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 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 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.