People ask “How did you decide to be a writer?” I have no idea.
Did I decide? More likely I wandered there—one random book, one random class, one random turn where I bumped into one random person at a time—trying to make sense of what I saw and how I felt. What I see and how I feel. Because I'm still at it.
There are many ways to answer—and all would be some version of true. But I think I'll answer by describing a few transformative moments when I was trapped in a moving vehicle with a stranger.
I was 27 years old and riding a bus when I decided not to be a writer. Closing in on the final chapters of Sophie's Choice, I was weeping without shame, William Styron having captured me, ruptured my heart and left me inconsolable—using only words.
I turned to my seatmate, a disheveled fellow in a green army coat, his boots laced up over the outside of his pant legs. “Everybody thinks the title refers to her choice to save her son and sacrifice her daughter,” I said, dragging my sleeve across my upper lip to stem the tears and the snot. He probably thought I was one of those people you meet if you have to ride the bus. “But I think it was her choice not to believe in God. Chapter 12.” I nodded. He nodded back.
Why write when I can read? I thought. And that's what I did, without flagging, for the next thirty years.
I was thirty years old before I discovered that the person sitting next to me will crack my heart wide open with their story if I give them a chance. Every single person. There was a hitch, however: I had to care; I had to listen; I had to be far more interested in their story than in my own.
On a transcontinental flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C., I sat next to a small man curled in a fetal position and wearing an eye mask. At least I'll get to read, I thought. Once airborne, he roused himself, drank a cup of coffee to greet the day, and we started talking. He had recently been fired from a high profile job in a scandal that was front page news. I knew this man! At least I thought I did. That was before I spent the next four and a half hours with him as he captivated me with his story, as I repeated And then what happened? over and over as if I were the Sultan and he were Scheherazade. He confessed his struggles, his temptation to just this once abandon his principles, his heartbreak as he left the building on the final day of what he'd considered the job of his dreams. As the plane started its descent to the airport, I asked him an additional question: What are you going to do now? “I'd like to become a jeweler,” he said, a timid smile, like an admission, lighting up his face. “How wonderful for you!” I said, straining not to clap. Then he asked me for my card. “You are the most fascinating person I have ever talked to,” he said, unaware that during our flight I had only repeated about a dozen words, urging him, simply, to go on. He was unaware that he was the one who had spilled his own fascinating story, breaking my heart.
This kept happening. A middle-aged woman flying to the funeral of her ex-husband told me about her daughter delivered stillborn, her son dying at twenty seven in a snowboarding accident. Then she turned to me with an astonished laugh, “I've never told anyone about all of this before.” On another flight I met Sylvia and Dan. They were traveling to visit Sylvia's mother for Thanksgiving and were facing the indignity of having to take their holiday meal in a separate room, eating off paper plates because Dan had HIV. But they wanted to be with family.
It's in the broken hearts of ordinary people that stories hide, I realized. That's where we find what's true. So I decided that in addition to reading, I would add listening to other people tell their stories as what I was up to, trying to find what heartbreaks connect us all.
I was fifty two years old. I was sitting on a stool at a San Francisco bar with a friend, bracing for my next bad decision. I had racked up two marriages and two divorces and noticed a pattern. “I need a good therapist,” I said. “No,” she said, “you need a witch.” That sounded promising.
After several sessions by phone—my witch in San Francisco and me in Montana—she said, “I think you need a medicine journey.” I liked the idea of medicine.
I met her in San Francisco. We did a ceremony, I pulled three Tarot Cards, I swallowed two pills. Then, inexplicably, I was in a small boat sliding down a tunnel shrouded in vines, arriving on a beach crowded with my friends, a sailboat waiting for me. A Boatman stood in silhouette with his back to me as we sailed out of the bay, my friends waving as I departed. They thought I was coming back, but I knew I wasn't.
My medicine journey lasted six hours. As our boat moved upstream, large granite rock faces closed behind us. At the top of the river, I signaled the Boatman to stop. On the river's edge, I built a shrine to what had come before—to the mistakes I had made, to the men I had loved, to the siren songs to which I had succumbed. I honored it all. Then I said good-bye. I signaled to the Boatman that I was ready, and the boat began to rise, high into the air, so far up I could see the curve of the earth, the sky teeming with clots of people looking for someone they could trust with their stories. I was ready to write.
I sold my grand piano, my airplane, my house, and my car and moved to Hawaii with a suitcase, my flip phone, my computer, and a man I adored and who adored me. We bought a house and two bikes, deciding to try life without a car.
Every morning, riding thirty miles to Kua Beach and back, my worries whipped out of my head and into the slipstream of traffic. With my mind clear, there was room for my characters, and they showed up. We gabbed about everything—motivation, stakes, memories, desire, what happens next. Back home, I sat at my desk for five hours and wrote it all down. I did that every day. I wrote a lot of crap. Nine drafts and four years later, I printed out 353 pages of my first novel. And, weirdly, it wasn't crap.
I write every day. It's so rote I never have to decide when I'm going to get out of bed, if I'm going to write in the morning or the afternoon, what time is lunch. It's set.
My days roll out one after the other in exactly the same way. I still write mostly crap. It feels like a daily trust exercise, my Muse asking me Are you willing? But when I get stuck, when I'm drifting into dithering, I lace up my shoes, and take a thirty minute walk, letting my mind wander off-leash. By the time I get back, my problem is solved, and we're all of us—me, the Muse, the characters—back to writing down the story.