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August 4, 2010

Michelle Zink: Be Who You Are

Posted by Marisa Emralino

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Regardless of age, it's fairly easy to get caught up in what may be expected of you while putting your own ambitions on the back burner.  Just days after the release of her sophomore novel, GUARDIAN OF THE GATE, author Michelle Zink reflects on how --- with the help of a few simple words --- she was able to change her life for the better, while offering poignant advice on how we can all do the same.

Be who you are.

That’s what I write on the books I sign if I don’t know the person well enough to put a more personal message.

But the truth is; for me, it IS a personal message.

Maybe it’s because I spent years in a job I hated, despite the fact that I’ve always loved to read and write. As a teenager, I always had my nose in a book, and I totally turned out my share of angsty poetry and quite a few unfinished short stories.

But no one ever told me I could do it. That being a writer was within reach. I had no idea what a career as a writer would look like, which paths were open to me or how I’d get there.

So I went into business. It was straightforward. I understood it. Apply for an office job, secure said job, work your way. Even without my heart in it, I did well, rising to an executive level position by the time I was 29.

But I was unhappy. Deeply unhappy.

It wasn’t until I’d made a total break from my real life --- going so far as to move my whole family 3,000 miles to a teensy tiny town in upstate NY just because it was cheap and I could afford to live there without keeping my job --- that I realized what it was.

Writing. I was missing writing.

Once I found it again, it was like breathing. I didn’t know how I’d lived without it as long as I had. I spent three years writing 6-8 hours each and every day and turned out five books before Prophecy of the Sisters sold. I was determined to be a published career writer so I could write all I wanted. I told myself I would write as many books as it took, and was fully prepared to follow through even when other aspiring writers told me how impossible the odds were of ever making a living at it.

I guess it’s not an accident that the story in Prophecy of the Sisters involves one girl’s fight to be the person she believes she is instead of the person the prophecy --- and many of the people in her life --- tell her she is.

Now, when I talk to teenagers all over the country, "Be Who You Are" is my mantra.

And I want it to be yours, too, whatever your age.

I sometimes fear we are losing a whole generation of creative people. I talk to friends of my teenagers --- talented writers, artists, musicians --- who tell me they want to be accountants.

And I think, “No, you don’t.”

My guess is that a well-meaning someone has told them that because they’re good at math, they should be an accountant. Because they get good grades in history, they should be a teacher.

I understand. As a parent, I know how much we all want our children to be happy and successful.

But what if our definition of successful is all wrong? What if success isn’t a “stable” salary, good benefits, a big mortgage, and a $40,0000 car?

What if being successful is being HAPPY? What if it means waking up every day thrilled to spend your day the way you know you’re going to spend it? What if it means hoping you get to do the thing you do for a living every day until the day you die, instead of toughing it out until retirement, when your 40 years of hard work finally buys you ten years to do what you really want to do?

These are all rhetorical questions for me. I already know the answer.

Our version of success IS skewed. It’s evidenced by the millions of people who work at jobs they hate to pay their mortgages. Worst of all, we’re passing this message onto our children.

And I think it sucks.

So here’s what I say --- and this is to anyone at any age because I reinvented my life at age 30 and would do it again in a heartbeat if I felt the need.

Be who YOU are.

Not who people tell you to be. Not who they think you should be or believe you are.

Who. You. Are.

Have the courage to fight for yourself and what you want. It’s your life. You have to live it from beginning to end. As a young person especially, you have the power to design your life exactly the way you want it. Millions of people in the world spend their lives acting, making music, writing, creating jewelry, traveling. Whatever.

You can, too. And don’t let anyone --- ever --- tell you any differently.

Because when push come to shove I believe the secret to happiness, the real secret, isn’t in how much money you make, how big your house, how fancy your car.

The secret is to spend as many moments as you can experiencing the deep sense of fulfillment that only comes from doing something you love with your whole heart.

I wish you that kind of happiness.

-- Michelle Zink

Click here to view the book trailer for GUARDIAN OF THE GATE, and to read Michelle's previous Teenreads.com guest post, "Magic, Outlines, and Not Knowing."