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In the summer of 1969, I was home from college between my freshman and sophomore years. I was 18 years old.
One afternoon, I sat down at the family dining room table with a Smith-Corona typewriter and began to write a short story.
I hadn’t contemplated writing a short story prior to that moment. In fact, I rather despised writing. A 10-page paper assigned in freshmen-level English was a rather formidable and grueling experience.
Moreover, I wasn’t a very good writer. My prose was straight-forward and clear, but rather unremarkable. My writing had very little spark or glitter. Not a single English professor of mine would have proclaimed, “This guy’s got talent.”
Something struck me at that moment in my life, though, and from that moment on, I never stopped writing. Throughout the next 12 years, as an undergraduate and graduate student and then a college professor, I cranked out dozens of short stories, a novella, a novel, and even a college textbook. I wrote in my spare time, on weekends and evenings.
I don’t know what compelled me to launch my writing career that fateful day between my freshman and sophomore years, or why I continue to write with passion more 30 years later, other than a sheer love of language and a fervent didactic impulse — a strong desire to teach.
I took writing classes as an undergraduate and was known by my fellow students for my prolific nature.
Despite my passion for writing, I pursued a practical course of study in college. I studied chemistry, biology, and physics, in addition to as much English and as many writing courses as I could shoehorn into my busy schedule. What propelled me to follow a practical course of study?
It was my father’s advice, “Be an engineer, a doctor, or a chemist.” In other words, follow a conventional — and very certain — path to success. What he wanted most was for me to become a doctor.
After my undergraduate education, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in reproductive physiology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Despite an extremely heavy course load — I took numerous courses alongside the medical students for nearly two years — I continued to write.
Any spare moment I had, I wrote.
I still wasn’t very good at it, but I was getting better. What is more important, I never stopped writing and continually improving my craft.
After graduating with my Ph.D., I was accepted to medical school. I chose not to go. I knew that although I was intrigued by human medicine, I wanted more out of life.
I accepted a research and teaching position at the University of Colorado in Denver. There I taught reproductive physiology, cell biology, microanatomy and other classes. At night and on weekends, I continued to write.
At the beginning of my fourth year of teaching, it was evident to me that I wasn’t fulfilling my calling. I knew that, to be true to myself, I had to pursue my passion for writing, As a result, I applied for a leave of absence from the University. The dean and my department chair granted me an one-year unpaid leave, but as the day approached, I got cold feet. The cautious voice inside my head said, “What the hell are you doing? What are you going to live on? How will you survive? What if you fail?”
Panicked, I applied for a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School to study the impacts of pollution on human health, a topic I was very interested in. There were 150 applicants for the position, so I was thrilled when I was chosen.
My advisor also suggested I enroll in the masters degree program in public health. So, I did.
How cool was that, a master’s degree and a post-doctoral fellowship from Harvard Medical School?
At the end of the academic year, I packed my car and headed to Boston, secure in my future, once again.
The first day of class, I took the light rail to the campus, walked to the classroom where I was going to take a course required for my master’s degree — one essential for my research, too.
I arrived early but the classroom was already full. Posted outside the classroom was a sign directing students to another room where they could view the lecture on closed-circuit TV.
Something struck me at that moment. I suddenly realized that I had done it again. I had forsaken my dream of becoming a writer for the security of a regular paycheck.
With resolution and hardly a penny in my pocket, I headed back to the house where I was staying, packed my car and my golden retriever, and headed back to Colorado.
There, I rented a beautiful, spacious cabin in the mountains. I immediately re-wrote my first novel, Here Stands Marshall, and started sending it to publishers for their consideration.
During that year, I hammered out numerous short stories and two more novels, Welcome to the World Insane and Song of the Coyote.
When the novels were polished to my satisfaction, I began sending them to publishers, but to no avail. Unfortunately, publishers were not as impressed with my work as I was.
In that year, I received a steady stream of rejections slips. Undeterred, though, I continued to write, day after glorious day, at a table cabin that peered out over the majestic Rockies.
During that first year, I lived sparingly — on about $300 per month, half of which paid my rent. Although I was as close to broke as a person could be, but I was amazingly happy.
I had stopped living an incongruent life.
After 13 years of living someone else’s safe dream, I had begun pursuing mine.
Finally, I was listening — and heeding — the voice inside my head.
And my life changed drastically.
I’ve been writing now professionally for 32 years, and though, there were some extremely lean years, I’ve never looked back with regret.
To this date, I’ve published 30 books, a novel, and hundreds of articles, all thanks to persistence, a desire to continually improve my craft, a belief in myself, and, most important, adherence to the voice inside my head.
You can build a successful life, too, if you listen to the voice inside your head, the inner voice that knows what’s best for you — who you are and what you really want out of life.
At a very early age, my inner voice knew how crucial writing was to my happiness; it just took me 13 years to listen to the voice and have the courage to step out of the safe rut I had created.
I wonder: What’s your inner voice saying to you?
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Contributing editor Dan Chiras is a renewable energy and green homes expert who has spent a lifetime learning life’s lessons, which he shares in his popular blog, Dan Chiras on Loving Life. He’s the founder and director of The Evergreen Institute and president of Sustainable Systems Design. Contact him by visiting his website or finding him on Google+.