The Conversation that Changed Me
Has someone ever said something that really stuck with you—opened your eyes, altered your thinking? Five writers reflect on the everyday exchanges that made immediate and lasting differences in their lives.
The chat that set me on the path from being a stay-at-home parent to being a published novelist involved a man I barely knew, lasted two minutes, and was mostly about the weather.
It was the mid-1990s and I was a young mother desperate to find a small creative outlet near my Brooklyn home to distract me from endless diaper changes and trips to baby-gymnastics class.
I tried gardening. I’m English, so I had always assumed I had a green thumb. I bought a lot of glossy gardening books, wandered through nurseries in a big hat, and discovered quickly that my only talent was for buying plants. My husband would come home and ask, “Why are there 42 pots of dead petunias on the patio?”
When that hobby failed, I joined a group of moms who brought the joys of modern dance to nursing-home residents. Most of the audience members were in wheelchairs and could not escape our energetically avant-garde performances. I had delusions of becoming a real dancer until one day at lunch when I ordered a large pastrami-on-rye sandwich, only to spot our lead dancer lunching on two aspirin and a diet soda.
Ballroom dance was no better. My husband and I proved we have four left feet between us—and I like to lead. However, one day I ran into a young man from that class, and he changed my life.
“Lovely weather, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. There was silence. We Brits don’t really have any conversational gambits beyond the weather, but I struggled and came up with: “So, do you have any plans for summer vacation?”
His face brightened at the chance to move on from mere pleasantries to a more thoughtful exchange. “Yes, I’m staying home to work on my screenplay.”
“Lovely,” I said. “But I thought you were an accountant?”
He muttered something about hoping to swap accounting for Hollywood, and I smiled—but inside I was angry with this young man who dared to waste his vacation scribbling in his lonely apartment. Not until I got home and drank a whole pot of tea did I calm down and realize that I too had always wanted to write, but had never felt qualified to do so.
I had put writers on a pedestal too lofty for mere mortals, but my brief talk with the writer-accountant inspired me to see that perhaps writing was no more impossible than fitting into a lavender leotard. The very next day, I took a deep breath and signed up for a workshop called “Beginner Fiction.”
Helen Simonson is the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand ($15, amazon.com). She lives in Brooklyn.