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Have you ever said, “To hell with it!” and abandoned your dream? Jen Zeman did when she was rejected by her top-choice design school. Today, she talks with us about the impact of that decision and the steps she’s taking to reclaim the dream she turned her back on twenty years ago. Welcome, Jen!

Beyond the Gray: Tell us about yourself and your dream. 

Jen Zeman: My name is Jen Zeman (née Montalbano) and I currently reside in little ol’ Rising Sun, Maryland (located in the northeast corner of the state). I’m 39 years old and I work full-time for the U.S. Army and have been there for the past five years. It pays well but it’s boring and unfulfilling, and a far cry from what I really wanted to be growing up. My dream is to become a full-time author and artist…where I should have been twenty years ago.

My dream to have an artistic career goes back to elementary school. I was always a talented artist who, every now and again, would come up with a crazy short story or two (the most memorable being about a furry, motorcycle riding, make-believe “glurrble” for my fourth grade class). My head was always in the clouds. By high school, I wanted to become a fashion designer. When I wasn’t accepted into Parsons School of Design in New York (which happened to be the only school I applied to), I immediately decided to hell with them; to hell with art. And with that one decision, I entered the 9-5 workforce and have been there ever since.

BTG: Tell us about a time you found yourself in “the gray”. How did you move beyond it?

JZ: After receiving my bachelor’s degree in 2005 (in legal studies, of all things) and obtaining the job with the government in 2006, something started to stir within me. I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 14, my aunt, who was like a surrogate mother to me, to breast cancer in 1999, and my dad passed away from lung cancer the August after I graduated college. I was lost. I was miserable. I started to wonder how I got to this place in my life, far from where my dreams wanted me to be. I no longer had the desire to flow with the status quo and couldn’t fathom sitting in a cubicle doing God-awful boring work for the next ten, twenty, thirty years.

I started thinking about writing a memoir, and after some encouragement from a close friend, I did. It was gut wrenching at times, but I rediscovered my love of writing. After unsuccessfully pitching the memoir to agents, a few of the agents (and my editor) said I had a good young adult voice and should consider turning the memoir into fiction. At first I was reluctant, but one day I sat down to write a fictionalized version and never looked back.

BTG: Tell us about the fictionalized version of your memoir.

JZ: I took the storyline of the memoir and created a paranormal story I personally thought was kick-ass. Unfortunately, agents didn’t see it the same way. I didn’t get a single bite of interest, whereas with the memoir, agents were at least asking for partials and a few asked for the whole manuscript. I realized after a trip into Barnes & Noble, staring at the YA paranormal books (the rows, and rows, and rows of paranormal books), that my story wasn’t as original as I thought. Note to self: listen to the agents; they know what they’re talking about!

So, I’m now on my third version of the manuscript feeling more confident about it. I’m concentrating on the YA market, particularly contemporary fiction. I’m finished with paranormal! This third version of my story runs parallel to my memoir, but I loved my characters from the paranormal version so much, I brought them over to this story. The paranormal version was a whooping 86,000 words (which was most likely another turn-off for agents), so I’m going to try to keep this version at around 65,000 words.

I’m also starting to get back into drawing and painting and concentrating on calligraphy. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed art!

BTG: How does calligraphy fit into your dream?

JZ: The calligraphy is an extension of the art I want back in my life. I always loved to create my own alphabets when I was in high school, so I figured it would be cool to pick it back up. Plus, becoming a calligraphist would be another way to bring in money while also being creative.

BTG: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced while chasing this dream and how did you overcome it?

JZ: The biggest challenge by far is time, or lack thereof. Having a full-time job outside the home only gives me a limited amount of hours to myself. I also have a house to manage, two dogs who love attention, chores, errands, and a husband who likes to spend time together. So the challenge has been carving out hours specifically for my writing and my art. It hasn’t been easy. I finally came up with allotting four hours to myself on Saturday and Sunday (and the same for my other days off) and this has been working really well.

BTG: What is your biggest fear and how do you overcome it?

JZ: My biggest fear is losing sight of my dream because of all the craziness around me. I overcome this by meditating for 15 minutes each morning and maintaining my running and weight training. Both give me tremendous focus and allow me the recalibrate my mind.

BTG: What inspires you?

JZ: I’m hugely inspired by artists of all genres who, despite the odds against them, made it through and are now living their dreams. I always keep in the back of mind: if they can do it, so can I.

