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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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The other night I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. As you may know, Eat, Pray, Love is one of my favorite books and I liken the experience of hearing Gilbert speak to seeing a favorite band in concert. Seeing Liz up there was like watching a rock star. A literary rock star.

As she talked about her journey from growing up on a Connecticut Christmas tree farm to penning one of the most popular memoirs in recent memory to having Julia Roberts play her in the movie version of her life, there was one piece of advice really stayed with me. She said that she never had to find her path, she just had to obey it. For her, writing has always been a path of the heart, something she did regardless of the outcome. Like most dream chasers, she struggled and faced rejection. But more than anything, she obeyed the path.

Many of us know our path, we can feel it at work in our hearts. The challenge isn’t finding it, it’s obeying it. Regardless of the outcome.

Are you obeying the path of your heart?

What’s makes something an interest versus a calling?

I’ve thought about this question a lot over the years, particularly because my “calling” tends to be ever-changing. For a while, I thought my calling was painting. Then, I thought it was photography. Then I was sure it was graphic design. While I’ve taken classes and enjoyed dabbling in each, my devotion inevitably fades when I stumble upon a new one.

The latest? Sewing.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve been looking at it all wrong. You can have an affinity for for painting or photography or graphic design – or sewing – without it being your calling. It’s true that sometimes your interests may be a part of your calling, but they can be completely independent too. While this may sound like I’m stating the obvious, I think for many people it can get a little tricky to distinguish between the two. Why? Because the first place we’re told to look when trying to figure out our calling is at our set of interests. You love baking…does that mean you should open a bakery?

It depends. And that’s where the line gets a little fuzzy.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know my dream is to be a fiction writer. But what makes writing my calling rather than simply another one of my interests?

Here’s how I rationalize it:

  • I’ve been doing it since I was a child. As soon as I learned how to write, I started writing books. I was about five or six years old when I wrote my first book, which was a story about a little girl with 18 brothers and sisters who all had to share one bathroom. I illustrated it and everything. I’ll never forget my Nana saying, “One day you’re going to be an author.”
  • I’m always thinking about it. Writing is the first thing I think about when I wake up and it’s the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. My mind is constantly working through storylines, character traits and random bits of dialogue.
  • I love to read. They say that writers are readers. Growing up, I spent my summer vacations reading a book a day. And I’m the only person I know who’s ever been grounded from reading.
  • It’s invaluable to me. The first check I ever received for writing an article meant more to me than any paycheck, even though it was worth about 100 times less. On top of that, most of my writing isn’t done for money, but for the love of it.
  • I strive to be better. I started “seriously” writing (with the goal of publication) five years ago and I am constantly reading books, magazines and blog posts on how to improve my work and connect with readers.
  • It absorbs me. Twelve hours can feel like two when I’m working on a manuscript. I forget to eat, I sit until my bladder is ready to burst, and Dave usually has to pry my hands from the keyboard at the end of the day.
  • It makes me feel high. After writing, I often feel a burst of endorphins…a writer’s high, if you will.

And last but not least, it turns my head. I’ll never forget a couple years ago when Dave and I spent a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. We were walking through the shopping district, passing high-end stores like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. When we got to the bookstore, Dave burst out laughing. When I asked him what was so funny, he pointed out that we had just passed a slew of really nice stores, but the only one that made me stop and look in the window was the bookstore.

Writing is the fabric of my life. My passion for it can’t be quantified. My interest in it only continues to grow.

Writing is definitely my calling.

How do I know?

I just do.

Have you found your calling? If so, how do you know?

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