Monday, July 1, 2013

Had I But Known What I Knew from the Beginning

guest post by: Alison McLennan

I was three years old when I chose my career: “I’m gonna make books when I grow up, Mommy!” By age six I’d been accused of plagiarism (by a fellow first-grader; bogus charges, I tell you!). I authored my first adventure series as an eight-year-old—the riveting equine saga of ebony mustang Black Thunder and his pinto cohort, Lightning.

Throughout childhood I gulped books like water and exhaled stories as if to stay my pen would stop my lungs from breathing. Never once in my first eighteen years did I doubt my calling as a writer.

Sage Advice?

When I made the journey from Vermont to Pennsylvania for my orientation weekend at Messiah College, I had a plan. I would major in English, hone my creative writing skills, and fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a novelist. Easy-peasy.
The weekend included an advisory session with a faculty member of the English department—a stoic, bespectacled man I’d never met. He asked about my choice of major and plans for the future.
When I shared my aspirations of authorship, he sighed. “I’m sorry, but that’s unrealistic,” he said. “Novel writing is survival of the fittest. A very few great, and I mean really great writers make it as novelists, but for people like us it’s just a waste of time and effort. You need to prepare yourself for a feasible occupation. If you like to write, how about journalism?”
I tried to listen as he gave me the hard sell on a new career, but heard little over the sound of my heart ripping in two.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Crushed and humbled, I reluctantly took my advisor’s professional advice and switched my major. I joined the student newspaper. I studied the structure and style of newswriting. I tried not to cry.
I slowly, painstakingly learned the mechanics of journalism: just the facts, ma’am; cut out superfluous words; keep it short. I gained skill and proficiency, but never lost the sense that I was a square peg trying to cram myself into a round hole.
That sensation wasn’t helped by my professors’ expectations of the “journalistic personality.” A journalist needed people skills, boldness, spontaneity. Me? I was afraid of the telephone, uncomfortable in social situations, averse to all forms of conflict. If I had trouble ordering pizza, how was I supposed to cold-call a source? If I couldn’t bring myself to correct a waitress when she served me the wrong meal, how could I ask probing, provocative questions in an interview?

The New Me?

By sophomore year I’d found my bootstraps and given them a hearty tug. Fretting wasn’t getting me anywhere. If I was going to be a journalist, I might as well be a good one. That meant becoming someone else.
I signed up for a Myers-Briggs personality test and lied my way into being an ENFP (extroverted, fun-loving, go-getter). I forced myself to join the night owls even when my early-bird body begged for rest. I shortened my name from Alison to Ali. And instead of waiting for assignments from my newspaper editor, I went out looking for them.
My efforts, though psychologically questionable, paid off by earning me a fulltime internship with a music magazine in Nashville. I would spend the spring semester of my junior year in Music City dipping my toes in real-world journalistic waters, but first I had to complete a mandatory semester at Temple University in Philadelphia—an experience I approached with all the verve and excitement of a third-shift toll booth attendant.
To make the Temple semester bearable I signed up for a short story writing class. It would be worthless in the long run, I knew, but I couldn’t help myself. I lived for those few hours a week when pouring fiction onto paper made my soul sing.
On the last day of class my short story professor pulled me aside. “Can I ask why you’re studying journalism?” he asked. I hesitated, unsure how to answer. “You’re a creative writer, a storyteller,” he went on. “Don’t let that go to waste.”

Nashville or Bust

His words haunted me as I packed up and headed to Nashville for every journalism student’s dream opportunity. As I dashed around Music City conducting interviews, attending launch parties, and covering press conferences, I kept asking myself: is this really what I’m made for?
At the end of the internship the magazine editor offered me a job. “If you want to finish out your senior year back at college, I understand, but you’re welcome to stay. We’d love to have you.” It was everything I’d worked for.
I thought. I prayed. I cried. And then I turned it down, packed my bags, and returned to Pennsylvania. When asked why, I had no reason to offer other than, “It wasn’t for me.”


