24: How I Found My Calling

24: How I Found My Calling

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

How I Found My Calling

The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it.

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As I write this, my first book is going to press. I am sixty-five years old. Writing is my calling, and it had to call itself hoarse for fifty years before I answered it.

I hated English classes all through school. Why were we taught the same grammar, punctuation, and usage rules year after year? What could be more boring than diagramming sentences, conjugating verbs, and looking up words in the dictionary? By high school I did know that I liked to write, but I didn’t connect it to those classes. I took the yearly doses of English required for graduation without realizing I was good at it. Even in college I suffered through Study of the English Language and wore my pajamas — under a raincoat — to Contemporary Literature. My focus was Art.

I’d grown up in an alcoholic household and had not learned how to plan or how to complete a project. I felt lucky to be away at school, yet I hadn’t settled on what I wanted to do with my life. Though I’d done well in high school, my lack of discipline became painfully clear in college. If you’d seen lights on in the Art Department late at night back then, it would have been me, trying to finish all my paintings by morning.

I did my assignments at the last minute, but I did like writing papers for freshman English — even at one o’clock in the morning. In fact, I liked it better than Art. I found a niche with my writing, and a wonderful professor convinced me to change my minor from PE to English. I slowly discovered that I not only had a talent for putting words together, I loved the English language. I had a feel for the mechanics as well as the rhythm of words, and writing made me happy. But I still had work to do before I found my true path.

I agreed to write a lengthy research paper with another English professor as my advisor. It was an honors project to be completed as independent study, and my grade would be A, B, or F. After I handed the paper in, the professor returned it with a single comment at the top indicating that my approach to the topic did not work. In other words: Start over. I was humiliated, and on top of that I didn’t know how to dig in and fix my paper. My motivation drained away, and I gave up. I’d been offered the honors course because I was a good student, and now I’d earned an F. I felt the sting of failure, even though the grade was never turned in.

After college I worked as an English teacher and then as a newspaper reporter, in addition to a brief career in commercial art. In 1978 I moved to Cincinnati, unaware that a coal strike was in progress and jobs were scarce. I worked in a box factory and a figure salon before stumbling into a job as a textbook editor. By the time I settled into educational publishing at age thirty-three, I knew that I had found a profession that fit, and I stayed thirty years.

In my fifties I began to think about retirement and a second career. I’d grown up in the hills of West Virginia and hadn’t exactly seen the world. I still enjoyed writing and had been keeping a journal for several years. Why not become a travel writer? I was divorced and living alone since my son was grown. Travel writing seemed perfect.

And then I got promoted at work. My new job as Acquisitions Editor involved traveling all over the United States to meet with authors and educators. What could be better as I prepared for my new phase of life? I reveled in seeing new places, always taking the time to tour each city: Memphis, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Antonio, and Seattle; Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York City, and more. Most often I would take a bus tour. I began keeping notes when I traveled, so that I could practice writing about my trips. That was how I learned that I didn’t want to write travel guides. Someone else would have to compile the hard facts for tourists; I knew it wasn’t my calling.

I read books about travel writing and even found a summer course at the University of Minnesota. I became a fan of the travel essay. That was what I would write!

After a few years in my new job, the cities began to repeat, but that wasn’t the game changer — it was this: I developed a fear of flying and came to dread every trip. I was in agony as soon as the plane started roaring down the runway. After I opened my eyes, I spent the time in the air looking at my watch, looking at the map in the back of the flight magazine to see where we might be, and looking at my watch again. The slightest bump would make my heart pound in terror; any new noise would activate dark thoughts like the scene in Goldfinger when Oddjob was sucked out of the cabin through a hole.

What would be the career trajectory of a travel writer who hated to fly?

I did long to go to Europe. I hadn’t had the opportunity as a young woman, and there was one country I particularly wanted to see: not England, not France, not Italy — but Romania. I’d always loved Dracula and wanted to see the rugged landscapes and castles of Transylvania. Romania could be the setting for my first travel book! Even before I’d seen it, I knew I had the passion to write about Dracula’s land. It was an outgrowth of my childhood passion for horror movies. I set out at age fifty-nine and endured ten thousand miles of flying to get to Bucharest and back. I spent nearly three weeks touring Romania with a guide and took thirty-six thousand words of notes. My career writing travel essays was surely launched; all I’d have to do was make sense of my trip notes.

That was the understatement of the year. My trip notes required major massaging, but that wasn’t all. My travels in Romania had triggered memories of home and my childhood with an alcoholic mother. What began as a travel book developed into a memoir as I connected my past with the legend of Dracula. As I wove the two stories together, I revisited my past and began to see it in a different light. The result has been newfound peace and happiness.

It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me took five years to complete. By the time it’s published in a few months, I’ll be sixty-six.

This is my calling: writing my memoir and now the one I’m coauthoring with my brother. My life is exciting. I’m finding adventure in every new phase of being an author; and what I think of, as I close this piece, is the question that I have often seen posed in advice columns about anyone who considered or accomplished something new late in life: How old would you be if you hadn’t done it?

~Jane Congdon

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