The following is a guest post by Mandy Shunnarah, a writer, editor, and blogger who, like me, organizes and hosts Silent Book Club events and writes for the Silent Book Club blog.
Oftentimes the quotes I end up underlining in books are the ones the author might least expect. Not throwaway lines exactly, but quotes that in the grand scheme of the novel don’t support one of the overarching themes.
It was this line that struck me in Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane:
“There was no real way for a person to try something out, see if he liked it . . . because you try it and try it and try it a little longer and next thing it’s who you are.”
The novel is about finding yourself in the way that all novels are about finding yourself, and the quote is unspecific enough that I imagine most people’s eyes glossed over it.
But mine didn’t. In fact, it felt specific to me, like I was meant to see it. Like the universe beamed it into my bones.
I read Ask Again, Yes in January 2020, almost a year ago exactly from the time of this writing—in what I affectionately call the “before times.” I was already stressed and depressed, I just didn’t know then how much more intense those feelings would get in the coming months.
At the end of 2019 it hit me that the customer service job I’d taken to pay the bills while I found what I really wanted to do had become an unfortunate career. I’d been working customer service jobs for 10 out of the past 12 years, often being verbally abused on an hourly basis. The work had tanked my mental health and the jobs were incompatible with my increasing anxiety.
I saw that line in the novel, “you try it and try it and try it a little longer and next thing it’s who you are” and I saw myself. And I didn’t like what I was seeing. I had become a person I never wanted nor intended to be.
At first, the quote depressed me. Society tells us that we should know what we want to do with our lives by the time we graduate high school, or at the very latest by the time we graduate college. The earlier the decision is made, the better! Why not ask that five-year-old what she wants to be when she grows up? Better start planning early so she doesn’t waste any time!
The irony is that I really have known I wanted to be a writer since I was five. But being a writer is a process of becoming. It’s not a career that you get a degree for and are—bam!—a writer. No one is waiting to hand you a book deal when you walk off the stage at graduation, literature degree in hand.
For most of us, especially those of us from working class families and no connections to the publishing industry, the only option we have is to work jobs we don’t entirely hate to pay the bills while we build our dreams on the side. That’s what I was doing when I woke up at the end of the last decade after spending a decade working dead-end customer service jobs, and not liking what I was seeing. I couldn’t help but wonder how different my life would have looked if I’d felt allowed—as in had a financial safety net so I wouldn’t starve—to try many different things. I could’ve taken an unpaid internship at a publishing house in NYC. I could’ve worked for pennies or not at all freelancing for small magazines until I felt confident enough in my skills to pitch the nickel-a-word magazines. I could’ve continued on to grad school or gone on a writing residency or applied for fellowships or done any number of things that would have brought me closer to becoming a writer but are wholly incompatible with paying necessary bills in the short term.
I saw “There was no real way for a person to try something out, see if he liked it . . . because you try it and try it and try it a little longer and next thing it’s who you are” and felt the realness of it. I felt the weighted responsibility of being an artist born into a lower middle class existence.
To put it bluntly, the quote depressed the hell out of me.
And yet, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
I thought of the line so often it became a meditation. In time, it stopped depressing me and inspired me to take my dreams more seriously. I didn’t want to work in customer service forever. I wanted to write.
Nine months later, I got my wish when I was laid off. The truth is that I probably never would’ve quit the job because I feared not being able to take care of myself. (Growing up poor will do that to you.) I’m convinced I manifested the layoff, willing it into being by the will of my desire to write.
Now I’m a full-time writer, editor, and online vintage shop owner. I’m working on two books concurrently and am slowly but surely ticking off items on my bucket list of bylines. Now that my brain isn’t divided and I no longer “moonlight” as a writer, I’m finding that my mental health has improved and I have more bandwidth to focus on my craft. I write more in a day now than I could in a week while working for someone else.
And I will write and write and write a little longer until it’s who I am, deep in my bones.