This is a guest-post by the talented Tomi L. Wiley, whose novel you WILL get to read because her friends simply won’t let this much talent stay hidden.
My parents entertained often when I was a little girl. My father, a longtime IBM consultant who traveled the US in the ‘80s training corporate magnates how to integrate computers into their businesses, had finally settled down into a role managing the operations system for a chain of local banks, and (now, looking back I realize) inviting people to our home for dinner parties was most likely not only social but a smart networking move on his part. As an only child, it was important to my parents that I be a part of these parties: during the cocktail hour I offered iced shrimp and pasty concoctions atop Ritz crackers on silver platters, then joined the adults for dinner in my Gunny Sack and Laura Ashley dresses, fat satin bows in my long hair. Candlelight and white table cloths, my father at the head of the table, straight-backed and compelling, my mother at the other end, luminous, nodding.
What I remember most about these dinners, however, are the many times I was asked by adults–some with children, some without, almost all wine-warmed and thickly cordial–what I wanted to be when I grew up.
My father would smooth his napkin over his thighs and reach to sip his drink, a smile curling his lips. My mother would titter and rise, begin clearing plates.
“A writer,” I would invariably answer, clearly, in a little girl’s lilting song, for this was the only thing I ever wanted to be. Never did I trip through phases imagining myself casting shadows on the set of Swan Lake, my white tutu warmed by stage lights, or the hem of a stiff white coat snapping around the corner of a hospital corridor, my smart nametag (Doctor Wiley, M.D.) nudged by the latest in stethoscope technology. Never did I tuck the corners of a white sheet beneath my chin and marvel as it trailed behind me down our long hallway or imagine myself in an apron and heels, removing the perfect roast or cake from the oven for my husband and troop of children. I did not yearn for the rapid-fire debate of the courtroom or even a sea of rapt, up-turned children’s faces as I pointed at A and B and C with a delicate silver rod, my fingers and hips white with chalkboard dust.
No; none of these things interested me. Ever. I’ve remembered and relived and tried to recall a time when I wanted to do anything else except write, and read, and write about reading. It’s just not there.
“But what will you do?” the inquiring adult would ask, and my mother would elbow in to gather up wine glasses, refill coffee cups, and my father would sit back, touch the rim of his glass with one finger.
“I’ll be a writer,” I’d explain, stubbornly refusing to remember the last time I had this exact exchange with an adult. I was beginning to think many adults “in the business world” were quite dim.
“Yes, but what will you do for a living?” Har har, indulging sneer, the clink of silver against china.
And, each time, I looked disdainfully at my father, our eyes flicking upward in the slimmest of eye rolls, and he would say, firmly, finally, “She. Will. Write.”
Alas, it is not as easy as that when you are young, unless you get some sort of break. I chose to rush into college at age 17, rush through summer school–fully loaded semesters, gobbling and gasping my way – and graduate in just over three years. An English degree! A double minor in Poetry and the Classics! Yes! How fulfilling and indulgent was this line of study! How many doors would be opened!
After a few devastating years in marketing, real estate, and South Florida, I scrabbled my way back to Tennessee and, on a whim, applied for a job as a newspaper staff writer. Years and a child later, I was managing editor and a magazine consultant. I was doing it: I was writing for a living. But that living was the equivalent of hanging on to the side of Mt. Rushmore for the sake of climbing to the top for the view. I barely had money for anything, and I had a child to support, alone, to boot. I needed something else: I needed more. So, I did it.
I went corporate.
For two years I made very good money doing, pretty much, things that I loved as an international communications advisor. I was able to travel, even spending a week in Zurich for a conference with my counterparts from around the world. But I still went home each day probing the edges of an ever-gaping need. I was good at what I did, and getting better, and then one day a friend – someone I’d worked with during a professionally barren time in my life, a motivational social media genius, actually – had the audacity to ask me: But how is this job getting you closer to what you really want to do with your life?
The next day I stood at the base of a mine shaft, waiting my turn to load an elevator that would take me into the bowels of the earth, miles beneath the surface of sun and fresh air, and chewed on those words. I slapped my hard hat on my head and stepped into a hot, crowded space to be lowered into the dark depths of a zinc mine and I wondered, watching slabs and layers of ancient earth slide over my head, This is not what you want to do with your life. Why are you doing it? To what end?
