Is it Too Late To Follow Our Hearts? Bestselling Author Patti Callahan Henry Talks About Changing Careers Midstream
PARADE ESSAY: APRIL 7, 2021 – 10:00 AM
Welcome to our brand-new Parade.com weekly essay series in partnership with Friends & Fiction, an online community hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry, and Mary Alice Monroe. Every Wednesday, you’ll get a new life lessons essay from one of the writers, as well as the chance to discuss the themes of it later that night on Facebook Live! Today, author Patti Callahan Henry asks an important question: Who do you really want to be? And how can you get there?
“I want to be a writer of books.”
The words had been spoken by my then-6-year-old daughter, Meagan, but they might as well have come from me.
That was 22 years ago. I was a nurse with a master’s degree in pediatrics, but at that moment, I was a stay-at-home mom with three kids under six years old. Meagan and I were playing with the plastic Fisher-Price dollhouse, the one with the pink roof and the helmet-hair three-inch family members, and I had just asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It can be an important question or it can be a lazy question, one we are trained to ask, a fallback question passed down from generations of ancestors who want to know what we are going to do with our lives. It can feel final—tell me now and never waver. But there is never one answer, and we can change our answer whenever we please. But no one ever told us that, did they?
That day, Meagan set down her doll, looked heavenward and said she wanted to be a writer of books.
Part of me knew why. Books were at the heart of our special time together. With two little brothers, reading was our time. ‘One more book’ was a constant refrain.
“Oh!” I told her in a flash. “That’s what I want to be when I grow up, too!”
“You’re already grown up,” she said to me with incredulous certainty.
I was 35 years old. It was a pure moment, a liminal moment. Sitting there on her bedroom floor while her brothers napped and we played with a house made of molded plastic, something true had fallen from my lips and into my life. That’s what I want to be.
Sometimes we’re afraid to say who we want to grow into. Others around us might not want us to change, telling us we’re fine just the way we are. But is fine what we want? No, definitely not. We want more than fine. We want to become who we were meant to be.
But who is that? How do we know? And by the way, we have responsibilities galore. We have families and jobs and bills and insurance and car payments and…I know, I do too.
Yet, often, the hidden desires of who we want to become—because we are always becoming a different version of ourselves—are unspoken and tucked away in the things we loved as a child. Sometimes the very things and activities that sustained us or had us falling into the pure divinity of suspended time, are the callings of our life. As the poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
For me, it was reading and writing. I carry a lot of beautiful memories from my early years. But I can say without a doubt that my favorite recollections, the ones that rise to the surface in a quiet moment, are the times I was alone with a novel or an empty notebook or a typewriter and a box of colored pencils to draw the cover of the story I just “wrote.”
But is it realistic to give into those callings, to listen to the whispered answer of, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Seriously, aren’t we already grown up?
Yes, but we are always changing. Years passed from the moment I said, “That’s who I want to be,” to the moment my first book was published. Saying it, admitting it and putting the words to the hidden life wasn’t an immediate magical spell that changed my life in an instant. Nothing works that way but in the movies.
I began step by step, class by class, early morning by early morning. When I first started writing, I started with The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Through writing morning pages and completing some of her exercises, I slowly dismantled my resistance and fear brick by brick, unmaking a wall I had made for most of my life, a wall created of my “should-do” and “must-do.” And I didn’t build a new wall. Instead, I built a path to a different kind of life.
While I still worked part-time as a nurse and learned to be a mother to young children, I signed up for writing classes at Emory University, joined a local writing group and entered contests that returned my work to me with some harsh criticism.
Even if the negative input—“Your writing is dull, dark, dreary and depressing”—hurt for the moment, it spurred me to learn more and refine my craft. I rose at 4:30 a.m. each day and wrote for two hours before the kids woke up. I read books about writing; I attended lectures; I dove into the deep end of the publishing world without a life preserver. I keenly remember entering a room full of writers at a conference and feeling like my heart would burst out of my chest, my hands sweating. I knew they would see straight through the novice fraud that I felt like I was.
It was four years later when an agent finally noticed the first pages of my book in a contest I had entered, and my publishing journey began. But even then, my first book didn’t sell—it was the second book I wrote that finally sold to Penguin Publishing. That was 18 years and 16 books ago. My journey was far from an overnight success story—most lasting changes are far from an overnight story.
We can rarely just upturn our lives, change it all and run from our jobs and responsibilities. And I didn’t: I tried to make incremental changes that would allow writing to become an important piece of my life.
And yet fear of change can have us denying the unguarded answer to, “What do you want to be? Who do you want to be?”
The answer doesn’t have to be about an instant revamping of our lives. It definitely doesn’t have to be about a career change. And yet the answer can lead us to make small-step changes in our lives, from community involvement or joining a book club to enlarging our family or healing a relationship. Even the most seemingly insignificant changes can add up to mighty transformations in the course of our lives.
Author James Hollis, Ph.D., said in his book Living Between Worlds that what we believe we want is happiness, but what we really want, deep down in our heart of hearts, is purpose and meaning. And where does that come from? It comes from what we do with our minutes, our hours, our days and our lives. To move toward who we want to become while keeping our lives in balance with our responsibilities can be a herculean task. It’s a journey of small steps toward a bigger self. But it’s well worth it, a true hero’s journey.
So, what’s your answer? Who do you want to be when you grow up? Can you listen to the answer inside yourself and maybe even move toward it? It’s never too late to take a step and then another toward becoming the person we imagine ourselves to be.
Friends & Fiction is an online community, weekly live web show, and podcast founded and hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry, and Mary Alice Monroe, who have written more than 90 novels between them and are published in more than 30 languages. Catch them and their incredible author guests live every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on the Friends & Fiction Facebook group page or their YouTube Channel. Follow them on Instagram and, for weekly updates, subscribe to their newsletter.
Patti Callahan Henry is the New York Times bestselling, USA Today bestselling, and Globe and Mail bestselling novelist of 15 novels, including Becoming Mrs. Lewis and Surviving Savannah out now and Once Upon a Wardrobe, out October 19th, 2021. A recipient of the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year, the Christy Book of the Year, and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year, Patti is the co-founder and co-host of the popular web series and podcast Friends & Fiction. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and on her website www.patticallahanhenry.com.