BTG: If you could give one piece of advice to someone else who is struggling to follow a dream, what would it be?

JZ: Don’t give up, ever! Listen to yourself, not everyone else around you. Naysayers are only there to drag you down with them; rid yourself of them immediately!

Are you following a dream? If so, I’d love to hear from you!
E-mail me at: erika [dot] liodice [at sign] hotmail [dot] com

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You never know future the holds. Alan Paul certainly didn’t when he encouraged his wife, Rebecca, to accept a promotion that would relocate their family halfway around the world, from Maplewood, New Jersey to Beijing, China. For Alan, it was a giant leap into the great unknown, but what resulted was an adventure beyond his wildest dreams. In addition to writing “The Expat Life” column for WSJ.com, he formed a blues band – Woodie Alan (named for himself and his Chinese bandmate, Woodie Wu) – that went on to win Beijing’s band of the year. If that’s not enough excitement for one lifetime, today Harper Collins is releasing his memoir about the experience!

Needless to say, I’m ecstatic that Alan was able to take time out of his busy schedule to stop by Beyond the Gray and share his exciting story with us…

Beyond the Gray: Tell us about yourself. What is your dream and how are you working towards it?

Alan Paul: I’m Alan Paul of Maplewood, New Jersey. I’m the author of the newly released memoir, Big in China (Harper Collins) about my adventures raising a family, playing the blues and becoming a rock star in Beijing. Before that, I wrote “The Expat Life” column for WSJ.com and was a senior writer for Guitar World and Slam magazines.

I’d have to say, I am living my dream right now. I always wanted to write a great book and if I may say so, I feel like I have done it. Today marks the release of my book. Of course, I hope that a lot of people like it and it becomes a big success, but it doesn’t really matter. I feel very proud of what I’ve written and no level of sales will take that away from me. Every time I read a review that seems to have gotten what I wanted to convey, I’m just incredibly pleased. To be honest, I had tears in my eyes when I read the first Amazon reader review because she had gotten out of the book exactly what I wanted to convey and I was just overwhelmed with joy. Only the birth of my three children has given me that kind of feeling.

Commercial success is elusive, luck-filled and hard to pin down. I won’t allow the success of the book to be determined by how it sells. To me, it’s a success and I am very proud.

BTG: Tell us about a time you found yourself in the gray. How did you overcome it?

AP: I have been very fortunate in that I have rarely felt truly lost in life. I might be the only person to ever write a memoir who can utter that sentence. My book is not from the “misery I’ve suffered” school of memoir.

Having said that, I have certainly had moments of doubt and aimless drifting – which is still very different from feeling lost. The way I have dealt with that is by focusing on the big picture and taking pride in my work, no matter how many people were reading it, or whether or not I felt like I should have been doing bigger and better things. That same approach really paid off in China when I formed my band; we played every gig like it was the most important one, even if only 10 people were there.

Ultimately, I just counted my blessings: I was born on the right side of the street at the right moment in history. I married someone I really love and love to be with. We have three kids I treasure. What more can I ask for? Everything else is gravy.

When I feel emotionally or mentally gray, I usually blow it out by either playing music and pounding on my guitar, going to hear live music that stirs my soul or getting outside and exercising. A good hike always clears my mind and makes me feel happy to be alive.

BTG: Back in 2005, you left your job as senior writer for Guitar World and Slam magazines and a comfortable life in Maplewood, New Jersey so your wife could pursue a great career opportunity in China. Tell us about that decision.

AP: For the most part, it was an easy decision. I actually pushed Rebecca to pursue the job. It’s hard for me to describe exactly why because China had not been an important part of my life, or a real area of interest, but when I heard about this opportunity I knew we had to do it.

After we made a visit and she accepted the job, I did panic. I had to work it through again, but once I did there was no looking back.

BTG: Many people would have a difficult time leaving all that security. How did you do it?

AP: I just knew we had to do this.

Rebecca and I were always pretty adventurous and we found ourselves in a situation we didn’t really expect to be in. We started dating when we were 21, way before either of us thought we would settle down, and we weren’t quite ready to be as settled as we were. We loved each other very much and we loved our house, loved our neighborhood and our town and didn’t really want to move. But we were 38 and couldn’t imagine living in the same house for the next 40 years, either. We knew we had at least one great adventure in us. When this job fell out of the sky, we just knew.

