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Patricia C Behnke

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How I Became a Freelance Writer
By Patricia C Behnke
Sunday, February 20, 2005

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My first forays into the writing world resembled nothing of my fantasies.

I dreamed of sitting hunched over a manual typewriter, cigarette in my mouth, whiskey glass on the table next to me, words flowing onto the paper. That image remained with me even though I quit smoking and discovered that whiskey fed a hangover, not the muse. And the image remained even though the typewriter of my fantasies sits only in museums.

All I ever wanted to do was write, but I kept that knowledge to myself as I went to college and then became a teacher. Each summer I would pretend to be a writer. I might write a chapter on a novel, or I’d write an essay, but I never continued once I went back to the classroom with teenagers who I attempted to turn into Hemingways.

For a decade that unfinished novel lurked in a file cabinet staring at me reproachfully whenever I reached into the drawer. Like the romantic images of the writer, my novel sat enticing me until a wise man said to me, “It’s time to quit making excuses for not writing, and just do it if that’s what you want to do.”

I pulled out the abandoned novel, stopped making excuses, and I began to write.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. The words came sometimes painfully, or sometimes faster than my fingers could type. Thank goodness I had given up the dream of working with a manual typewriter. Within two months I had a complete novel, and within the year, a publisher.

I had no dreams about the next step in the writing world. My publisher told me that I needed to get out there and sell my books.

I went to Ann Arbor, the largest city near the setting of my novel. I began pounding the city pavement in my high-heeled sandals carrying a large brief case loaded with books and press releases.

“You should have just stayed home,” the first bookstore owner said. “If you aren’t famous nationally, you need to be at least well-known in this town. We’re used to famous people here in Ann Arbor. Getting started with your first book is nearly impossible.”

I shifted my briefcase to the other shoulder and entered bookstore number two.

“Who did you say you were again?” the manager asked. “What did you say you wrote?”

“Oh, we only book famous authors here. We get quite a few in Ann Arbor. But maybe we’ll order your book for a little local color.” She smiled.

My head began to hang just a little lower, my feet ached, and my briefcase became a burden, but I continued on my quest.

“I wouldn’t possibly be able to generate enough publicity before July to have you here for a signing. Now if you were famous. . .”

Why did everyone insist on telling me I wasn’t famous? Would a famous person be walking around a hot city lugging a twenty-pound briefcase and wearing sandals made for a wedding reception?

“Look, there’s someone who’s not famous,” I imagined customers whispering as I dragged my briefcase out the door. I had no strength left to put it on my shoulder.

But I continued my quest and arranged for ten book signings, and tried to remember the image of myself as a writer. I just wanted to sell a few books and come home with a few newspaper clippings, which I did.

I came home to reality. Even though I could now call myself a writer, I still had to face the classroom when school began in the fall of 2000. Getting up in the morning became the hardest part of my day, except on Saturdays and Sundays, when I entered my private sanctuary where the dream of my weekday life became the reality of my life as a writer.

I would rush home from school during the week to write my second novel. Two local newspapers hired me to write human-interest pieces and a column. I spent my days yearning to be away from the teaching life I had known for 17 years. I even wrote during the day at school and resented every minute I had to spend on something not related to writing.

I considered the possibility of leaving my position. My husband and daughter encouraged those thoughts because they could see the difference between the writer and the teacher, and they preferred the writer. But stability pulled me down and kept me doing something I hated.

Then on January 26, 2001, I received a call from a fellow teacher and the parent of one of my students. His son, who I had been considerably worried about in recent months, had attempted suicide the day before by swallowing 400 Tylenols. His life hung in the balance as he remained in a coma for three weeks. He eventually recovered, but it was his near-death experience that finally gave me courage to do what I knew I needed to do.

I gave notice that in June I would leave teaching to begin writing full time. My principal asked me to just take a leave of absence. He remained certain that I would change my mind since I had been a successful teacher. I knew he was wrong, but I did as he requested and took a one-year leave of absence. In the months leading up to leaving, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to swing it. Maybe I was being premature; after all we had a daughter in college, and now we would have to pay our own health insurance. All those stability questions haunted me. But then June came, and I left teaching. I worked all summer for the local papers and several magazines. By September my monthly income equaled what I had been making as a teacher. But even if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have cared because something miraculous had occurred.

I woke up every single day eager to begin work. I walked into my study and wrote all day long. And when the confines of the four walls became claustrophobic, I could leave and conduct an interview.

After seven months of freelancing, I gave up the leave of absence and quit officially. Again my principal urged me to reconsider. “Don’t do it if you have one ounce of doubt.”

And I could say with not even a milligram of doubt, that I am a writer. I still dream, but the dreams seem within reach. I dream of writing fiction every day, no longer on a manual, with a cigarette and whiskey, but on my sleek new laptop, with a scented candle burning and chamomile tea steaming next to me.

And in the meantime, I revel in my days as I report on crooked politicians, bright students, and teacher salaries. I attend art openings, banquets, receptions, and festivals proudly displaying my press pass. The vision of a writer occupies my days and leaves me with the satisfaction that I live my dreams.

Nothing remains impossible for me to reach because all I ever wanted to do was write.

       Web Site: Patricia C. Behnke

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Reviewed by E.D DeLoach 6/27/2007
This story is music to my ears. I no longer have the fear to write full time.
I will continue untill i'm publised; I'm not ready to be famous yet.
I'm also glad you mentioned your struggle to sell the books on your own and not give up. When it becomes my turn I will wear flats and carry a back pack. Thanks
Reviewed by Darlene Myers 8/25/2006
So full of encouragment! I want to write but have been afraid. You give me hope and encouragement to take that step. Thanks.

Reviewed by Malcolm Watts 7/6/2006
Nice personal piece. I too am going to be taking that leap next summer when I retire. Malcolm Watts
Reviewed by Tami Ryan 2/22/2006
Woo hoo! You encourage me, thanks!

Reviewed by den 11/17/2005
They say a writer has to find themselves, their style, their voice. You found yours and it didnt include the whiskey glass! Very good! Truely enjoyed!
Reviewed by Manes Pierre, Ph.D. 8/12/2005
Inspiring and moving! As a fellow teacher, I have entertained those thoughts. Maybe one day, I will follow your footsteps.

Thank you for the inspiration.


Manes Pierre
Reviewed by m j hollingshead 2/22/2005
enjoyed the read
Reviewed by Henry Stevens 2/20/2005
HI Pat, Thanks for this essay. I'm sure many people would wish they could do what you have done. Good Luck
Reviewed by Judy Lloyd 2/20/2005
I am glad that you did indeed make it and it makes me wonder where did you start with your freelancing as I do want to improve my skills and have it pay off as well.

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