I can’t say I was motivated to leave it all that day (the money and my circumstances pressed too closely against the logical, practical part of my brain), but I did start to seriously consider the path and projection of my life. Later, I stumbled upon the great fortune of marrying a man who not only believed in me and my dreams, but encouraged and insisted upon them. I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend’s words and what the windows they opened: could I do this? Could I quit the most lucrative job of my life? Many aspects of the company had changed – including the entire management team, my own role and expectations therein – so I had a lot of things to consider.
In the end, the dust settled when my (very new, only six weeks in) husband sat me down and said quite plainly and earnestly: “You are not happy. You haven’t been for a while. This is what you need to do.”
So I did. I quit my job to write full time.
Oh, but how life gets in the way. I went from being a single mother to balancing a family of six overnight. Add in an ex-wife and a major move hundreds of miles away from my family, the only people my son knew. He changed schools. I left friends and support systems. We adapted, we assimilated. Family members fell sick, we traveled back and forth between Knoxville and Nashville. I helped begin and build a collective of independent authors, even though I wasn’t one and didn’t know if I wanted to be one – I simply loved the women involved and wanted to help. I spent months, then a year, building that and putting my own work on the back burner. I took on freelance writing and editing jobs to supplement our income, to “earn my keep,” because I was not accustomed to (and still am not) having someone else being the breadwinner. Life flowed past me, and still the novel wasn’t done.
NaNoWriMo, and still it wasn’t done. Sent to friends for feedback and advice, excellent praise and encouragement to finish soon – they couldn’t wait to read it all! And still. And still.
My husband, worn thin by now, wanting to see it finished. It’s been almost two years. On October 30, I will have been “writing” my novel for two years, full time. The entire time I’ve been working on it? Since the night I feverishly wrote the short story on which it’s based?
But in between, life has happened. I met the love of my life and got married. I moved, settled myself and my son. I was able to be there, physically, for many tumultuous moments in the lives of my parents, my strong father and darling mother– I would literally up and leave upon a phone call, when they needed me. I wouldn’t trade that for a dozen novels, for a hundred.
For the past two years, I haven’t just been writing a novel; I’ve been living my life, and that realization is something I will never apologize for. I have gone on field trips with my son’s classes, spending time with him that I will never have the chance to do again. I was there with him and his stepbrothers for hot summer days on bikes and dishing out ice cream, at the park after school on our special Park Blanket and throwing Frisbees, splashing in the little creek and watching them swing from trees. On snow days with red noses and hot chocolate. In the hospital when one of the boys was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes. Taking our oldest to get his driving permit. Watching them all race and compete at Field Days, cheering and handing out apples and water bottles.
These are the moments I cherish, and in between I have been writing a novel. Because the novel will develop, it will be there when I need it. But for the past two years, I’ve been there for what’s most important to me: I’ve been there when my family needed me.
“She will write,” my father said, smiling over at me when I was so very young, a tender bruise in a white dress and pink sash. And I will write: I do write. I just do life all around it, and I write along the edges.
And, I just realized, I’m okay with that. For that is how I’d like to be remembered: there, smiling and open, ready for my beloveds. My novel, I know, is inside me. My family, my friends, my life is now.
Tomi L. Wiley is the Poetry and Short Fiction Editor for Sweatpants & Coffee.com. She has written and edited for media including Southern Living and Oxford American magazines, has been published in the literary anthologies Milk & Ink: a Mosaic of Motherhood, Telling Tales, Maypop and the Southeast Review, has coordinated panels for the Southern Festival of Books, spoken on the creative writing process at Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and is a past president of the Tennessee Writers Alliance. She lives in Knoxville, where she is writing her first novel with the help of lots of wine, goat cheese and the Barefoot Contessa.
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of the books Forged in Grace, Night Oracle, and the writing guides Make a Scene and Write Free. Her essays and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, The Billfold, Coachella Review, Modern Loss, The Nervous Breakdown, New York Times, ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, The Rumpus, San Francisco Chronicle, St. Petersburg Times, Writer’s Digest, The Writer and more.