Also, the year or so before this all happened, I was probably rather “in the gray” to use your terminology. I had been writing for Guitar World and Slam for a long time and I loved it but it wasn’t fully challenging. I also had been writing from home for over a decade, and a new corporate parent at Guitar World wanted me to go off salary or come into the office. I couldn’t see doing that for a lot of reasons, most compellingly family balance, as my wife has a very challenging job and we always felt one of us had to be close to home to be on the frontline with the kids. So we were feeling a bit static on a lot of fronts and then suddenly we had an opportunity to move to China.

BTG: In the process of helping your wife follow her dream, you ended up following a few dreams of your own. Tell us about that.

AP: Well, I just wrote a 272-page book detailing it. It’s still almost unbelievable to me. I ended up with the two things I really wanted most, even if I didn’t realize it until I had them: a column (the “The Expat Life” for WSJ.com) and a band (Woodie Alan). And both of them were really good and met with great success.

Even after living it and writing the book it’s hard to explain. But I never had a plan, so I never could be too rigid – and I never could be disappointed. I was open to anything and anyone and I took everything in with what the great Chinese writer Lijia Zhang described as “child-like wonder.” I’m sure some people would be offended by that phrase, but I am proud of it and think it’s spot on. By being open and ready for anything, I found unexpected riches.

BTG: What fears have you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?

AP: There are always insecurities and fears along all paths and they all can be overcome the same way: stay confident but humble, plow forward, try your best and have fun. I think it’s all pretty basic stuff that applies to almost anything in life.

For me, the most tangible fear and insecurity I had to overcome was singing in public and being a bandleader. I started my band in Beijing as a lark and to have fun because I love making music, but I had always done so more in a background role, maybe singing one song a night. I formed this band in which I was the singer, not exactly intending to – it just happened because I met two dynamic musicians who wanted to work with me and we didn’t have a singer. I had to seize the moment.

Fortunately, some people told me they liked my singing – it always pays off to share your feelings and be positive with people, as you never know how important it might be – my bandmates were very encouraging. Eventually, I realized that the band had the potential to be pretty good and that I was the variable; everyone else was already solid and confident, but a band needs a leader and they were looking towards me. I had to step up my game, so I shut my eyes and jumped into the abyss.

BTG: What was more difficult, moving to Beijing or moving back?

AP: Moving back, by far. This is for a lot of reasons but the simplest one is when I left Maplewood for Beijing, I missed some people and places, sometimes ferociously, but I never mourned them, because I knew that I would eventually return. When I left Beijing, it was far more definitive. We built a wonderful, engaging, enriching, multi-faceted, multi-colored life. Walking away from it was at times excruciating, all the more so because I knew there was no turning back.

Thank God for Big in China. Writing the book kept me sane and really helped me move forward, while coming to grips with the past.

BTG: If you had to do it all over again, would you?

AP: Of course. And I have urged many people to do it, too, both directly when asked and indirectly through my writing.

BTG: If you could give one piece of advice to someone who’s struggling to move beyond the gray, what would it be?

AP: Get your eyes off your belly button and onto the pavement in front of you or the sky above.

Want to learn more about Alan Paul, Woodie Alan or Big in China? Visit his website (www.alanpaul.net) or follow him on Twitter (@AlPaul).

Watch the Big in China book trailer:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAth-nW9L5U


Let’s be honest. Most of us, at one point or another, have dreamed about quitting our day jobs to follow our dreams. But few of us ever really do. Well, today’s Dream Chaser, Kristan Hoffman, is one of the rare exceptions. A couple weeks ago, Kristan put her money where her mouth is when she resigned from her job and plunged into the great unknown…otherwise known as the literary world. And today, Kristan is sharing her exciting (and slightly scary) journey with us…

Beyond the Gray: Tell us about yourself. What is your dream? How are you working towards it?

Kristan Hoffman: I’m Kristan, a 25-year-old fiction writer. That’s all I’ve wanted to be since I was 9. Well, not the 25 part. I never really pictured myself past 21. I also never pictured myself living in Cincinnati, OH, but, well, that’s where I find myself.

BTG: Tell us about a time you found yourself in “the gray”.

KH: Since I’ve spent most of my life working towards my dream, I think my experiences with “the gray” are relatively minimal. That said, I’ve definitely fallen into it a couple times. Being in the gray wasn’t scary, exactly… But to see where I wanted to be and know I was going in the wrong direction? It was frustrating! What was scary was deciding to make the change, to go in a new direction, to try and leave the gray.

