This weekend I saw “The Devil Wore Prada” with my teenaged daughter. We both enjoyed it enormously (except for the ending, though since that’s not the point of this particular post, I won’t launch into a spoiler-tirade), but from very different perspectives. My daughter’s at the age for imagining possible, future careers like new t-shirts, and the “Prada” heroine’s life in New York City, working for a tyrannical editor at a Vogue-like magazine, seemed endlessly exciting. But for me, a good many more years down the pike, I watched the editorial assistant’s heady ascent from an entirely different perspective.
Once I’d wanted to go into fashion, too. I made all my clothes; I had the requisite Big Dreams. I could instantly differentiate Quant, Pucci, St. Laurent. I recognized Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Peggy Moffat. I was certain I’d live in Manhattan or Paris or London, wear the trendiest clothes, stay out all night at the coolest parties.
Yet instead I’m now a novelist in suburban Pennsylvania.
I know dozens of professional fiction writers, yet almost none of them started out working as writers. I can name one-time lawyers, pharmaceutical sales reps, commercial artists, newspaper reporters, musicians, travel agents, translators, carpenters, teachers, accountants, and weavers who finally evolved into writers, and that’s only a tiny sampling. Even in our job-jumping age, I can’t think of another career that can claim such a diverse group of “used-to-be’s.”
Part of this, of course, comes from the very nature of a writing career. There’s no established path to follow, no sure-fire course of education or apprenticeship. You don’t get to pass a “writing-bar”, or be certified by a board or a union. You can take workshops and classes, even complete an MFA, but that still doesn’t guarantee success. As Mary Jo noted in her last blog-post, for most writers, you need an editor willing to give you money in exchange for your words, and then, bingo, you’re a working writer.
Yet I think there’s more to it than that. Before you can become a writer (at least a good writer), you have to have something to say, which is how those first-careers come into play. All the earlier skills, experiences, co-workers and customers and bosses and rivals, are what help fill a good writer’s imagination. You need to survive the gamut of good times and bad, sadness along with the joy, before you can create characters that readers will remember. Like lumber and stews, writers need seasoning.
Yes, a modern writer requires a computer, software, and internet access to research, but it’s what’s inside her or his head that remains most important. Refrigerator-magnet-wisdom observes that “Life’s what happens while you’re making other plans.” Life’s also all the “stuff” that makes each of us story-tellers special, and it’s why a dozen writers can be given the same plot, and each will come up with a different version.
So how did I reach my writing career, sitting on my bed in comfy sweats with my laptop instead of in that corner office on Seventh Avenue, dressed in Marc Jacobs and Manolos? How did I morph into Miranda Jarrett instead of Miranda Priestley? After one year at art school, I went to Brown University, graduated with a degree in art history, worked in college admissions, then university publications, and finally public relations. Along the way, I got married, had two children, and bought a house outside of Philadelphia.
And in 1990, I was finally ready to write the book that would make me a Writer.