My First Time

Once upon a time, I was a secret writer.  Writing had been my passion for as long as I could remember.  But when I graduated from college, I knew I had to get a “real” job, as my father called it. (A “real job” is defined as one that pays, if not well, then at least every two weeks).  So I went into publishing.  What else would a secret writer do?  I wanted to be close to books, to the business of publishing.  But, at the time, I lacked the confidence to follow my true dream.  So, I wrote in the nooks and crannies of my life struggling to find time for pages on the train, in the morning before work, during particularly long and boring meetings.

My job kept getting bigger and bigger, and I spent less time on my writing.  But I had the idea that I would try to write for a local newspaper.  So I queried them – again, and again, and again.  I sent letters, pitched articles, and followed up with phone calls.

Finally, I think they got tired of the girl who kept calling, looking for work.  “I’ll write about anything,” I said.  And I meant it.  Maybe it was my tenacity, my charm, or just my obvious desperation, but I got my first assignment.  I was asked to attend and to write about the first Seder dinner for a group of Russian Jewish immigrants finally free to practice their religion upon arriving the United States. I was so nervous and excited that I threw up in the bathroom before leaving my apartment.

I didn’t hear anything from my editor after I turned my article in, and I didn’t dare call.  What if he hated it?  What if it got cut because I did such an awful job?  Then he phoned to tell me the piece was going to run the following Monday.  On my way to the office (my real job) that day, I raced to the newsstand.  And there it was — The Riverdale Press, and on page three, the article I had written.  I carried that paper down the sidewalk, staring at my name, my first byline in an actual paper.  I floated through that day.

I think they paid me $25.00.  I would have done it for free.  I wanted to write that badly.  And that moment — standing on street looking at my name in print — was the shift between dreaming and doing.  It was a small step, to be sure.  It was one article in a tiny neighborhood paper.  But it changed the way I saw myself, and how I saw the possibilities of my life.  It was the first moment that I felt like a real writer.

Of course, there have been other magnificently thrilling moments in my career – when I was signed on by agent, my first book contract, the first time (and every time) I held a newly minted bound book with my name on the jacket, the day I hit the New York Times bestseller list. And each of those moments occupies a special place in my heart.  But none so much as that first byline. Because the sight of my name typeset on the page made me believe, for the first time, that I wouldn’t be a secret writer forever.