At 61, I was unemployed. Sooner or later, my severance package would stop arriving in my checking account, and although I’ve never worried much about money, I began thinking of ways to cut back, something I’ve never been known for. I tried not to surrender to my bent for the dramatic, but once in a while — usually awake in the middle of the night — I’d see a vision of me in the future, popping open a little can of gourmet cat food, spreading it on some crackers, and calling it a day.
Then I had an idea. Traditionally (for me) this can be a terrifying way of opening a paragraph. I tried out my idea on my neighbor, who kindly wondered why he’d seen me home so much. I told him I’d lost my job and had been applying for new ones, but nothing was happening. Of course I didn’t say it exactly that way. I think I used words like “transitioning” and “turning point.” The phrase “letting you go,” my actual launching pad, was still coming to me regularly in my dreams, the ones where I’d show up at my office and everyone there would have to remind me that they’d already “let me go,” and — ashamed (and, yes, naked of course) — I’d slump back to my car and drive home.
I’d just met this neighbor, so he was a natural tabula rasa candidate. “I’ve decided I’m going to write,” I said, listening to how self-important that sentence sounded wafting through the air.
“Really?” he said. “I didn’t know you were a writer.”
If he meant had I ever made a comfortable living as a writer — or even an uncomfortable one — the answer was “no.” If he meant had anyone ever heard of me, nope. I didn’t mention that I’d won third place in my 6th grade short story contest back on Long Island, but it was one of the consequential events I was building my next career on. It’s amazing how reality hardly ever has anything to do with being a writer.
I bought some office supplies I thought writers needed. A stapler. A pencil sharpener, even though I barely ever wrote with a pencil. I was good on Post-It Notes. I kept writing. Nothing much. Nothing good. But I kept writing. And waited for a sign.
My next official act of reinvention was to move the desk in my study to the window. Before, I’d always thought I’d find it distracting, but I’d become such an early riser, I figured I might enjoy seeing the sun come up. Or that watching people in the little park below would give me some material once I’d stopped thinking about my big win in the short story contest in 6th grade.
The park is taken over with dog owners once the sun arrives. By about 6:45, the grounds resemble a golden retriever convention. People in their Under Armor gear talk and nod and smile as the dogs sniff at each other. (This is an unscientific sample, but I’ve learned 90% of the golden retrievers in America are named Bailey.) Mothers, nannies, and toddlers take up the next shift. At dusk, from the same window, I see parents and their children getting in a few minutes on the playground equipment before dinner.
Sometimes when nothing is coming to me, I walk out my back door and sit at the playground. I jot down what I hear or see in the notebook I carry everywhere. One day a boy, about ten, sat down next to me on the bench. His dad was off to the side, watching expectantly. I’d seen him nod in my direction and say quietly to his son, “Go ahead.” The boy cleared his throat a little and held out a stack of copy paper, mercilessly stapled down one side. The cover read ROBOTS in bold lettering, with an ambitious illustration.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m a writer. I have this book for sale. It costs $1 if you want to buy it. But just to warn you, it might be scary in some parts for your kids.” I loved that he didn’t have a clue that my kids are now in their thirties. I loved his confidence, even when his voice faltered a little.
I took the book in my hands and thumbed through. I complimented him on his wording and his drawing. I said, “Stay right here,” and I went back to my house and got a dollar. He showed me where the scary parts were so I’d be prepared.
“Is it hard to be a writer?” I asked.
“Not one bit,” he said. And he took off for the swings.