The three simple sentences that saved my life

| October 31, 2013
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What’s that sound?

That’s the sound of your soul, dying.

Those two sentences spun out of my head one day while I was sitting at a great-paying, health-insurance covered, lots-of-friends-for-lunch kind of job. I was a project assistant for an engineering firm near Portland, Maine. It was a fine place. The company allowed dogs. I was the singer in the company rock band. I had a cute cube that I had fixed up to suit my personal aesthetic. I had a view of the front parking lot and the woods beyond.

And I was so depressed.

I was staring out at that parking lot when those sentences both asked and answered themselves. Thankfully, a third sentence followed.

Well, that’s not going to happen. 

In a way, the company I worked for was the impetus for the realization that I’d better live my own passion, and I had better live it now. Not in another year. Not tomorrow. Now. The engineers, scientists, CAD folks, and so on that worked there were psyched to do what they did, every day. Their excitement and expertise inspired me. It was about time I bellied up to the bar of life. I even knew what I wanted to do.

I wanted to write fiction.

I had always written, and then tucked it away in files, drawers, and folders. A couple of times I submitted stories for publication, to no avail, probably because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. So, on that day when the three sentences showed myself to me more vividly than anything else had ever done, I decided to learn how to write about pretend people. I wanted to earn an MFA, and I wanted to be taught by amazing teachers and meet others of my tribe. I went home and, because I thought it was the closest contender, I applied to college in Boston.

Mind you, I was in my 40s. I took the bus down to visit the school, and felt like everyone’s mother. I knew that might be hard to deal with, but it was also true to my latecomer nature. I had gone to college and earned a BA in English in my 30s, so I was used to being out of my element. Several things had changed since then, though. I had a house and mortgage, a puppy, a life — and I lived two hours away.

Still, I couldn’t see another alternative, so I determined that this was the only way to go. I could have asked for help. Did I do so? Hell no. My people have never asked for help. I since have amended that — so please, if you’re reading this and you’re thinking you have to go it alone, don’t. There are always experts out there who will be happy to point you in the right direction. They didn’t start out as experts, after all. Please chew up your shyness and spit it out. You’ll be glad you did.

I began the process of studying for the GRE for graduate school. But all the drive that I had mustered couldn’t get me past the geometry portion of the test. And then a frustrated universe intervened again on my behalf, probably after banging its aggravated head against a nearby wooden planet. A geometry question had just reduced me to tears when I found an announcement in my mailbox. A new, low-residency MFA in Creative Writing had just been established for the nearby University of Southern Maine, where I had earned my bachelor’s degree. No GRE requirements necessary. Okay, then. I could keep a job and attend four, two-week sessions over a two-year period.

I applied, was accepted, and cannot explain, here, what it felt like to walk up to the entrance of a beautiful stone house on the first day of the first summer semester and see other students, some my own age or older, standing there with excited smiles. Finding others who lived in pretend-land was such a validation. Not only were we studying fiction, we were the first students in a brand new program. My time there was one of those rare moments in my life when I felt completely at home, understood, and acknowledged for my passion.

Why hadn’t I done this before? Three reasons pop to mind. A lack of confidence was a big one. The second reason was the need to pay bills, buy groceries, and keep some health insurance, as driven into my head by my Depression-era parents. The second reason is sound, by the way. Paying bills and health insurance are both good things. But the third and biggest reason I had never pursued a master degree was because I had stuffed my desires into a dark closet near the core of my heart and soul. The imagination was fine and dandy, but not applicable to real life. Indeed, it was probably harmful and a waste of time. These were the lessons I took in when I was young. According to most sources, I was an overly sensitive child.  Even today, when someone says, “Don’t be so sensitive,” I want to say to them, “Sensitive this, buddy!” So, revise that: I was an overly sensitive child with a temper.

But, despite my family’s efforts, I drifted off into imaginary worlds a zillion times a day, in school, at home, riding my bike, and in playtime with a few others who shared my zeal for fantasy. We invented worlds and we lived in those worlds. That, to me, was about as good as it got. As we grew older, my friends stumbled into reality, but I went the other way. Sometimes, that imagination saved me from extreme anxiety. I was terrified of the dark as a teenager — no thanks to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood — and so I put myself to sleep by conjuring up characters and settings and dialogues and actions, the stuff of fiction. I even wrote some of it down.

But, at about 18, my soul’s voice dimmed, and it occurred to me that this pretending was getting me nowhere, and that I should at least try to join the rest of the world. I got married. That ended in divorce, to no one’s surprise, least of all, my own. I wasn’t ready for the world, let alone a relationship with a real person.

I held a series of jobs that were lackluster in the imagination department, though I did use my creativity in a number of sidetracked ways. I was a grocery clerk and I got to make and color the price signs. I was a secretary who also penned an in-house newsletter. I was a children’s librarian who read children’s (and young adult) books, which helped me learn the craft of writing. I became a reporter, which fostered the editing side of my brain. And an actress, which gave me motivation, dialogue, rhythm, and timing. Although all of them were valuable in the end — don’t ever discount anything you do; the journey is imperative — none of them truly touched me like writing fiction.   

Since graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing, I penned that novel I was meant to write. I’ve had a fairy-tale journey since then. I found an agent, and we published a book I loved writing, in the voice of a character who blessed me with her insistent presence and permission to tell her story. Many readers have told me how much reading the book meant to them. It moves me to know they had a positive and poignant experience that I was able to provide.  

I am so grateful for the inner voice that propelled the original question and answer into my psyche, because it kick-started me into a series of actions that reverberate within, even today. I know I was meant to do this. I have no doubt.

I believe that every one of us knows what we want to do. We know, deep in our hearts, what will fulfill us. Listen to that inner voice, no matter how ridiculous, impractical, or out-of-reach your heart’s desire seems to be. That is exactly what will guide you down a path that will complete you. And that will motivate those around you — the people you teach and the people you inspire.

I urge anyone with a secret dream to bring it to light, beginning today. Find those who will help you, appreciate the experiences you have had, rejoice in the journey, cultivate kind and funny friends, absorb the wisdom and grace of mentors, and ultimately, trust your own heart and voice.

What’s that sound?

That’s the sound of your soul, laughing.

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #15: Morgan Callan Rogers on finding purpose later in life

Morgan Callan Rogers is the author of the novel, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, Viking, 2012. The book has been published in Spain, Germany, Italy, Australia, and the U.S. It won a Reader’s Choice award in Germany and was nominated for a fiction prize in Maine. Morgan is a native Mainer and was brought up in Bath, near some of the most beautiful places in the world. She has held many jobs, but has always been a writer. Her second novel, Written on My Heart, a sequel to Red Ruby Heart, will be released in February 2016She can be reached through her website, morgancallanrogers.com. 

Next week: Finding purpose: 20 true stories
Last week: We asked, kids answered: What does it mean to fail?

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