For example, in college I originally planned to double major in creative writing and computer science. I loved them both, and I was doing well, but in my sophomore year I was already spending 5-6 hours a night coding. That didn’t leave much time for writing. (Or sleeping.) Three days before the Course Add/Drop date, I realized I had to make a choice. After a teary conversation with my (wonderfully supportive) parents, I dropped my compsci classes and just barely cobbled together enough credits to still be a full-time student.

The rest of my college experience was amazing, because I could focus on the things I really loved (writing, dancing, being a Resident Assistant) and I saw myself grow tremendously.

BTG: You recently resigned from your job to pursue writing full-time. Tell us about that decision. What fears did you face? How did you prepare for it financially? How did everyone react? And how did you ultimately find the courage to take the leap?

KH: The long answer can be found here: http://kristanhoffman.com/2011/01/07/all-in/.

The short answer is that I had fallen into the gray once again. After college, all my friends were either going to grad/law/med school, or working, so I thought I had to too. I got lucky and landed at a design firm — a fun, creative environment with a wonderful staff. But just like with my compsci classes, I would get home at the end of the day too mentally drained to write.

After the first year, I voluntarily “downgraded” from client relations manager to receptionist. And for two and a half years, that was perfect. I had some income, I had a supportive work environment, and I had time/energy to write, even during the workday! (I really do recommend a situation like that for developing writers.) But I think I’ve reached a point now where, given more time, I could really “make things happen.” And I wanted to give myself that time.

Fortunately my parents, boyfriend, and friends all understand and agree. I’ll be honest: it’s terrifying to eat through my savings, to imagine failure and how embarrassing that would be. But I have faith in myself, so even if things don’t go exactly as planned (and really, what ever does?) I know I’ll be okay.

BTG: In your essayDreamsyou admit that sometimes you would rather be “sleeping, or going out with friends, or eating a pint of ice cream on the sofa while watching Grey’s Anatomy.” How do you stay disciplined as a writer?

KH: Disciplined? HAHAHAHAHA.

Oh sorry, you were serious.

There are times when I want to write so badly it hurts. Times where the story is itching me, and I desperately need to scratch. But usually I’m driving, or in a meeting, or falling asleep, or in some other terribly inconvenient situation.

If I could, I would bottle up that itchy feeling and drink some whenever I sat down to write. But I can’t, so instead I do my best to make steady progress each week. My 2011 “resolution” is to bring new pages to my crit group every Monday. Basically I believe in a combination of “butt in chair” and “you can’t fix a blank page.”

BTG: What is your favorite topic to write about? Genre?

KH: I don’t really have a favorite topic, per se, but my favorite stories feature believable characters in compelling situations. Like JOY LUCK CLUB by Amy Tan, HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, or MERCY by Jodi Picoult. And if you couldn’t tell from those examples, I love me some Strong Female Characters — I think it’s important (and fun!) to show girls and women doing brave/adventurous things just like boys and men.

BTG: Tell us about your biggest writing success to date. How did it feel?

KH: I suppose my biggest writing success to date would be winning the St. Martin’s Press “New Adult” contest at the end of 2008, which led to the opportunity to be published in 2009. It didn’t pan out, but the SMP team was highly complimentary of my work, and I learned a lot from my experience with them. Emotionally it was a rollercoaster — exhilaration, fear, exhaustion, impatience, hope, disappointment — but that’s pretty much a normal day for any writer.

(If anyone’s interested, my web series TWENTY-SOMEWHERE is what I entered into the contest, and what SMP was considering for publication. Now it’s available as an eBook at Amazon, Smashwords, and the iTunes bookstore. For more information, please visit http://kristanhoffman.com/writing/.)

BTG: On your blog, you mention that you also dabble in design and photography. Do you find that these other creative outlets impact your writing or make you a better writer? If so, how?

KH: Hmm, I don’t know if they make me a better writer, so much as they are other extensions of my creative side. I dance and play piano too (although neither very well, haha). I just like art in all its forms, and it has always seemed natural to me to try and create my own.

BTG: If you could give one piece of advice to someone else who is struggling to move beyond the gray and follow a dream, what would it be?

KH: Do it! Trust me, it’s both that simple and that complicated.

(But really, it’s your life, and you only get one, so you may as well try and make your own happiness.)

To cheer on Kristan as she turns her writing dreams into reality, head over to www.kristanhoffman.com.

Are you chasing a dream? If so, I’d love to hear from you!
E-mail me at: Erika (dot) Liodice (at sign) hotmail (dot) com

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