March 1, 2019 Brian Allain

What Does the Writing Life Require? Hard Work and Patience.

Ten years ago, I was a secretary.

I sat at a desk all day and smiled, welcomed visitors, and answered questions. The work was not mentally difficult. It was both big-picture and detail-orientated, visionary and practical. I learned transferrable skills—like programming, planning, logistics, and finance. I had supportive supervisors and worked amid a loving and good community with an important mission. But every afternoon, I snuck away from my desk to cry.

I had a job. I had insurance. I worked with amazing colleagues. What was wrong with me?

I didn’t want to be a secretary; I wanted to be a writer.

I knew how I’d gotten to that desk. After earning two prestigious degrees and landing a post-divinity school clinical pastoral education residency, I’d served as a hospital chaplain for twelve months. Neck-deep in secondary trauma, I had carried patients’ stories—their lives and deaths. After a year of swimming through other people’s crises, I needed steady ground.  So, when my alma mater posted an opening for a desk job, I leapt at the opportunity.

But nearly a month in, the comfort of a stable nine-to-five job turned into a daily existential crisis: What was I doing here? What was my purpose? Why was I not doing what I really wanted to do with my life?

I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer since I could hold a pencil. I was too young to form complete sentences, but I longed to create beauty. Between childhood and adulthood, those creative dreams dissolved into worries about what was employable. I knew I needed to attend college, major in something useful, graduate, and earn a salary.

Being a writer, I’d been told, was not a realistic career path. So I’d opted for safety—and, therefore, misery. Then, a candid professor and mentor encouraged me to turn my tears into work. She urged me to embrace my boring, stable desk job as an opportunity to use my mornings, evenings, and weekends to build my next life.

I bought a composition notebook and wrote, “J. Dana Trent, Freelance Writer,” on the cover. When I wasn’t at my desk job, I spent hours at bookstores, studiously scribbling notes on those pages from Writer’s Market. I studied genres, publishers, agents, and outlets. I pored over acknowledgments to glean where authors had been and how they’d made their way. I wanted to follow their bread-crumb trails. I quit being shy. I reached out to people who were doing what I wanted to do. I bought them coffee and sought their wisdom. Slowly the next steps emerged.

With help from that tribe of mentors, I landed two short articles in my school’s magazine. I hustled; I wrote book reviews and attended book launch parties. Though my path was long and winding, it brought me here: I’m now the author of three books, with a fourth coming out in late 2019.

Scholars say that it takes 10,000 hours to master a craft or roughly ten years of “practicing” something—perhaps as a hobby, gig, or passion project.

“Patience is a virtue,” my mother used to say. “Patience is a requirement,” I now add.

Ten years ago, I was a secretary. Now, I’m a writer.

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The Rev. J. Dana Trent is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and professor of World Religions and Critical Thinking at Wake Tech Community College. An ordained Baptist minister and former hospital chaplain, she has been featured on Time.comReligion News Service, Religion Dispatches, as well as in Sojourners and The Christian Century. Her fourth book, Dessert First: Beginning with the End in Mind, releases in September 2019 from Chalice Press. It chronicles lessons on life, death, and grief from the bedsides of the dying, including her mother. Dessert First illumines what dying teaches us about living.

Dana is also the award-winning author of books on wholistic wellness and multi-faith spiritual practices: One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation, For Sabbath’s Sake: Embracing Your Need for Rest, Worship, and Community, and Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. She is a certified group fitness instructor and teaches for the YMCA. She and her husband, Fred, are longtime vegetarians and live in Raleigh, NC, with their orange tabby cat.