Roads Not Taken
The theme this month is “mistakes.” This post is about my non-lineary path to becoming a writer. Sometimes I look back at the choices that led away from that goal and think, “Those were mistakes.” But they led me down some interesting trails.
I first thought about writing fiction in college, but the whim never solidified into a goal. I hadn’t yet learned about setting goals and breaking them into achievable steps and stupidly, it never occurred to me to mention the idea to my professors. I majored in the Classics at the University of Texas at Austin in the 70s, focusing on Ancient Greek. For some dumb reason, I refused to study Latin. If I had, I might have met fellow student Steven Saylor, now a bestselling author of historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome. If we’d hung out in the Classics lounge, maybe my vague ambition would have found a shape.
More twists, a few sharp turns, and I found myself in the computer industry, working full time while studying for an MS in Computer Science at the University of Denver. Busy! The idea of writing sank under an ocean of code. I got the degree, then the company cancelled our project, so I moved from artifical intelligence to the next new thing, going back to Austin to build graphical user interfaces at a hot little software start-up.
That job came with a minimum work-week of seventy hours. Busy, squared! But I loved the on-fire attitude, the team work, and the respect. (Here again I was the only female programmer, so that respect was not easily earned.) One day we were yakking around the coffee pot and a technical writer told us he’d just published his first mystery novel. I was gobsmacked. “When on earth do you find time to write?” He said, “I get up at 5:00 and write for 2 hours.” I chewed on that for a minute — or maybe it was the sludge we called coffee — and said, “Then you must go to bed at 9:00.” “Uh-huh,” he said, with characteristic good cheer. That guy? His name is Jeff Abbott, best-selling thriller author.
That was a major revelation. You didn’t wait until the stars aligned and somebody left you a trust fund. You just squeezed a few hours out of your regular schedule and got to it. From that point on, my thoughts kept coming back around to writing. By then I had learned how to develop large, complex systems, like, uh, novels. When would I finally get started? What would I write?
That was a true fork in the road, at which I stood awhile and pondered. I could have done what Jeff did — stick it out at the software shop until I got fully vested and then retire to write novels. But the phone on my desk kept ringing and worse, Sun Microsystems introduced a complete revision of its operating system, which meant we would have to port every last line of code. I couldn’t face it. I bailed.
Never able to take the straight road, I veered into another demanding and fascinating career, going back to my alma mater for a Ph.D. in linguistics. That first semester was the hardest three months of my life, intellectually. When finals ended, my brain shut down. All I could was watch Star Trek. This was 1991; we didn’t have streaming video. I had to drive to video stores, scrounging for a fix. I even watched “Bill and Leonard Live;” that’s desperation. A sympathetic friend asked if I had read any of the novels. “There are novels?” I replied, hope blooming.
Yes, oh, yes, there are dozens of them, all numbered so you can read them in order. I scooped up an armful at Half-Priced Books and went on a binge. Fan fiction — who knew? Some of them were awful, but some of them were good, like Ishmael by Barbara Hambly, published in 1985. I started thinking, I could do this. Stories began to bloom in my head.
It took another decade to finish that degree and land a steady job as an archivist in the UT library system. Working only forty hours a week means you have time for a whole ‘nother thing. I started getting up at 5:00 and writing for 2 hours before work, slowly but surely writing a whole book. I never did write that Star Trek novel, but I did connect with the best writers’ group in town, the Austin chapter of the Romance Writers of America. My historical romance will never see the light of day, but it got the ball rolling. I’m about to finish my sixth book, I’ve published two and will bring out three more this year (one new, two from the drawer.)
If I’d been able to take my dreams seriously long ago, I might have started writing fresh out of college, like Steven Saylor. If I’d known about fan fiction, I probably would have started with a Star Trek novel, like Barbara Hambly. If I’d had a little more grit, I might have used my stock options to leap into novel-writing, like Jeff Abbott. I’d have a beautiful back list by now and might have earned a place on some other lists as well.
But then I wouldn’t have learned how to hold my own in a roomful of arrogant nerds or how to scale a steep learning curve after taking a job just beyond my actual qualifications. I wouldn’t know how to direct my own research, build complex, abstract structures, write successful proposals, or manage multi-faceted projects that take years to complete. Those are all valuable skills for an indie author. I would never have lived in a village where they still plow with oxen, worry about witches, and know gossip can cause a broken leg; useful knowledge for a writer of historical fiction. I wouldn’t have made my major contributions to the world: a grammar of an undocumented language and an archive that preserves indigenous languages and cultures.
Mistakes? Maybe not so much. Sometimes the winding road is the best path to take.
Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas mysteries. She’s earned a series of degrees — BA Classics, MS Computer Science, and Ph.D Linguistics — and has had a corresponding series of careers — waitressing, software engineering, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. Find out more at www.annacastle.com.