I graduated, floated between menial jobs, married, and eventually started a family. By that time I’d filed writing under the category Wishful Thinking.
Problem was, it wouldn’t stay there. Every few months the pressure would build. I’d grow restless and irritable. Characters, dilemmas, and scenes would swirl in my head until I sat down and purged my imagination. I felt relief, even hope, with each frenetic, key-tapping frolic. It was like watching a caged animal set free to run with abandon in its natural habitat.

But then I’d remember the cage. I’d remember that some animals are better off in captivity—those who can’t survive in the wild, who are small or weak, who don’t have what it takes. Survival of the fittest.
So I’d cage myself again. And again. And again.
And then, one day, I didn’t.


My husband was the one who put his foot down after listening to yet another diatribe about my vocational frustrations. “You’re a writer,” he told me. “Whatever does or doesn’t come of it, you need to write. It’s who you are. So do it.
I wish I could say it was an enchanted moment, that we were strolling along a lonely beach or star-gazing beneath a pixie-dust sky. The truth is I don’t remember where we were or what we were doing. I only know his words awakened something in my heart that whispered, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Had I But Known…

Whatever His purposes for doing so, God etched “writer” into my soul clay. The measure of my talent matters not—my usage of it matters immensely. I can add skills to my repertoire but I cannot change my foundational gift, nor should I.
Had I but known the intrinsic value of my divinely crafted nature, I wouldn’t have tried so hard to become a different person. I wouldn’t have forced my undeniably square peg into the round hole of someone else’s expectations.
And yet, had I known enough of myself to ignore my college advisor, I wouldn’t have learned to overcome weaknesses, step out of my comfort zone, or write as a matter of discipline rather than in whimsical response to a fickle muse.
My academic pursuit of journalism, though difficult and in some ways regrettable, made me a more versatile writer, a deeper thinker, and a stronger woman. That’s why I’m as thankful today for my college advisor’s questionable guidance as I am for my husband’s liberating encouragement.
I tried something hard, I succeeded, and I walked away. In succeeding at that which I didn’t really want, I recognized my failure to value and nurture my core being. In walking away, I rediscovered that which I’d been missing all along—the real me.
This I believe: we are all created for something glorious, each person crafted with unique gifts purposed to beautify the world and delight the soul. Even our weaknesses, when viewed through discerning eyes, point us to our strengths.
May we all have the vision to see them, and the courage to set them free.

Alison wrangles three children, one husband, and endless words from her rarely clean, always cozy home in Lancaster, PA. When she’s not chasing runny noses, ignoring the laundry, or eating obscene amounts of chocolate, you can usually find her lost in a good book or staring blankly at the computer screen. After dabbling in music journalism, book editing, and business writing, Alison has recently returned to her first literary love: fiction. She also writes about faith, adoption, hypochondria, and all things honest on her blog, If you want to say hi, she’d love to connect with you on Twitter (@AlisonJMcLennan) or Facebook(


And we now, on this Monday morning, have been already in the presence of beauty and brilliance. Thank you, Alison. You are an inspiration. May be all endeavor to pursue our dreams with such tenacity and live our lives with such honesty.

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  1. Praying for that discernment to view my weaknesses in a way to strengthen me. I think I know what I'm supposed to do, but so much selfishness and doubt gets in the way.
    Thank you for this encouraging post, every post of yours I enjoy. You do have a way with words that I may think in a fleeting moment, but could rarely recall to put on paper. I'm thankful for Tim's liberating advice and you the submissive, strong wife.

  2. what a great we could all learn from.

  3. God etched writer into my soul clay...I like that. Enjoyed your post :)

  4. Wow Alison - just wow. Thank you so much for that post (okay, really every post). Love, love, love! Your writing is so captivating - don't ever forget that. (and if you have any tips, please share!) :)


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