– Maria is a writer. All eyes were on me. Awe silenced the table and I quickly brushed it off:
– He’s exaggerating. I’m not a writer. I write. I’ve never been published.
We were at our friend’s wedding. We had been seated at the cousins’ table. When they politely tried to make conversation and asked what we were doing, that was what my friend had answered for me. He had said it with aplomb and pride. I was their exceptionally bright friend, one who would write them 10 pages long letters; they loved bragging about me. I thought it was endearing. And ridiculous. I wasn’t a writer, they shouldn’t lie to people to make us look good.
This memory from 13 years ago resurfaced recently, along with many others. All those times I had been acknowledged a writer and I had dismissed it.
In my first weeks of secondary school, a girl came to me and asked:
– Is it true that in primary school you would always carry a notebook around and write in it whenever you had an idea?
I remember wondering who from my previous school tried to make me look like a freak to my new schoolmates but I decided to answer sincerely anyway. I would show them I was brave:
– It is.
Her eyes widened and she mouthed a “wow”. I looked her in the eye, ready to counter another attack but she was stuck in her contemplative state so I just walked away.
I was 14 when at the end of the school year, my literature teacher took me aside:
– Maria, I was wondering… Have you ever thought about writing a novel?
I can still feel the ray of light passing through me as I heard him.
– I have actually.
– Well, you should. I think you’re talented.
– Thank you, sir. It means a lot.
When I was doing my Masters in Languages and Literature, there was a class I would always fail: one with written assignments on the books we were analysing. I could not understand what was expected of me. How could my opinion on these masterpieces be valuable? I would spend hours on that one page, squeezing intellectual words out of my brain and my fingertips only to get a 7 out of 20 if I was lucky. Our professor was a bit stingy on good notes and anything above 12 was an honour but still. Then something wonderful happened: he asked us to write a creative autobiographical piece. I somehow missed the instruction it was to be double-spaced and ended up handing more than double the length that was asked. When the notes came out, I saw a letter next to my name: I was summoned to his office. Anger got the best of me: if this guy was to say my life was not worth passing his class, I would lose it.
As he was looking for my autobiography in the pile of works, I sat on the edge of my seat, ready to lunge.
– Oh, here it is. Oh, yes, that one.
He paused. I stopped breathing and tensed my body. “Go ahead”, I thought. “Just say it’s useless.”
– I loved it.
I was taken aback. I slightly slouched in the chair.
– My only concern was: you seem to have put in much more work in this than in the other assignments.
– Oh, I haven’t! Believe me. It took me ages to finish the others. This… I just wrote it.
– Really? Well, it is quite good.
I was 25 when I met my 3rd grade teacher on the bus. One of her first questions was:
– Do you still write?
That night, as I was telling my older sister about it, I got excited:
– Can you believe this?! She remembered I write!
My sister smirked before saying matter-of-factly:
– I doubt she’s known many 9-year-old’s who write.
– Oh… yeah… Of course.
That same year, I had given the beginning of a novel I was working on to a writer I admired. I would have never dared suggest it; she had requested it.
– You have talent. The only critic I have is that the beginning is more thought through; one can tell you put more work in that than in the later pages. Still, it’s really good; you should pursue this.
I smiled. The first pages were a stream of consciousness; the rest was me forcing the story to get out. I didn’t correct her though; I knew it meant I needed not to doubt my writing too much and just put pen to paper.
A few months later, my younger sister asked me if she could use one of my short stories as her high school final drama project. She translated it, interpreted it with a friend and directed it. It was not open to the public but I was allowed to attend; my sister sat me on the front row. I was on cloud nine during the whole production. I could not see the teacher’s faces but I heard them laughing. It was simply magical. After the short show, my sister’s co-actress came to me “I loved playing your text!” and the sound guy asked me for an autograph “It might be worth a lot someday.” All of that was flattering enough but what moved me most were my sister’s words when she came out of her meeting with the board of examiners.
– They asked me if you were a writer. I said: She is but she hasn’t been published yet.
I beamed and felt the glow while walking the streets to catch my bus. Brussels had a new shine to it.
Today, I’m 39 years old and my reminiscing on this in no coincidence. Three years ago, I gave birth to my daughter. Being a parent changes you: your priorities shift, you are responsible for that new person’s well-being. With motherhood came the will to give this child the tools to be happy, to love, to wonder, to believe she can accomplish anything. With motherhood came the realisation that in order for my child to pursue her dreams, I needed to set the example and pursue mine; I needed to accept to be my own priority. I had built a fairly good career but something was off. I ploughed through , changed jobs, bit my tongue and let work take over my life. At the dawn of my 39th birthday, I was exhausted by the constant battle against my values, my principles and my insights. I felt the visceral need to make a change, to do something meaningful. “People always come to me for advice. I should pursue coaching, as I had planned years ago”, I thought. But I was lost in my fears, unable to picture it clearly. I needed a fresh perspective, somebody to help me put a frame. I set up a meeting with a career coach.
Less than 24 hours after that phone call, I fell ill. My heart distraught by the constant stress of tight deadlines, my body weakened by oppressing hours and workload, my perfectionism took its toll on me; the machine shut down. I spent three days between my parents’ sofa and their bathroom, with burning neck, back and head; it felt as if toxic particles had caught fire inside and had finally exploded. I finally accepted to follow my doctor’s orders and rest. I finally accepted to be stopped on my path of unconscious self-destruction.
A week after admitting I was burned out, I went to my first career coaching session filled with hope: she would see I was a coach too, she would validate my thoughts.
– I know what you need to do. You don’t know it yet but I do.
We’d been speaking for an hour when she uttered those words. I knew I had to come to the conclusion by myself so I didn’t ask her to elaborate. She reiterated her opinion on the next session and again, I was overwhelmed by disbelief and fear. I looked at the cards I had arranged on the table. I had placed 10 competences in order of importance: creativity, artistic, initiative, accompany, find solutions, questioning oneself, linguistic skills, speaker, pass on knowledge, effective communication.
That night, I listed these to my sisters and added: “The only thing that encompasses everything is writer. I have no idea what job she is talking about.”
It was at the end of our 3rd session that it suddenly was clear my coach had meant that all along. I laughed nervously. I felt like a kid who was told they could play forever. That could not be serious.
– But I can’t live off writing!
– Says who?
I looked at her while a voice from my early childhood whispered in my ear:
– Writer is not a job.
Today I am 39 and I do not care if writer is a job; it is who I am. I know now instead of helping people, I want to inspire them. I don’t need to be a coach, I need to be myself. I am a writer.