I didn’t realize I was a writer until I was 35.
The funny thing is that in hindsight I can see I was always a writer. Some kids sketch all the time, others live and breathe sports or chess or cars. Me, I was constantly writing – poems, stories, goofy little comics, and more than a few non-fiction pieces. I even started and edited a school newspaper when I was in the 4th grade. That should have been a clue, but I somehow failed to notice it.
I think the main distraction from self-identifying as a writer was my interest and aptitude for math and science. My high school and college friends were all techie-nerds like me, and engineering seemed like a logical career path. Technology also seemed more exciting and lucrative than writing, or it at least had a more obvious career path, so that’s what I pursued, eventually earning three engineering degrees.
While my engineering career progressed, I never stopped writing, mostly short pieces in small outlets. Inexplicably, I also didn’t pay much attention to the fact that I was doing it. Writing wasn’t part of my conscious identity. It’s just something I dabbled with, for reasons I was not aware of. My first published piece was a short article for a local newspaper in 1995 or 1996. Then I wrote an article for one of those free magazines they hand out at the grocery store. Clearly, my literary aspirations were modest. Blogs didn’t really exist yet, but as soon as they did, I started writing one.
In 2003, I got up the nerve to submit a piece – co-authored with my boss for reasons of sheer insecurity on my part – to a professional journal. It was accepted, so I wrote another, this time by myself. Then I wrote another and another… and things snowballed from there. Before long I had an article in every issue, sometimes two in a single edition. I was writing faster than the magazine could keep up. And although I’d started to accumulate regular readers, I still had no idea I was a writer. I thought I was solely an engineer.
It took nearly five years and upwards of 25 published articles before I tentatively began to refer to myself with the W-word.
I can’t explain my hesitation except that this new label ran counter to the calculations-and-measurements perception I had of myself. Never mind that I was writing about program management, technology, and design, topics that were very much in line with my nerdy roots and important to my chosen profession. Writing was still more hobby than work, more sideline than main event. My blindspot persisted and it didn’t occur to me to call myself a writer.
And then one day, everything changed. I don’t recall the exact moment of revelation when I realized that I was genuinely and truly a writer, but I do remember the feeling of discovery and excitement. It’s like one of those dreams where I’m in my house, but it’s not really my house, and I find a bunch of hidden rooms I didn’t know were there (you’ve had that dream, right?). In my dream, I open doors I’ve never seen before and exclaim at the hidden spaces and overlooked places. I make plans about how to use each room – to play, to work, to gather with friends, to rest.
Calling myself a writer, both in conversation with other people and in my own head, felt exactly like that dream. Actually, it was better than a dream.
It was a wake-up call to my own self.
I started writing on purpose, paying attention to craft and fixing the rookie mistakes I’d been making for too long. I read books about writing, I got serious about revisions and deliberate about my topics. I started thinking of each new piece as part of a larger conversation with readers that extended beyond a few paragraphs or pages.
The dream expanded. Engineers don’t generally write books, but writers do and I was part of that tribe now, so I began to explore the idea of transitioning from magazine writer to book author. My first attempt at a book was mercifully and correctly rejected by several publishers, so I scrapped it and started over.
In December 2012, an author whose work I greatly respect read some of my work and offered to introduce me to his agent, a generous gesture I happily accepted. A few months later my new agent called with exciting news: a 2-book deal with a big publisher. The first book came out in 2014, a mere 19 years after my first newspaper article. When my second book hit the shelves a year later, I took the leap to become a full-time author. Now I’m a writer with an engineering background, rather than an engineer who writes.
It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, of course. The writing business is weird and frustrating and a whole other kind of hard than engineering. But I love it and can’t imagine doing anything else. Best of all, I am pretty sure this new house I’m living in has doors I haven’t opened yet, rooms still waiting to be discovered and explored. It’s an exciting feeling, and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.