Early on, when people would ask my kid self what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer “Shoe Salesperson.” But then I discovered that feet sometimes smell, and I moved on to a different dream: Book Writer.
I could invent a great story and tell you that I crafted a long-term plan to realize my dream. But instead, this is a tale of false starts and misdirected wanderings. Perhaps you’ll find it inspiring if you’ve made missteps on the way to capturing your own dream!
I wrote all the time as a kid—songs, stories, poems, comic strips. But I didn’t believe that anyone would pay me to do something I loved so much. And my first several jobs didn’t serve as models for fulfilling work: babysitter, fast food employee, cardboard box maker, school janitor.
That meant my expectations for the world of work, even after graduating from college, weren’t all that high. With no clear ambition other than “it would be great to get a job that didn’t involve scraping gum off desks”—a key feature of the school janitor job—I moved to Minneapolis, rented a drafty apartment with my cousin, and took on a series of uninspiring temp jobs. I wrote in my spare time, but my efforts went no further than my file cabinet.
Then one day I arrived home from my position as Forms Clerk (temporary) at an insurance company to find the first heat bill had arrived. It totaled over $800. And the insurance company had just offered me a job. That is the “carefully plotted” career trajectory that resulted in my position as Chief Forms Clerk (permanent)! But despite this meteoric rise, and my willingness to work very hard, I found I didn’t enjoy sorting forms. I started visiting the human resources department for guidance, and a very kind woman took me under her wing. She gave me a barrage of career assessment tests, then looked me in the eyes and said, “Lisa, I don’t think there IS a job in insurance that will make you happy.”
That HR person did me two great services. First, her notion that happiness might be a valid factor in job selection was a revelation to me. And second, she knew of the Denver Publishing Institute—an intensive summer course focusing on book publishing—and she recommended that I consider attending. A few months later I moved on from the world of insurance and attended the Denver program.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned there is that publishing houses are money-making enterprises. Publishing is a creative industry full of people dedicated to books and the written word, but it’s also a tough business. Very few people get rich off of books. Day after day at the Institute, publishing professionals came in to share the realities of working in the industry, and they’d all conclude by saying, “If you want to work really hard, make almost no money, and live in a roach-infested apartment in New York, this is the field for you!”
I was willing to take on everything other than the roaches. Fortunately I discovered there was a booming publishing industry in Minnesota, so I flew back home and began my sixteen-year career as a publishing employee. I worked with a lot of amazing people, both co-workers and writers, building relationships I still value highly. I reveled in being able to do work I was passionate about, despite the fact that the warning about low pay proved all too true.
Towards the end of those sixteen years, I celebrated a life-changing event: my first book was published. I believe it finally happened partly because I had continued to refine my writing skills, partly because I had learned what makes a book concept salable, and partly because I had built important connections in the industry. I am the opposite of an overnight success: it took me fourteen years working in publishing to get published myself!
Later, with another book in the wings, I decided to shift my focus from publishing employee to writer, and I started officially calling myself a Children’s Book Writer—a job I am proud to have now celebrated through many years and ninety books. I still don’t make very much money. I still work really hard. Sometimes I even get bored. But I love that I’m actually living my dream, and nobody expects me to scrape gum off desks.
I’m thinking that’s not too shabby for a little girl who once dreamed of selling shoes.