There comes a time in your life where you need to overthrow What Is and live in the What If full time, and not just because a virus is raging.
Right before Covid-19 struck, I requested personal leave at my job of 15 years. One reason was graduate school: in January, I’d just begun my low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was loving it, every bit, including the two critical essays, 50 pages of creative work, and 10 books to read every four weeks. 25 hours a week was do-able, or so I’d thought. Do-able but not feasible if other stressors come at you with hurricane-force winds. Something had to go.
For a while, the signs were already there, starting with wind gusts that finally turned into tropical storms. “This doesn’t feel right” became “Things are way too Sisyphean.” (Yep, my Muse likes allusions.) The work had been right for so long, I thought maybe this was just a trough, a necessary dip. I thought I could stay positive. Put my creativity aside, saying, That’s life. At least the benefits are good.
But when trees are falling all around you, well, you’d better take notice.
Flashback to Hurricane Michael, where a tree so big fell across our driveway, we couldn’t leave. With Greg’s album release show the next day, it took four people armed with chainsaws to help us make our exit.
Sometimes you don’t know what’s dead inside till it falls.
This time, it wasn’t a tree so much as a sound in my head. One weekend in February, a Voice rose up so loud inside, it scared me. It said, “Leave, NOW!”
Call it superstition, or call it my old-school Catholic leanings where God speaks in big gestures. I really do believe Spirit said, Change.
Walking away from a job of 15 years was risky. Leaving What Is felt unwise. Starting a new business–transforming the freelance and occasional into an LLC and a regular paycheck–felt especially stupid when a week after my announcement, my office went on COVID-19 lockdown. Seriously, what was I thinking? Toilet paper and disinfectant wipes in short supply, schools closing, and the stock market freaking out: how could I expand a business NOW?
Could I stay calm enough to write these essays and a novel while creating all that was needed for my business expansion? Or would I freak out while building the new What If?
It turns out, living on the creative edge of disaster is great motivation. You start to see all kinds of possibilities in the pieces left behind.
Watch me start middle grade verse novels about seventh graders stuck at home with Mom. Watch me sketch out picture books about Skitty Kitty and his highly-anxious owner. Watch me research grass roots organizing and hog farm pollution for my young adult novel. And yes, watch me build a business.
Fear and trembling makes me super-creative. I start thinking every possible direction, asking every possible question. In the same way I coach my students to speculate and future cast, living in all the What Ifs, I do a lot dreaming plus real-time translation.
This holiday will be the first days I’ve taken off in 300-some. That’s because Work First is in my blood. I come from a long line of small business owners who live in the gray of start up, with the goal of Do Your Very Best.
All hail Chocolate Smiles! (I remember my mom sketching out the logo when I was in high school, dreaming up her first store while testing candy recipes in our kitchen.)
All hail Fuoco Motor Company! (My grandfather, an Italian immigrant from Calabria, built this behemoth from nothing, from the body shop up. My mom worked there as a teen.)
All hail, Wheatridge Farm Dairy! (My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father made the best malts in the county.)
Expanding a business as I’ve done recently, and stamping it official as an LLC, may seem like a new move but as I look back, I realize I’ve never NOT started something new, everywhere I’ve worked. I’ve founded programs (AVIDbridge, Duke TIP eInvestigators, service learning) or helped develop programs schools in their first or second year (Cary Academy and Duke TIP eStudies). I’ve been the consultant they call into a school to help with new initiatives. I’m most comfortable in startup mode, but I’ve also got that stick-to-it-iveness.
Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself of these truths and talents after some work experiences leave you Sisyphus sighing on the side of a mountain. It’s good to stay self-aware, celebratory, and critical. Innovators I know are not only unafraid but also constantly humbled. In the search to do things well, they listen to all kinds of critiques, and then creatively pivot to build on strengths. They don’t dwell in blame or nostalgia; they just keep moving, one step at a time. You have to step out on faith with startups; you can’t live in fear or the What Ifs of all that could go wrong.
Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All this time I’ve leaned hard on amazing friends and helpers like Elizabeth Simmons, who was a world builder of this beautiful website. I lean hard on family, like my sister who gave Success Story Essay Consulting its tagline, Write Your Future Now; my parents, who cheered me weekly and my dad’s mentoring and business savvy; my dear friends, who spread the word and found me new clients; and my husband who said, “Let’s do this.” So let’s not assume this is some kind of solo, boot-straps grit here. I had resources and plenty of support.
I also lean on my agent, the wonderful Tara Gelsomino of One Track Literary, who throughout this year has subbed and subbed out again my manuscript for No Small Thing. As we hear nice and neutral things but no takers just yet, I am so grateful for the unsung, faithful labor of an advocate like Tara. Authors write their What Ifs with lots of hope, then wait, all the while wondering when that narrow pipeline of publishing might open with that nod saying, “We get your kind of imagination.”
Now I’m in a place where I can not only make new things daily but also make a difference. Call it sweet spot for sure. It’s oatmeal cookie meets chocolate chip goodness to be able to wake up every morning, make decisions that have impact, and see people happy because of it. While serving multiple clients with Success Story Essay Consulting, I’ve met the best students. Gen Z educates me every day about flexibility, focus, and creative commitment to change. It’s always been a vocation, teaching, and so has writing. Everything I do now connects to these two loves.
It’s so sweet to make art surrounded by support, whether it’s the amazing VCFA community, my advisors, and administrators. Since January, I’ve completed two semesters in my MFA. I’ve also written a Teaching Macbeth: A Differentiated Approach for the National Council of Teachers of English (due out in 2021). I keep writing my latest young adult novel about a grammar nerd/activist teen who wants to clean up pollution in her small North Carolina town.
Change is growth and rebirth, and it’s also death. During this time I’ve grieved the loss of family and friends. I’ve grieved the fact I can’t gather with loved ones. I’ve grieved the ending of an institution that’s closing its doors, the place where I used to work. I’ve grieved the American republic that seems to be shaking on its last pillar.
Creativity sparks even in great sadness. As people fill the streets in protest, as I give to causes and vote, my teen in my novel protests against the authorities in her town whose pollution makes her family sick. Out of sadness, fear, and anger, I write something new.
I love the words of my friend, author, and pastor, Marcia Mount Shoop, whose sermons about the changeful times we live in give me hope:
Apocalypse is a powerful conflation of best and worst-case scenarios. Apocalypse is the proving ground of faith because it packs a one-two punch. Real-time manifesting of a new way of being simultaneously deployed alongside radical, collective imagination of a future still out of reach. In other words, faith is about embodying apocalypse in our current dispositions and in our dreams of a world we do not yet know.– Marcia Mount Shoop, author of Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse
Radical re-imaginings and apocalyptic faith seems to serve me well right this moment. And trust, this Virgo isn’t planning ahead with the same rigidity she once embraced. Even as I make a business plan and vision the next phases of my author life, I hold tight to the truth that the What If takes precedence. Because you never know how What Is will shake you to your core.