My working life is represented by 96 books sitting on my shelf, each one bearing my name. An accomplishment I do not hold lightly. These books have been written and published over the course of 40 years, and that bears mentioning, too. I have worked long and steadily.
I have made a living for 25 years doing work that I love. Note the discrepancy between publishing for 40 and making a living by that publishing for 25. It took me 15 years before I ever once, combining income from writing, teaching, lecturing, and speaking in schools, earned enough money to survive on my own. And keeping that living going after it finally reached that level has required a lot of cobbling, a lot of taking on varied writing projects (thus the 96 books), a lot of teaching, a lot of climbing onto airplanes, a lot of repeating myself in front of a sea of wiggly kids. But I did it. And I’m so grateful I could that there is hardly room left over for pride in the accomplishment of it.
Looking back I see intense hard work. Good work. Always good. And every bit as clearly I see serendipity. Winning a Newbery Honor Award in 1987 for On My Honor was a major example of serendipity. Winning any award requires serendipity. While it can be presumed that a book that garners an important award is pretty good, there will always be a dozen more books—perhaps 100—of equal value that year, books that didn’t happen to catch the award-givers’ eyes. So serendipity lay in the calling out of my book from the pack and it certainly lay in the timing of the call. The award announcement came just as I cast aside the safety net of a 28-year marriage.
With the award, I woke to find myself the flavor of the month. Doors were opened where I hadn’t even known there were doors. And I walked through them . . . walked and walked.
I never forgot serendipity, though, or assumed any special deserving. A fellow author traveling the speaking circuit once said to me, “If you begin to think these invitations/awards are important, just ask your hosts who they invited/awarded last year and watch them struggle to remember!”
All this is real and true, and all of it is history. The advantage of being, by anyone’s measure, an old woman is that so much falls away. So much of the need for attention. So much of the desire for my work to be seen as better than. . . . So much of the feeling that 96 books—or one book—matters very much.
Early in my career I came to understand something important: the number of books published, the number of awards garnered matters very little. What matters is the day-by-day process of sitting down to write, of honing my skill, of mining my truth.
If I didn’t always recognize that reality in those first moments of being on display, it came home emphatically in the years that followed. No correlation exists between the amount of time, the amount of love, I invest in a book and its success out there in the world. Books I have created in a couple of hours on a playful afternoon support me, year after year. Books I have labored over with passion and deep feeling, books that represent my highest effort and best work, can turn into smoke.
I have come to know that rewarding myself in the moment of doing by simply paying attention, enjoying, letting the words flow through me is the key to a good writing life, to a good life.
How grateful I am to be an old woman who rises every day to work, to good work.
That, I can promise you, my friends, matters.