It was an honour recently to give a keynote talk at an awards ceremony at Exeter College.
‘You choose the topic,’ the administrators said.
Once at my desk, preparing a 20 minute talk or writing a book proposal looks the same: putting pen to blank paper is like a first-date between two meth addicts — a manic loquacity of ideas and free associating. (I’m not on meth, just to clarify.)
Convention would have yielded a talk on key traits needed for success in life. Steadfastness! Hard work! Nose to the grindstone! Pat and predictable talk. And a conflicted one, too. I only need look back and remember how hard I worked at their age. Squeezing two days in one, I was then and still am a workaholic. Talking about hard work did not appeal. It is essential to success, but not a guarantee.
I wanted students to be aware how a flipped script — the narrative we don’t first intend to take — may be the one we’re meant to follow and can be magical.
The night of the talk, I was introduced as a bestselling author. (But I didn’t deliver it in the crouching position of above — my effort at reducing 3 inches off my height.) After many mutual thank you’s, I told the audience of young grasshoppers and their parents how only a few months after landing on a coveted bestseller list, the glow still had not wanted. I opened my so-called scrapbook on a big screen to show them book tour mementos: lines of people across the USA waiting for me to sign their books, headlines praising The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, piles of books purchased before sold-out events, pictures with national politicians, fellow authors and media personalities, champagne receptions.
Exciting and heady stuff. But these are just the book cover, I told them.
The inside, background story was an ironic and difficult one. Sometimes success — depending on how each of us defines it — is not written with a predictable upward trajectory. More often than not, it is a circuitous two steps forward, one step back, three hops sideways. Sometimes what appears to be a detour or bad luck turns out, in time, to be our script to success.
My sideways steps, I told them, was moving to Devon ten years ago from my storybook life in Washington State. I left behind The Known for The Unknown: my family, friends, farm, job, country, culture and community. Everything.
I talked about how arriving in Devon felt like landing on the surface of Mars. People stopped in the streets to listen to my accent. As George W. Bush was still in office, people would coyly ask if I was from New Zealand or Canada or — once — even Spain. (“Your dark hair…”) Anywhere but the USA. I cried myself to sleep as whistles wafted across the valley from the Exeter St. David’s train station. And then there were years of acculturation: learning the difference between a courgette, zebra crossing and clotted cream. At my lowest, I plotted ways to move back to the United States with my three kids, leaving their father to figure out his own long-distant commute.
It is an understatement to say I arrived kicking and screaming in England.
Ten years later, a book that could only have been written from leaving the United States, hit The New York Times Bestseller list.
In what category? Travel.
Sometimes what seems like a detour from success is the one we’re meant to take, I suggested, feeling a bit pat. But it was true. As I look forward to teaching at Swanwick Writers’ next week, I think this lesson is also good for newbie and established writers to keep in mind. The greatest growth can happen when one door shuts and we’re searching for the next one to open.