Roads Not Taken & Shoes Not Worn

From Susan/Miranda:

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.

30 thoughts on “Roads Not Taken & Shoes Not Worn”

  1. Hi Susan/Miranda:
    Great post. Thank you for sharing your story.
    I too am one of those who didn’t become what I expected. My father was famous in our household for saying (imagine a deep gruff voice and a big thick hand weighing on your shoulder) “Learn from other people’s mistakes, girl, and you won’t make the same ones.” So, rather than defining my life by what I wanted to become, I chose to define it by what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to get married. Didn’t want to have kids. Didn’t want to have a house, household and all the financial pressures that went along with it. That was the bulk of the mistakes I had witnessed. Or so I thought, at sixteen.
    Now I have a half of a degree in nursing that I started in 1985, the hard knuckled experience that comes with owning and running two businesses, a part time job as an analyst, a house in the middle of an corn field, a husband (who is actually a gallant knight in shining armor), a pre-teen daughter, two dogs and a bird. I guess this is proof that you really do hit what you aim at.
    What my dad didn’t tell me, and I learned years later, was that when you learn from other peoples mistakes and thus avoid them, (ha, ha) all you end up doing is making different ones, ones those people you leaned from don’t know how to fix. This is what ultimately launched me into my yet-to-be-published writing career where I write about all those mistakes.
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling from a little suburb in Pennsylvania who is glad to know there are famous authors like Susan/Miranda who live and write nearby.

    Reply
  2. Hi Susan/Miranda:
    Great post. Thank you for sharing your story.
    I too am one of those who didn’t become what I expected. My father was famous in our household for saying (imagine a deep gruff voice and a big thick hand weighing on your shoulder) “Learn from other people’s mistakes, girl, and you won’t make the same ones.” So, rather than defining my life by what I wanted to become, I chose to define it by what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to get married. Didn’t want to have kids. Didn’t want to have a house, household and all the financial pressures that went along with it. That was the bulk of the mistakes I had witnessed. Or so I thought, at sixteen.
    Now I have a half of a degree in nursing that I started in 1985, the hard knuckled experience that comes with owning and running two businesses, a part time job as an analyst, a house in the middle of an corn field, a husband (who is actually a gallant knight in shining armor), a pre-teen daughter, two dogs and a bird. I guess this is proof that you really do hit what you aim at.
    What my dad didn’t tell me, and I learned years later, was that when you learn from other peoples mistakes and thus avoid them, (ha, ha) all you end up doing is making different ones, ones those people you leaned from don’t know how to fix. This is what ultimately launched me into my yet-to-be-published writing career where I write about all those mistakes.
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling from a little suburb in Pennsylvania who is glad to know there are famous authors like Susan/Miranda who live and write nearby.

    Reply
  3. Hi Susan/Miranda:
    Great post. Thank you for sharing your story.
    I too am one of those who didn’t become what I expected. My father was famous in our household for saying (imagine a deep gruff voice and a big thick hand weighing on your shoulder) “Learn from other people’s mistakes, girl, and you won’t make the same ones.” So, rather than defining my life by what I wanted to become, I chose to define it by what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to get married. Didn’t want to have kids. Didn’t want to have a house, household and all the financial pressures that went along with it. That was the bulk of the mistakes I had witnessed. Or so I thought, at sixteen.
    Now I have a half of a degree in nursing that I started in 1985, the hard knuckled experience that comes with owning and running two businesses, a part time job as an analyst, a house in the middle of an corn field, a husband (who is actually a gallant knight in shining armor), a pre-teen daughter, two dogs and a bird. I guess this is proof that you really do hit what you aim at.
    What my dad didn’t tell me, and I learned years later, was that when you learn from other peoples mistakes and thus avoid them, (ha, ha) all you end up doing is making different ones, ones those people you leaned from don’t know how to fix. This is what ultimately launched me into my yet-to-be-published writing career where I write about all those mistakes.
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling from a little suburb in Pennsylvania who is glad to know there are famous authors like Susan/Miranda who live and write nearby.

    Reply
  4. SusanMiranda, you’re so right about the multiple paths to becoming a writer. All experience can be spun into storytelling–and most of us need a solid foundation of experience before we can really become writers. A relative handful of talented writers get published under the age of 30, but most of us need some mileage on us to be really good storytellers. 🙂
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  5. SusanMiranda, you’re so right about the multiple paths to becoming a writer. All experience can be spun into storytelling–and most of us need a solid foundation of experience before we can really become writers. A relative handful of talented writers get published under the age of 30, but most of us need some mileage on us to be really good storytellers. 🙂
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  6. SusanMiranda, you’re so right about the multiple paths to becoming a writer. All experience can be spun into storytelling–and most of us need a solid foundation of experience before we can really become writers. A relative handful of talented writers get published under the age of 30, but most of us need some mileage on us to be really good storytellers. 🙂
    Mary Jo

    Reply
  7. I like to think writers are smart enough to realize they can’t easily support themselves writing, so they go out and learn to live first. While I may have designed and made my own clothes when younger, clothes weren’t the same all-consuming passion as books. My goal, from a very very early age, was to find a career that I could use to support me while I developed a writing career.
    I kinda think single-minded determination and reckless disregard of reality has something to do with it, too.

