For thirty years I was a lawyer, and part of that time I stared out the window and wished I was writing fiction instead. Now I’m writing novels. I feel like I’m doing exactly what I should.
Starting over as a writer wasn’t easy. I was a partner at a large San Francisco law firm, I had interesting clients and cases and matters, and it cash-flowed nicely. But we sometimes get to decide how we’ll spend our days, and none of us know exactly how many days we have left.
(Me starting a ski race, with my typical high enthusiasm-to-skill ratio)
A year after I left practicing law, while my debut novel Dessert First was under submission, I turned Simpsons-character orange and developed severe abdominal pains that were a symptom either of (1) an unusual blockage of a gall stone in a duct—fixable with surgery—or (2) an inoperable tumor from a kind of cancer that would kill me in a few months.
“We’re 90% sure,” my surgeon Dr. Moorstein said, while an orderly wheeled me into the operating room, “that it’s an unusual presentation of stones disease.” That is, a 90% chance of the good outcome.
Which meant a ten percent chance of Game Over.
Not so good.
I was lying flat on the gurney, and it was out of my hands then. When he cut me open, he’d find out which one it was. It would be nice if I had more time, I thought. My wife was in the waiting room, and my children, in their twenties, were back at home, entertaining our Christmas holiday guests while I went in for emergency surgery.
But if it was game over, I realized I was incredibly grateful that I got to write my novel before I died. I got to do what I’d always wanted to do. I was weirdly happy and at peace.
If you’re unexpectedly calm at the prospect of imminent death—even before they give you anesthesia—that might be a sign you’re living your life right. (Although a bilirubin count of over 25 cooking your brain into gray ceviche might also be a mood-contributing factor.)
In my hobby—downhill ski racing—the only perfect run is the one you haven’t started yet. Once you kick the start wand, it becomes a series of recovery moves from mistakes or imperfections.
(Some mistakes in racing are harder to recover from than others)
There’s something gloriously perfect about starting over. The almost limitless possibility. When you start something new, you learn things and you grow in new directions.
I was fortunate, when my surgeon cut me open, that he found piles of gallstones—not tumors--where they shouldn’t be. I got a second chance at life.
It’s good training for a writer to start over. The process of writing a particular book, if you’re lucky, will teach you how to write it. What it won’t do is teach you how to write the next book. The act of finishing something means starting over with something else.
And sometimes, you have to start over even sooner. I have set novel manuscripts aside, because I didn’t know enough yet to tell that particular story or because in its current form it wasn’t my story to tell.
Even if you are one of those blessed writers who never follows the false tracks of story into the box canyon of setback, in the uncertain book world you may have to start over professionally.
Your publisher will get sold to a larger company. Your editor will depart. Your agent will leave the agency she is with, orphaning your first book there, and declare on her new web site that she is “99.9%...not interested in” the kind of book you are now writing.
I know this, because it has happened to me.
And it’s glorious.
I love the new novel I’m writing, and I don’t have to answer to anyone but the story itself and the characters and their voices. I’m far enough along, with a beginning and an ending and a middle that I’m reshaping, so that it feels like a book, not just the narrative arc of a bridge I’m building out into fog with hope that I’ll reach land on the other side.
It will be the best thing I’ve written yet. Almost equally wonderful, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried, stretching my capabilities at craft and cutting deeply into subjects that are close to the bone for me.
That’s how we grow.
By starting over.
Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. He lives in Berkeley, California where he writes novels for young adults. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story … will be a hit with fans of John Green's and Jesse Andrews's .” Eleven months ago, in his fifties, Dean took up Aikido, because why not?