In the summer of 2000, I accepted a job as interim executive director for a small publisher. I’d been working in publishing for almost fifteen years at that point, and the job seemed like an interesting next step on my career path—I hadn’t yet had the chance to be the “big boss” at a publishing house. I also did it as a favor to a friend: she had been diagnosed with cancer, and she needed to step out of the job to focus on her health. The plan was that I would hold her position until her health improved and she could return.
Sometimes, things don’t turn out as we plan. My friend’s health got worse instead of better. And I discovered that the publishing house had serious financial problems, the kind of problems that easily could have taken it under for good. Instead of being an interesting challenge, the year turned out to be hardest job I’ve ever had—much tougher than the one before my sophomore year of college where I had to clean multiple bathrooms every day and scrape gum off the bottom of hundreds of school desks.
At the end of a long year, intense effort by a small group of dedicated people brought about good news: the publishing house formed a partnership with a university in a different city, one that would allow it to not only survive, but thrive. There was also bad news: my friend’s health continued to grow worse. And I was out of work and exhausted, in no way ready to jump enthusiastically back into another job. My second picture book had just been published, but the payments I received for those books were in no way enough to support me full-time. I was able to take a couple of months off to catch my breath and do some long-term planning, but I knew that planning needed to include figuring out my next “real job.”
Then the year got worse for many, many people, because the calendar rolled around to September 11, 2001. Along with the other difficulties of that tough time in our history, there were suddenly many fewer real jobs to come by, and I was forced to see myself as “unemployed” instead of just “reevaluating.” I did temp work. I scraped together odd jobs. I explored teaching gigs, school visits, and other paid work that was writing-related, but not actually writing. I wrote things that would never get published. I went on job interviews that went great, only to be told that somebody else was better qualified for the job. I went on a job interview that (from my perspective) went badly, only to be told that I could have the job. One panic attack later, I turned it down. I worked really, really hard, but that hard work was not moving me forward; I was mostly spinning in circles.
Finally, after many months with no clear direction or goals other than survival, I made a realization: I needed to shift my thinking or nothing would ever change. When I met new people during that time frame and they asked me what I did for a living, I had been answering, “I’m unemployed.” I decided to change that answer to “I’m a self-employed children’s book writer.” I had worked so hard for other people during my publishing career; now I would work that hard for my writing and think of that as my career.
And fourteen-and-a-half years later, if you ask me what I do for a living, my answer is still “I’m a self-employed children’s book writer.”
Trust me, it has often been anything but an easy job. Harder, for sure, than scraping already-chewed gum off school desks. And sometimes I don’t get paid much more than I did working that summer job as a custodian. I’ve given up a lot (regular vacations, financial security, lots of sleep) to get where I am. But the difference is that I’m passionate about children’s books in a way I never was about gum-free desks. It seems so obvious to me now, it’s hard to believe sometimes that it took me so long back at the turn of the century to figure out that what I wanted to be when I grew up was somebody who writes for kids.
Have you thought about doing the same as your career? Maybe it’s time to start claiming that dream! There are no guarantees whatsoever that you will get published, or that you will make a livable wage. Many people who try end up deciding they want to be something else when they grow up. You’re the only one who knows how strong your own passion is. And maybe you’ll decide you’re willing to try despite the hard work, stay-cations, and lack of guarantees.
There are many things I know now that would have made the process a whole lot easier if I’d known them when I was just starting out. That’s the primary reason that Mentors for Rent came about—Laura and I both made a commitment to help other writers learn from what we did wrong, and what we did right. We’ve just scheduled our 202nd session, and along with the ninety or so books I’ve written, I’m proud that along the way to building my own career, I’ve had a small role in helping so many other writers build theirs!
Back when I was just getting started, I had no idea how it would all turn out. But look at me now–if you share my passion, my story probably sounds like it has a true storybook ending!
[If you’re a Mentors for Rent client, scroll down for our special offer!]
Just a reminder: If you are one of the past clients who has participated in one of our 202 sessions, Mentors for Rent has a special holiday gift for you. We’re calling it “Leap Year Cheer.” 2016 is a Leap Year—if you’d like to talk with us about how to take a leap forward in your career, this is the time to do it!
The Leap Year Cheer special costs only $66 (our typical minimum session fee is $96). Here are the basics:
–Sessions will be 45 minutes in length, maximum.
–Session must be conducted via Skype.
–The not-yet-taken slots are available Tuesday, January 5 at 11am, 12pm, or 1pm; or Wednesday, January 6 at 4pm (all Central time), until filled.
–Slots are offered on a first-come-first-served basis; PayPal payment will confirm your slot, but if payment is not received within 24 hours we’ll offer the slot to someone else.
–You must have been a Mentors for Rent client at some point from January 2011-December 2015 to qualify.
We can spend your session time on a brief critique (a picture book, a few poems, or the opening pages of a longer work—basically 10 minutes of read-aloud time); on reviewing your cover letter or synopsis; on Q&A about marketing or career building; or on goal-setting for your 2016 writing year.
For any of you who happened to be accounting majors, here’s the fine print about how the discount works out: Our usual session minimum is 1-hour ($96). In this case, we are offering a special 45-minute option, which calculates out to $72. On top of that, we are ALSO giving you an additional $6 discount (to celebrate 2016)—for a total session cost of $66!
To choose one of our Leap Year Cheer sessions, start by selecting from the remaining time slots here (after which, we’ll send you a PayPal request).