    Reply
  8. I like to think writers are smart enough to realize they can’t easily support themselves writing, so they go out and learn to live first. While I may have designed and made my own clothes when younger, clothes weren’t the same all-consuming passion as books. My goal, from a very very early age, was to find a career that I could use to support me while I developed a writing career.
    I kinda think single-minded determination and reckless disregard of reality has something to do with it, too.

    Reply
  9. I like to think writers are smart enough to realize they can’t easily support themselves writing, so they go out and learn to live first. While I may have designed and made my own clothes when younger, clothes weren’t the same all-consuming passion as books. My goal, from a very very early age, was to find a career that I could use to support me while I developed a writing career.
    I kinda think single-minded determination and reckless disregard of reality has something to do with it, too.

    Reply
  10. Susan/Miranda makes such good points about the paths that lead most writers to creating good fiction. Diverse experiences, interests and passions, and our acquired knowledge bases give substance to storytelling. Without that extra factor, the writing can be empty, and I think sometimes that’s where rejections happen. There’s talent, there’s great ideas, yet there’s an intangible missing. Often though, things click later for the writer.
    Very few can decide to become fiction writers, take creative writing courses in college, and get published solely on the strength of that training and some interesting ideas.
    As Mary Jo said, some writers start while young and do well, though they very often have something unique in their lives or backgrounds that they bring to the table.
    My path has been very winding, too, not direct early on. I had natural talent for writing, the basics came easily, but my early attempts were imitative and just plain crappy. It was fun, nothing serious. I dropped it. Years later, after an art degree and graduate work in art history, after teaching at a university level, I was married and had three kids; I knew more and had weathered a lot, including tragedies. I spent months with each pregnancy on enforced bedrest, and I read a lot of fiction, including romance. Now I had something more to add to my stories that hadn’t been there before. Ideas popped and took hold, and things went somewhere this time.
    So for me, it didn’t come together until I had been through a lot. If I’d tried it ten years earlier, I don’t think I would have been published. Not then.
    Like Susan/M quotes, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Often, part of the plan is to bring you around to where you should be, with the tools to do that job.
    Susan

    Reply
  11. Susan/Miranda makes such good points about the paths that lead most writers to creating good fiction. Diverse experiences, interests and passions, and our acquired knowledge bases give substance to storytelling. Without that extra factor, the writing can be empty, and I think sometimes that’s where rejections happen. There’s talent, there’s great ideas, yet there’s an intangible missing. Often though, things click later for the writer.
    Very few can decide to become fiction writers, take creative writing courses in college, and get published solely on the strength of that training and some interesting ideas.
    As Mary Jo said, some writers start while young and do well, though they very often have something unique in their lives or backgrounds that they bring to the table.
    My path has been very winding, too, not direct early on. I had natural talent for writing, the basics came easily, but my early attempts were imitative and just plain crappy. It was fun, nothing serious. I dropped it. Years later, after an art degree and graduate work in art history, after teaching at a university level, I was married and had three kids; I knew more and had weathered a lot, including tragedies. I spent months with each pregnancy on enforced bedrest, and I read a lot of fiction, including romance. Now I had something more to add to my stories that hadn’t been there before. Ideas popped and took hold, and things went somewhere this time.
    So for me, it didn’t come together until I had been through a lot. If I’d tried it ten years earlier, I don’t think I would have been published. Not then.
    Like Susan/M quotes, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Often, part of the plan is to bring you around to where you should be, with the tools to do that job.
    Susan

    Reply
  12. Susan/Miranda makes such good points about the paths that lead most writers to creating good fiction. Diverse experiences, interests and passions, and our acquired knowledge bases give substance to storytelling. Without that extra factor, the writing can be empty, and I think sometimes that’s where rejections happen. There’s talent, there’s great ideas, yet there’s an intangible missing. Often though, things click later for the writer.
    Very few can decide to become fiction writers, take creative writing courses in college, and get published solely on the strength of that training and some interesting ideas.
    As Mary Jo said, some writers start while young and do well, though they very often have something unique in their lives or backgrounds that they bring to the table.
    My path has been very winding, too, not direct early on. I had natural talent for writing, the basics came easily, but my early attempts were imitative and just plain crappy. It was fun, nothing serious. I dropped it. Years later, after an art degree and graduate work in art history, after teaching at a university level, I was married and had three kids; I knew more and had weathered a lot, including tragedies. I spent months with each pregnancy on enforced bedrest, and I read a lot of fiction, including romance. Now I had something more to add to my stories that hadn’t been there before. Ideas popped and took hold, and things went somewhere this time.
    So for me, it didn’t come together until I had been through a lot. If I’d tried it ten years earlier, I don’t think I would have been published. Not then.
    Like Susan/M quotes, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Often, part of the plan is to bring you around to where you should be, with the tools to do that job.
    Susan

