Monday, August 5, 2013

Chasing My Childhood Dream

When I was a kid and people asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d say, “A children’s book author and illustrator.”  This was my dream.  It has always been my dream, but somewhere in high school I lost that childlike self-assurance and dismissed it as fantasy.   All the great writers seemed to be troubled alcoholics who died before the age of 40 like Edgar Allen Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Being the healthy, stable, girl that I was, with a happy childhood and desire to live to be 100, I wondered if I had that spark of insanity that seemed to be a requirement for all great writers.  I began to look at alternative careers and my answers to that question, “What do you want to be?” changed.  I wanted to be a librarian, a physical therapist, and a midwife.  I couldn’t say “a children’s book author and illustrator” anymore, because that was just too unrealistic. 

In college I thought I’d try Physical Therapy so I took anatomy and physiology with a bunch of jocks training to become physical trainers.  The class was all memorization and charts with absolutely zero creativity involved.  The material felt like junk food, completely incapable of providing the necessary fuel for my hungry imagination.  I couldn’t take any more classes like that.  So I abandoned physical therapy and moved on to sociology.  I LOVED sociology. I got to devour juicy articles about Bonobos, the death penalty, and sexual objectification of women in sports.  And I got to write lengthy papers on things like: why graduation rates for UK basketball players are so low, social behavior in the women’s locker room, and why it is so difficult for working class families to provide proper childcare for their children. Yes, sociology was the perfect venue for my natural curiosity in human behavior and desire to write.

But even sociology was not enough to quench my thirst as a writer.  I just couldn’t resist the lure of English department.  I became a writing T.A. and took classes like: American text, Nonwestern literature, creative writing, and controversial film.  I had so many English credits, I nearly double majored in English and sociology. I performed in poetry slams and entered writing contests.  I attended nearly every play Berea College produced, and even got cast as a Transylvanian in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I never officially became a member of the English department cliques, but I stuck around like the slightly awkward kid trying to hang with the popular crowds in high school, content to merely sit and listen.  In some ways I am like Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” who believed, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Like Moriarty, I find myself drawn to people who are mad to live: writers, hipsters, flamboyant theatre majors, and rule breakers.  I’ll sit next to the smelly artist who hasn’t bathed in weeks over the prudish, well-groomed conformist any day. I am entirely and hopelessly addicted to mad people whether I like it or not.    

Perhaps this irrational attraction toward mad people is the reason I ended up with my husband Keith, the kind of person who stays up all night to finish a good book, climbs on top of roofs in hopes of seeing a tornado, and moves away from family and friends for a girl he has only dated for two months.  We’ve made a pretty good pair, this crazy man and I.  We live in a little apartment where the kitchen countertops are constantly hidden beneath a pile of dirty dishes and our bed is never made.  Our house may be a mess, but he doesn’t judge me for dabbling in paints and poetry all day, and I understand his need to throw himself into his own personal projects. 

I never felt too guilty about not being the perfect housewife for Keith. Creation took priority over housework.  That went without saying. But when my son Sam came along, guilt suddenly became a familiar emotion in my life.  There have been times when my two year old son would stand on his head, pull books off the shelves, and shout “Mommy!  Mommy!” just to turn my face away from the glowing computer screen.  He wants hugs.  He wants to play dinosaurs.  He wants to be seen, and heard, and loved.  But there are times when I simply can’t do those things. I have to finish the next thought, the next paragraph, the next page. The most I can do in such moments is manage a curt, “Just a minute, honey” and continue writing.  I hate this about myself.  I often think that if I didn’t feel the need to write or paint I would be a better mother.

Being a writer may be a con in the motherhood department, but being a mother has done nothing but help me grow as a writer. Nikki Finney, a truly inspiring and beautiful poet once told me, “Every good writer needs empathy.”  In order to write convincingly, we need to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.  Becoming a mother pushed me into an entirely new dimension of empathy.  I began noticing things like: mothers at a sit down restaurants, struggling to put food in their mouths, while simultaneously bouncing babies up and down in their laps, and mothers frantically trying to soothe their newborn infants on airplanes while doing their best to ignore the impatient looks from other passengers.  I began to see the exhaustion, frustration, and even boredom hidden behind the affection these women have for their children.  I finally understood that raising a child is REALLY hard.  Maybe the hardest task a person can undertake in his/her lifetime.   

Not only did I become aware of the unpleasant aspects of motherhood, I began to comprehend the joys as well.  Before Sam I thought I knew everything there was to know about raising kids. My dad got his doctorate degree in child and family studies, I watched my own mother raise five younger siblings, and I worked in a couple different day cares.  I’d spent my whole life around babies. I thought I knew exactly what to expect.  Boy was I wrong!  Until my beautiful baby boy fell asleep in my arms for the first time, I never understood what it felt like to love someone so much it hurt. There’s no way you can know about something like that until you actually experience it.  I remember sitting down to watch Dumbo (a movie I had seen plenty of times as a kid) with Sam one day.  During the part where Mrs. Jumbo rises to the defense of her socially awkward son, I felt an unexpected surge of emotion that took me quite off guard.  As I watched this mother elephant break giant tent poles in half and fling the ringmaster into a barrel of water, only to be torn apart from the son she so desperately wanted to protect, tears sprang to my eyes and I got all choked up.  Now I don’t cry much in movies.  I really don’t.  But when they dragged Mrs. Jumbo away from her son the mother in me cried out in empathy, because I finally understood what it meant to feel that overwhelming maternal instinct to protect.

          After I graduated from college I decided to stay at home with Sam for a while.  This allowed me time to explore my strengths as a writer and illustrator.  I wrote and illustrated a cute little story loosely based off our next-door neighbor's cat living in a flowerpot between our apartments.  After receiving some positive feedback, I decided to try and get it published.  I joined SCBWI, did some research on the market, and started submitting.  I've received four rejection letters and will probably receive many more, but I'm still submitting.  I knew breaking into the children's literature would be highly difficult and my chances of making it are slim.  Usually I don't allow myself to hope for things when the odds are stacked against me, but this is something I've wanted ever since I was a little girl.

After years of suppressing, I’ve finally found the courage to allow those childhood dreams to resurface.  It is scary.  I’ve never wanted anything so bad in my entire life!  I have to keep reminding of myself of something George Burns once said, “It is better to be a failure at something you love than be a success at something you hate.” There is a scene in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” where McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) tries to hoist an old sink from the ground to toss it through a window, in order to break out of the mental asylum to watch the World Series.  The other patients watch McMurphy struggle in vain until he’s purple in the face and finally gives up.  Before leaving McMurphy glares contemptuously at the silent onlookers and says, “But I tried, didn’t I?  Goddamit, at least I did that.”  There is something undeniably admirable about those who are not afraid to give something their all, regardless of whether or not they succeed.  Published or unpublished, I am proud to call myself an author/illustrator.  I am proud to be pursuing a career that I love. 


  1. What a wonderful post, Heather! So nice to get to know you better. And Sam is precious :) Best of luck with your cat story... and all the others that are sure to follow. Good for you to be chasing your dream! :)

    1. Thanks Susanna. Your encouragement has meant a lot to me over the past couple of months. It's so nice to be a part of a writing community with legitimate children's book authors.

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