When I was a sophomore, I lived in the attic of a dilapidated house on the corner of Brown and Meeting Streets. Our quarters were cramped and dusty, ripe with the smells of marijuana, body odor, and cumin. (For still unknown reasons, my roommates loved to cook with cumin.) Not surprisingly, I spent a significant amount of time that year out on my fire escape—reading, contemplating, or just gazing out over the Pembroke campus.It was while looking out over this bucolic scene of gabled roofs and tree-lined greens that I composed my first published essay, a Student POV for the BAM entitled "A Writer's Life." It recounted my experience working as a caterer for readings put on by the creative writing program. I imagined a future in which I would be on the other side of the lectern.
"In my musings," I wrote, "I am a shining star in the literary sky. My books ... are read in college literature classes and chosen for Oprah's Book Club. I wear slick suits one day and a Hawaiian shirt with jeans the next.... I give readings drunk. I teach class drunk. I pretend to be drunk when I'm not and cancel appointments for no reason. Everyone still loves me."
As I read these words ten years later, it's hard not to cringe. And yet not a day goes by that I don't thank my former self for dreaming big. In February, HarperCollins published the novel I began writing a few months after graduation, The Oracle of Stamboul. It tells the story of a little girl who becomes an advisor to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire and winds up changing the course of history.
So I think I can legitimately call myself a writer now. But my life these days doesn't much resemble the writer's life I once imagined. I do my best to drink in moderation, I try to keep my appointments, and the last time I wore a Hawaiian shirt was at my uncle Herb's Hawaiian-themed wedding. I wonder sometimes whether my former self would be disappointed by the quiet seclusion of my writer's life, the long hours I spend in front of the computer, still in my pajamas, dreaming about long-ago empires while the second cup of coffee goes cold. What's the point of being a writer, my old self might say, if you're just sitting there in your pajamas?
I admit, too, that I sometimes still muse about living a life in the fast lane. I fantasize about canceling appointments for no reason and showing up to readings drunk. But when it comes down to it, I couldn't be happier with my writer's life. I feel blessed to wake up every morning, make my coffee, and sit down in front of the proverbial blank page.
Yes, writing can be hard and tedious work, and I have spent hours staring at the wall in front of me, searching for that perfect word or phrase. I have also spent months revising and polishing a manuscript, only to throw it out in the end. Still, there is no work I would rather be doing. And in the past ten years I have realized that it is the work of writing that matters, not the slick suits and Hawaiian shirts.
Former BAM intern Michael David Lukas writes at his desk in Oakland, California.
Illustration by Emory Allen.