    Reply
  13. Great post, Susan/Miranda!
    I started writing early but it was a good while before I got to the point of writing an actual book with an actual plot, from beginning to end, as opposed to the sophomoric maunderings of my youth. Meanwhile, I, too, labored in the fields of academe–and in retail and on the streets (as a meter maid, I mean). All grist for the mill. The college environment is different from the business environment, so I think I’m fortunate to have experienced both: it’s certainly helped me understand the publishing world.

    Reply
  14. Great post, Susan/Miranda!
    I started writing early but it was a good while before I got to the point of writing an actual book with an actual plot, from beginning to end, as opposed to the sophomoric maunderings of my youth. Meanwhile, I, too, labored in the fields of academe–and in retail and on the streets (as a meter maid, I mean). All grist for the mill. The college environment is different from the business environment, so I think I’m fortunate to have experienced both: it’s certainly helped me understand the publishing world.

    Reply
  15. Great post, Susan/Miranda!
    I started writing early but it was a good while before I got to the point of writing an actual book with an actual plot, from beginning to end, as opposed to the sophomoric maunderings of my youth. Meanwhile, I, too, labored in the fields of academe–and in retail and on the streets (as a meter maid, I mean). All grist for the mill. The college environment is different from the business environment, so I think I’m fortunate to have experienced both: it’s certainly helped me understand the publishing world.

    Reply
  16. Good points and interesting story! However I think “newspaper reporters” might just fall under the category of those working as writers. : D (See Didion, Greene, Hemingway, Wolfe, Hiaasen, etc.)
    Also, I think your time spent in PR and Uni Pubs would also count as a “sounds like” profession that may have helped you tune up as a writer/editor — but I’m just guessing! (I think Terry Pratchett wrote while employed doing PR for Nuclear Power — shiver!)

    Reply
  17. Good points and interesting story! However I think “newspaper reporters” might just fall under the category of those working as writers. : D (See Didion, Greene, Hemingway, Wolfe, Hiaasen, etc.)
    Also, I think your time spent in PR and Uni Pubs would also count as a “sounds like” profession that may have helped you tune up as a writer/editor — but I’m just guessing! (I think Terry Pratchett wrote while employed doing PR for Nuclear Power — shiver!)

    Reply
  18. Good points and interesting story! However I think “newspaper reporters” might just fall under the category of those working as writers. : D (See Didion, Greene, Hemingway, Wolfe, Hiaasen, etc.)
    Also, I think your time spent in PR and Uni Pubs would also count as a “sounds like” profession that may have helped you tune up as a writer/editor — but I’m just guessing! (I think Terry Pratchett wrote while employed doing PR for Nuclear Power — shiver!)

    Reply
  19. Susie, you are absolutely right. Public relations is the perfect on-the-job training for a fiction writers. You get to deal with interesting characters (!!), you have to explain what happened in a way that’s clear and concise, yet entertaining, and you learn to write in next to no time. You also become quite skilled at finagling the truth. 🙂
    Couldn’t be better, really…though I suspect almost every other career likely has writing skills to offer, too.
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  20. Susie, you are absolutely right. Public relations is the perfect on-the-job training for a fiction writers. You get to deal with interesting characters (!!), you have to explain what happened in a way that’s clear and concise, yet entertaining, and you learn to write in next to no time. You also become quite skilled at finagling the truth. 🙂
    Couldn’t be better, really…though I suspect almost every other career likely has writing skills to offer, too.
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  21. Susie, you are absolutely right. Public relations is the perfect on-the-job training for a fiction writers. You get to deal with interesting characters (!!), you have to explain what happened in a way that’s clear and concise, yet entertaining, and you learn to write in next to no time. You also become quite skilled at finagling the truth. 🙂
    Couldn’t be better, really…though I suspect almost every other career likely has writing skills to offer, too.
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  22. Susie, Pratchett worked for the British phone company–hence the NECROTELECOMNICON. (For those not into dark fantasy, it combines British Telecom with the NECRONOMICON, featured in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.)

