Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Because I Dared Disturb the Universe

The very best thing about writing a letter to Jane Yolen, as I did last week, is that Jane Yolen wrote me back.  It's in the comments on the post, if you want proof.  It made me happy, and it made me laugh, and it made me think, particularly the part where she said she remembered me as, "afraid of my own shadow."

I wasn't afraid of my shadow.  I was afraid of my future.

Understand, I would become the first person in my direct linea to graduate from a four-year college.  On my father's side I had a grandmother who went to a two-year teacher's college; on my mother's side, a grandmother who was put to work after eighth grade so that her family could afford to keep her younger brothers in school.  My parents were very proud of my academic achievements, and very happy to make the sacrifices necessary to send me to a really good school.  And, in return, I was supposed to become a doctor.

Imagine how fantastic that would be!  A doctor in the family!  Sometimes it felt like the right choice for me--I loved science, chemistry at least, and I enjoyed being a candy-striper at the hospital--but my favorite candy-striping post was at the pharmacy, where the pharmacist taught me to read the latin abbreviations and type the prescription labels myself.  Perhaps that should have told me something.

I loved lab work, but I hated biology, particularly in college.  The fruit fly breeding experiment drove me bananas, and I nearly let a horseshoe crab bleed to death before I realized that the pale blue puddle spreading underneath it was its blood.  Anatomy and physiology was the only college class I actively despised, mostly because I would study and study and study with my friend Antoinette, and I would swear I knew the material as well as she did, and then we'd get our exams back and she'd have a 94% and I'd have an 82% and I was not used to trying hard and not doing well.  (Antoinette, by the way, is now a doctor.)

I hated studying for the MCAT, but I made myself do it, and I ended up doing pretty well.  Well enough to get into Indiana Medical School early decision, alongside my fiance.  I remember getting the acceptance letter on a day I was babysitting one of my chemistry professor's baby boys, and hugging little Kielin to me while I read the letter out loud.  "What do you think of that?" I asked him.  One of my friends walked by.  "Kim," she said, "you don't sound happy at all."

Happy was my writing classes, most of which were admission by application only.  Happy was writing a short story that contained a death, even though the professor had told us she didn't want to read short stories where people died,because no one our age could do it well, and having the whole class look at me with profound sympathy, afraid to critique my work at all, until I laughed and said, "This is fiction.  I made it up." and then having them all look really irritated, because they didn't think I could write like that unless I was writing about something that happened to me.

Happy was reading a revision of a picture book manuscript at the Hatfield meeting, and having Jane Yolen herself say, "Kimberly, you've fixed everything.  That's perfect."  It turned out not to be publishable, not quite, but it was perfect.  On the way home Barbara Goldin and Cornelia Cornelissum shot sideways glances at me.  One of them said, "Well, she certainly liked your stuff," and I giggled, because she did.

It was such a radical act, to think I could become a writer.  A person with no guaranteed income at all.  To think I could be published--who was I, to think that?  And yet I was reading a manuscript that met the proper form for a picture book, and I was revising it, and then I was sending it out to actual editors.  I was taking writing seriously.  It felt radical and defiant.  Also the only thing for me to do.

All my husband ever wanted to do was become an eye surgeon.  He's brilliant at it.  Medical school was his one true path and he followed it unerringly.

All I ever wanted to do was deserve my education.  Use my gifts.  And, in the end--this was the surprising part--be happy.

Just before I quit medical school, six weeks into my first semester, I said to my new husband, "I can stick this out.  I can manage four years."

He put his hand to my face and said, "And in four years, you still won't want to be a doctor, and you'll have wasted four years."

So I got a job to pay our bills, and in the evenings I wrote and wrote, and I never looked back, not once.  Also, I quit being afraid.