for them. I found a job as a technical writer for a monthly information service. I came into the position with no knowledge of computers; on my first day I had to ask what a mainframe was. Within months I had taught myself a great deal about telecommunications and what was then called office automation. I loved doing the research, generating new topics, and reshaping a raw article into a clear and elegant whole.

From there I went to work as an inhouse editor and ghostwriter for a consultant. The work was similar in many ways, but the position felt quite different. My job was to improve the consultant’s work, and he resented the idea that his words were not perfect the first time around. After six months I left and went back to editing academic books.

All this time I was writing my own stories as well as editing others’ books. I was also falling in love and getting married. From the first, my husband wanted to give me time to write. A year after we married, we had to move for the sake of his work. Unfortunately, the move meant I had to leave my job as an editor. So I took a year off to write. By the end of the year, I had half a novel written, plus a contract for a nonfiction book. I finished the nonfiction manuscript and started on the next book.

From the spring of 1986 to the spring of 2000, I did freelance editing, wrote a series of nonfiction books and a Regency romance novel, and ran a small publishing company from home, all while keeping the house going and being a supportive wife. I also taught remedial writing while I earned my MA in English/Creative Writing, as well as doing some private tutoring and public speaking to writers’ groups.

When my marriage ended, I had to rejoin the nine-to-five workforce. I started with a temp job as a secretary in a pipe factory, then went on to write marketing copy for a local publishing company. After two years, I came to California to live with friends. My first permanent job out here was writing technical and marketing copy for a dot-com—a job I held until the company assets were sold and the workforce laid off. My time with the transition team ended last month.


Through all the years, my goals have been clear: I want to write, and I want to rescue people. I’m trying to find work that will allow me to achieve these goals.

My favorite jobs have all been in publishing. Books saved me when I was young, so any part of the publishing process is a sacred task for me. Moreover, I love the creative process of transforming a raw manuscript into a bound book. A hundred years from now, books I edited will still be read; that’s an achievement. Although I liked my colleagues at the dot-com and I believed in the product, what I was writing was too unimportant and too ephemeral to satisfy me.

Another reason editing books is so fulfilling is that publishing offers endless chances to learn new things. I’m happy in any job as long as I’m learning. Another is that editors are not usually in competition with each other; the focus is not on office politics or getting ahead but on cooperating with the author, copyeditor, designer, and typesetter to create something beautiful.

I’ve also seriously considered turning my skills toward becoming a therapist. I’ve spent years reading psychology and working with therapists on my own issues, and I know that understanding the past is another way to construct a story. In narrative psychology, the therapist and client look the stories embedded in the client’s life and learn to retell them in new and empowering ways. Psychotherapy, too, is noncompetitive. Though any job has to entail personal conflict, I prefer positions where that element is kept to a minimum.

Teaching, too, is a noncompetitive, creative field that transforms lives, encourages writing, and demands ongoing learning. I’ve always loved teaching, and I’m well qualified to encourage new writers to find their own voices, while teaching them the grammar and composition skills they need to express their ideas more effectively.

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