    Reply
  23. Susie, Pratchett worked for the British phone company–hence the NECROTELECOMNICON. (For those not into dark fantasy, it combines British Telecom with the NECRONOMICON, featured in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.)

    Reply
  24. Susie, Pratchett worked for the British phone company–hence the NECROTELECOMNICON. (For those not into dark fantasy, it combines British Telecom with the NECRONOMICON, featured in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.)

    Reply
  25. Right on Susan! Love the response.
    And Tal, never heard about TP working for the phone company, but I swear he did for Nuke power… see bio below:
    “Meanwhile Pratchett had shifted around between various newspapers posts, and had finally, in 1980, been appointed publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board — a job which placed him in the absurd position of generating positive PR for nuclear power plants, in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster. ”
    Peace out, y’all!

    Reply
  26. Right on Susan! Love the response.
    And Tal, never heard about TP working for the phone company, but I swear he did for Nuke power… see bio below:
    “Meanwhile Pratchett had shifted around between various newspapers posts, and had finally, in 1980, been appointed publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board — a job which placed him in the absurd position of generating positive PR for nuclear power plants, in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster. ”
    Peace out, y’all!

    Reply
  27. Right on Susan! Love the response.
    And Tal, never heard about TP working for the phone company, but I swear he did for Nuke power… see bio below:
    “Meanwhile Pratchett had shifted around between various newspapers posts, and had finally, in 1980, been appointed publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board — a job which placed him in the absurd position of generating positive PR for nuclear power plants, in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster. ”
    Peace out, y’all!

    Reply
  28. I misremembered about Pratchett’s employment (I’ve been doing a lot of this lately–they say that memory is the second thing to go) but not about the book. From Wikipedia:
    Necrotelecomnicon
    A book (which also features in Good Omens by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman). Its name is a portmanteau of “Necronomicon” and “telecom”.
    Since the “Necronomicon” is sometimes referred to as “The Book of Dead Names” or “The Book of The Dead”, “Necrotelecomnicon” could be translated as “The Book of Dead Telephone Numbers” or simply “Phonebook of the Dead”. The book is also known as the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum, Latin for “The Book of Yellow Pages”.
    Written by Achmed the Mad (who apparently preferred to be called Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches) after drinking Klatchian Coffee, this book lists all the old, dark gods of the Discworld (i.e. the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions). The First Edition, kept in the basement of the Library of Unseen University, has been known to eat readers. It is said that any man who reads more than a few pages will die insane, which works out fine for the Librarian, who is, in fact, an orangutan.
    For Lovecraft’s original NECRONOMICON: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necronomicon

    Reply
  29. I misremembered about Pratchett’s employment (I’ve been doing a lot of this lately–they say that memory is the second thing to go) but not about the book. From Wikipedia:
    Necrotelecomnicon
    A book (which also features in Good Omens by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman). Its name is a portmanteau of “Necronomicon” and “telecom”.
    Since the “Necronomicon” is sometimes referred to as “The Book of Dead Names” or “The Book of The Dead”, “Necrotelecomnicon” could be translated as “The Book of Dead Telephone Numbers” or simply “Phonebook of the Dead”. The book is also known as the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum, Latin for “The Book of Yellow Pages”.
    Written by Achmed the Mad (who apparently preferred to be called Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches) after drinking Klatchian Coffee, this book lists all the old, dark gods of the Discworld (i.e. the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions). The First Edition, kept in the basement of the Library of Unseen University, has been known to eat readers. It is said that any man who reads more than a few pages will die insane, which works out fine for the Librarian, who is, in fact, an orangutan.
    For Lovecraft’s original NECRONOMICON: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necronomicon

    Reply
  30. I misremembered about Pratchett’s employment (I’ve been doing a lot of this lately–they say that memory is the second thing to go) but not about the book. From Wikipedia:
    Necrotelecomnicon
    A book (which also features in Good Omens by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman). Its name is a portmanteau of “Necronomicon” and “telecom”.
    Since the “Necronomicon” is sometimes referred to as “The Book of Dead Names” or “The Book of The Dead”, “Necrotelecomnicon” could be translated as “The Book of Dead Telephone Numbers” or simply “Phonebook of the Dead”. The book is also known as the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum, Latin for “The Book of Yellow Pages”.
    Written by Achmed the Mad (who apparently preferred to be called Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches) after drinking Klatchian Coffee, this book lists all the old, dark gods of the Discworld (i.e. the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions). The First Edition, kept in the basement of the Library of Unseen University, has been known to eat readers. It is said that any man who reads more than a few pages will die insane, which works out fine for the Librarian, who is, in fact, an orangutan.
    For Lovecraft’s original NECRONOMICON: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necronomicon

    Reply

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