It was early Sunday morning, and the rain-slicked Pacific Coast Highway was relatively empty. Luckily, there were few cars coming over the hill behind me when I hit that pool of water and put my car into a ninety-degree tailspin, jettisoning me toward the guard rail and the deep blue sea.
I’d left my home in Santa Barbara that morning, my fiftieth birthday, to drive the ninety miles south for a class in a certificate program at UCLA. I’d made a career decision to finally use my love of words and skill in language to earn my living and get a TESOL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) certificate. Until then, I’d mostly had jobs, toiling in various industries as secretary, administrative assistant (glorified secretary), editorial assistant (glorified secretary in a publishing company), medical editor (grunt), etc.—never, ever approaching my full potential, whatever that was.
I knew it had something to do with teaching, as I’d earned a master’s degree in Teaching of English from Columbia University eons ago but never taught. It also had to do with writing, but writing what?
Was it a lack of confidence, opportunity, or imagination that kept me from living my dream? I don’t know. I just know I was fifty and unfulfilled.
A Door Opens into the Book World
A few months prior, a friend from high school had approached me with an offer I was quick to turn down.
“Come on,” she pleaded. “You were always the best writer in English class—you can do this!”
The “this” she was referring to was my writing her book about a major scientific discovery she’d made, a book that publishers were in a bidding war over because she’d discovered how endorphins work in the brain—those happy chemicals that formed the basis for a new paradigm in brain-body communication.
“Get yourself a real writer,” I heard myself saying. “I’ve never written a book and wouldn’t know where to start.”
But she wouldn’t take no. “I’ve got a manuscript that a writer started but never finished. You could start there, and you could interview me for the rest. . . .”
I dug in my heels. “You’ve got advances from publishers in the six figures, and that terrifies me. They want a best seller, and . . . by the way, did you hear me? I’ve never written a book before!”
“All the publishers want is a book proposal,” she persisted. “We could put that together in a weekend.”
I had to admit, the tale of how one woman bucked the old boys’ network in the medical establishment to run an experiment that not only revolutionized brain science in the last quarter of the twentieth century but ushered in the mind-body paradigm that put alternative medicine on the map would make a great book. The kind of book I’d love to read! But me come on the project as the writer?
A Turning Point—In More Ways Than One
And then there it was, on my fiftieth birthday, that big, blue Pacific, rising up before me as my car careened wildly out of control, heading straight for my watery death. No, my life didn’t flash before me, but something happened as I faced what looked like my inevitable end, and I heard the words, loud and clear: Don’t die with your song still inside you!
At the same time, another inner directive surfaced, this one coming from way back in time, my driver’s education instructor: Turn into the skid! Luckily, I acted, and as I did, my car came to a dead stop, averting the plunge—but leaving me sitting on the highway pavement at the bottom of a hill, the perfect target for traffic racing over the top. Dazed, I jumped out of my car, only to jump back in again, and with seconds to spare, I drove out of the lane and onto a shoulder leading to an exit ramp that conveniently showed up.
Safely off the highway, I pulled into the first parking lot I could find and sat contemplating my incredible scrape with death. As I did, the offer I’d turned down to work on my friend’s book came into focus. “Damn, of course I’ll do it,” I said out loud. And then the deeper truth: It’s what I’ve been waiting to do my whole life but was too afraid I’d fail.
I could no longer justify saying no. I might have died with my song still inside me. And I knew it.
Finally Using My Talent with Words
Six months later, the best-selling Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Dr. Candace Pert was submitted for publication by Simon and Schuster, and a year later, 1998, I walked into a Barnes & Noble and got the thrill of a lifetime, seeing the hardcover book sitting on the front shelf. MOE (as we came to affectionately call it) became a best-selling book that is still in print today, telling not only the science behind the movement of mind-body medicine, but also the inspiring story of a woman’s triumph in science.
It was the beginning of my career as a book editor, ghost writer, and coach for authors that has grown over the years to supplant my many boring jobs, even a teaching career that I did part-time for the next twenty years. Today I’m a full-time freelance book editor, working directly with authors whose books make a difference—my favorite kind.
Life is short, but it’s never too late to live your dream. When are you going to say yes to your special gift with words and embrace a career that lets you sing your song? You may not get the same lucky break I did, but there are other opportunities just waiting for you to move on. Go ahead, give yourself permission to be who you are.
Say yes, and start living your dream.