I get asked this question a lot. It’s one I stumble over, and if you read more than one interview or see me fielding this at multiple events, you’re likely to notice that I give different answers.
Early books that moved me were written by or about women I wanted to be. Joy Adamson, Dian Fossey, Babe Didrickson. If only there had been stories of women astronauts.
Granted, I discovered subtext at a very young age — George and Bess from the Nancy Drew mysteries — lesbians living in plain sight among their oblivious friends. And later, after seeing the movie adaptation of Lillian Hellmann’s The Children’s Hour, I picked up her memoir and found myself riveted to the story of Julia (also to become a film and later determined to have been purloined from someone else’s actual life).
Then came the real lesbians — a worn copy of Rubyfruit Jungle, the scandalous Sudden Death, and my favorite, Six of One. Rita Mae Brown’s books were such a wonderful, wicked indulgence.
Sometimes I name a book I wish I had the talent to write — Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible; or one so bold it stayed with me long after I finished, like AM Homes’s Music for Torching.
In 1984 I was teaching elementary school in a small Florida town. I got fired after moving in with a woman most folks knew was gay. There was no recourse because laws allowed discrimination against LGBT people, and my school system waved its “morals” clause at me. It was devastating. I eventually landed a job in another county, but acknowledged after a couple of years that I was constantly looking over my shoulder for the next set of daggers. I came to hate my job, to hate the small-mindedness that supposed me as a threat to children. But more than the stress that comes with paranoia, I began feeling isolated from more important matters. No one in the teachers’ lounge was talking about the urgent issues of the day — Chernobyl, famine in Ethiopia, the CIA meddling in Nicaragua. Or events that directly impacted the LGBT community — the AIDS epidemic, the Hardwick court case that upheld Georgia’s sodomy laws. I was reading three newspapers a day, soaking up all I could find about the state of the world. And I came to realize I stuck in someone else’s life. So I resigned with no idea what I’d do next.
Face it, most of us chose our first career when we were 19 and still stupid about the world. And also clueless about ourselves. I think I went into teaching because I’d always been a student and it was the only career I’d seen up close. In my search for self, I picked up What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job Hunters and Career-Changers. It wasn’t exactly a how-to; nor was it anything like the Kuder skills and interest test I’d taken in high school. It was a workbook crafted to help me envision myself in the perfect job. The exercises forced me to peel back the layers and identify aspects of the workplace that might be critical to job satisfaction.
A series of underlying questions helped me identify even minutiae that could matter in how much I liked my job. Some of it was self-image: What sort of clothes did I want to wear to work? What might my office look like? What would I do when I was working alone, and how did I want my coworkers to see me?
At the end of this workbook, I had most of the answers: What I loved most was figuring things out. I wanted a vibrant urban setting, but with the freedom to work everywhere, not in the same building day after day on a schedule someone else set. And not with 6-year-olds, or people who behaved like 6-year-olds. I wanted to explore how policies, events and messages affected people’s lives — and how best to share knowledge and understanding.
Unfortunately the book also made it clear that I wasn’t equipped to do any of that. I’d have to go back to school for intensive training, probably a PhD if I really wanted to persuade someone to hire me for that perfect job. By the time I finished I’d be 35 years old! But here was the clincher: I was going to be 35 anyway — did I want to be ready for a new career or not?
I did, so I threw myself into a new career plan. It took me eight years (not five) but eventually I landed my dream job: director of research at a Miami company that did political polling and market analysis. And from there I went on to start my own consulting business where I had the luxury of working only on projects that interested me.
I’m on my third career now, most certainly my last. Like the decision that took me from the classroom to the business world, becoming a writer was an upheaval. But thanks to this wonderful book, I gained the confidence to pursue whatever calls me. This is my tribute to Richard Bolles, who died on Friday at age 90. His book literally changed my life.