Having recently published my debut novel, Hallways in the Night, I feel as if I’m moving through a middle-aged milestone which is giving me a better perspective on my life. My life is definitely proof of the old adage that you can only understand your life by looking backwards, but you have to live it looking forward.
If today you were to ask me to describe myself two of the first words I would use you be “creative” and “writer.” But if you had asked me on my 37th birthday, neither of those words would have been in the top 50. Perhaps creative might break the top 50 but writer? Absolutely not. It wasn’t even a consideration until the financial crisis hit and my job in real estate came to a crashing halt. That was the moment when I was forced to look into the abyss and find out what would be staring back at me.
The answer came to me from a Bruce Springsteen song. The live version of “Growin Up” to be specific. In the middle of the song (one of my all time favorites) Bruce goes into one of his famous monologues and towards the end he mentions that his mother told him he should be an “author.” His father thought he should be an attorney, but his mother was convinced that Bruce he should be a writer.
I had heard the song a hundred times before, but never when Lehman Brothers and AIG were crashing. Never when I felt as if REM’s song “The end of the world as we know it” was about to become the soundtrack of our financial system.
I went home for lunch and still in a mood that was a combination of shell-shock and self-reflective mentioned Adele Springsteeen’s words. It was a statement to my wife along the lines of “Did you know Bruce Springsteen’s mother said he should have been a writer? Maybe I should have been a writer. I wish someone had said something like that to me.”
My wife paused for a moment and said, matter of factly, “if anyone was meant to write fiction, it’s you.”
I still don’t fully know why she said it or if she had been thinking about it for a while, but the statement was so simple and so sincere that it ended up changing my life. Here was the woman I lived with everyday. The person (sometimes to her regret) who knows me better than anyone else in the world and she told me that I was meant to write fiction.
Why those word clicked, I can’t truly say. I had never taken even one creative writing class in my life. As a matter of fact, the only serious piece of fiction I had ever written was a story about a cat and mouse that I plagiarized from my sister when I was in the 4th grade. Between then and the moment of my wife’s pronouncement, I had written perhaps thirty pages of fiction in total, all of it disjointed, most of it a weak attempt to write a story based upon an idea I came up with while living in Atlanta in the late 90s.
But for whatever the reason, probably the daze I was in as the financial world felt like it was crashing, the words resonated like few others had before and I said “You know what? I’m going to write a book. I’m going to take the idea I had in Atlanta and write a novel about it.”
Starting that night, I did. I began writing and within a few months the story began to flow. The writing was amateurish, but the story kept coming and with each page I wrote the writing began to improve.
And then I had the moment from which I could not turn back.
It was a weekday night, and I sat down at my laptop to work on the book that was now beginning to hit its stride. I was writing about one of the characters, the President of the United States, who was remembering back to the morning his mother walked out on his family. He was only four years old at the time when he came downstairs too early one morning and saw his mother dressed in her best clothes and holding a suitcase. She signaled him to be quiet so that his father and brother would not wake up as she took him by the hand and led him out the door and down the big hill to the trolley stop.
As they waited for the trolley, the little boy lay his head on his mother’s lap and she sang him an Irish lullaby, Too ra Loo ra Loo ral. Neither spoke, but they both understood it was the last time lullaby she would ever sing to him.
When the trolley finally arrived, the mother stood up and went to give her son (the future President of the United States) a hug good-bye. But the little boy backed away reflexively. He refused to hug her, as she stared back at him, forced to choose between staying with him or the freedom of a new life that she had imagined for herself.
Unfortunately for the boy, as the trolley conductor told her to hurry up, his mother chose to leave. He watched the trolley disappear around the corner knowing, even though he was only four, that he no longer had a mother. Then, with his head bowed and sun beginning to rise, he walked back up the hill to his row house, went in through the backdoor and climbed into bed with his father.
His father’s breath smelled bitter and his t-shirt reeked of the beer he served as a barkeep, but the little boy took comfort from knowing that it was the breath from a man who would never leave him.
As the vignette closes I mention that the President never told another soul that he had walked his mother to the trolley stop on the morning she walked out on her family.
And with little piece of backstory, I was done with writing for the night. But before I was completely done I told my wife about what I had written. Even more importantly for me, I told her that before sitting down to write, I had no idea I was going to write about the President’s mother leaving him, that the idea had never even crossed my mind until I sat down to type and the story basically sprung forth extemporaneously from my mind’s subconscious.
That was the moment, when I actually had some tears in my eyes from a story that seemed to spring out of the ether, I decided maybe I was meant to be a writer.
And that, the fact I might have found a purpose to my life when I was almost 40 years old that I never had before even seriously considered circles back to what I originally approached Crysta about blogging about: “the meaning of life” and what I think it is.
Now that the journey to complete and publish Hallways in the Night is finished, I feel as if I understand part of the secret of life and that my understanding was informed by the process of discovery I experienced in the process of writing the book. Here it is:
Every person has a gift and the purpose of their life is to figure out what that gift is and to find a way to share it with the world. Some people may figure out their gift when they are young, others like me in middle age, and still others when they are in retirement. Each life journey is unique, but everyone has been given gifts they are meant to share, and the amazing part about your gift is it may be one you never even thought you had.
I have three children, 11, 10 and 6 years old as I write this, and I tell them don’t ever forget that “as you get older, you are going to discover gifts you never even knew you had. So, for as long as you live, be open to the world, be open to experiences, and don’t be surprised when you find yourself shocked by a gift, talent or passion that you discover on a day you least expect it. Don’t be surprised because that is what life is all about. Finding your gifts, being open to all kinds of possibility, and then sharing your gifts with the world.”
To me, that is what I consider to be one of the secrets of life.
About this week’s Guest Blogger:
R.C. O’Leary is author of the legal thriller, Hallways in the Night. “When a veteran cop tries to arrest baseball’s home run king, one of them ends up on trial and the other ends up dead.”
Lance Smith, known for his book reviews as “the guy who reviews sports books” rates Hallways in the Night 5 out of 5 stars and says it’s an “outstanding novel that all fans of legal thrillers should read.” Diane Donovan of Midwest Book Review says the plot twists will “keep even seasoned thriller readers guessing to the very end.”
Hallways in the Night is available for Kindle and in paperback at Amazon. Also available at Kobo, Nook, iBooks as an e-book. Inkwood Books of Tampa also carries the paperback version.
One small note–since writing the scene with the President and his mother in Baltimore, that scene got pushed into what will be the sequel to Hallways in the Night. That was another surprise I had when a seemingly ordinary backstory—a cop ends up in a confrontation with baseball’s home run king—took on a life of its own and ended up going from a backstory to Book 1.