How I Became a Writer

Joanna Phoenix quote 1.jpg


Joanna Phoenix quote 4.jpg
Joanna Phoneix quote 3.jpg
Joanna Phoenix quote 5.jpg

Some people came into this world knowing what they want to do or be.

We hate these people.

No, not really. (Maybe a little).

The rest of us haven’t always known our purpose. Maybe we have a guiding idea but don’t know how to translate it into an action, or maybe we have so many ideas we don’t know how to pick, or maybe we have no idea at all.

I spent the first decade of my adult life training as a nurse and scientist. This felt as right as it could until I looked up and saw that even if I was as successful as I could be, it wasn’t the life I wanted. That was very hard to accept after years of intensive training and heavy expectations. I didn’t know until I knew. And once I knew, I had to leave. So if I wasn’t a scientist then what was I?

Using our savings, my partner and I moved across country. We landed in the Bay area, and I tried everything. I farmed, I protested, I coded, I cooked, I designed, I organized, but I still didn’t know. And I desperately wanted to know. Oh how I envied the people that knew their calling to their core, but there was no clear signal in my heart. After a summer of exploring, I started to panic.

I took a break and went to the beach. I used to read journal articles with my feet in the sand, but I heard that normal people read novels. I couldn’t quite remember the last time I let myself read for pleasure. But once I started, I could not stop. I wanted to live inside the fictional worlds I found. Now some people say that, but I really meant it. I felt like I belonged in books. I read. All. Day. Long. Some books I just looped through, over and over again, refusing to leave.

The only thing that finally brought me out of my reading frenzy was the idea to write my own book. I opened up my laptop and started chapter one of my first novel.

But I couldn’t make it as easy as that. Even as I continued to write, I refused it as a vocation. Writing fiction, don’t be ridiculous. Writing is not a real career. Making up stories doesn’t add value to the world. So I continued my search. I craved a sense of identity. What should I do? I tried more things. I foraged, I researched, I volunteered, I knit. I even considered going back to science.

I finally reached a breaking point. I wanted to commit to something, and I just needed to pick a horse and ride it. I leaned on my analytic skills (maybe that’s the reason I got a PhD, ha!). I opened up Excel and made a matrix. I listed my values along the top row: justice, beauty, kindness, family, things like that. Along the side, I listed out all the potential jobs I’d consider. At the very last moment, I threw “writer” on the list.  Then I assigned a number from 1 to 5, indicating how much each potential career fulfilled each value. I totaled the rows. Writing received the highest score. Wait, really? Writing? And because I’m a nerd and really needed to be sure I also ranked the values and produced a ranked score. Writing won again.

I felt a little scared. This is not how I conceptualized myself.

My partner offered a solution. Try it. Write. Commit for three months and stop asking the question “what should I do?” and just do it. This was powerful for me. Trying something new and edgy is hard when you question the whole enterprise every other day. With the financial support of my partner, I committed (just for three months). I let myself write all day long. And when I questioned myself, I looked at the date circled on the calendar and said I can consider all my doubts then.

Eventually I doubted less and wrote more. I didn’t even realize when the three months had ended. I didn’t need to return to the spreadsheet. I still had no idea why writing resonated with me. I still wondered where this vocation came from, but I knew that I didn’t want to do anything else.

People ask me, “How did I choose writing?” It’s strange to say, but I think that writing choose me. Looking back, I see that three things had an important impact on my discovery: the ability to walk away from a career and identity that didn’t bring me joy, giving myself the chance to try all the things, and committing to something I loved in the face of doubt.

Doubt has returned countless times in my writing journey. Apparently doubt is a defining characteristic of a writer. But I just can’t stop. I tried, but I returned over and over again to writing.

I wish I knew, “Why writing?” I still ask myself that. It’s not something I imagined choosing. It’s not something I designed. Even without understanding it fully, I commit because I can’t hardly help it.

Some people came into this world knowing what they want to do or be. Others have the creative adventure of discovering it along the way.

If you enjoyed this, subscribe to my newsletter. See you soon!