How I Went from Wanting to Being
Written by
Mary Jo Bang
September 2012
Written by
Mary Jo Bang
September 2012

When I was a junior in high school, the boy who sat next to me in Honors English—and who would the next year be named the valedictorian of our graduating class of five hundred—asked me what I was planning to do when I graduated. This boy, the future valedictorian, didn’t often speak to me. Usually, in the five or ten minutes we sat waiting for the teacher to arrive, I assumed some mindless Zen state, or read a novel. He mimed playing the piano, frenetically pressing his fingers against the blond laminate of his desktop as if it were the keyboard of a baby grand and he were an over-emotive Rachmaninoff. One day, he interrupted his playing and turned and said, “I’m giving piano lessons to the CEO of Monsanto. He’s coming along.” It wasn't clear to me whether his assessment of the CEO's progress was meant to suggest that the CEO had potential and he might be able to help him realize it, or, that the CEO wasn't all that bad but would still never be as good as him. What was clear, and what I felt he wanted to make clear, was that he, the boy, was already more accomplished, at least in this one way, than even a titan of industry. The evidence was uncontroversial: titans took lessons from him.

He was obnoxious and arrogant, but brilliant. I took the effusive desktop piano playing as further proof of his outsized intelligence. The news that he was giving lessons to a corporate dreadnought produced the awe it was meant to produce. The boy was a genius. He was made for success and already manifesting it. I knew that I wasn’t made for success, but I also knew that if one worked very hard one could achieve much and I intended to work hard and succeed.

When he asked me what I was planning to do when I graduated, I told him, without hesitation, that I was going to be a writer. “Good luck,” he said, “making a living!” There was more passion in his voice than I’d ever heard—and more derision. It’s still puzzling, the sneering bitterness of that “good luck.” He went on to say the only way a writer could make a living was to teach high school English and that our own teacher, Mr. S—, had to work nights at the 7/11, just to feed his family. If he said more, I don’t remember it.

I was stunned. Mr. S— worked nights at the 7/11? How exhausting. How humiliating. How precarious. I was suddenly embarrassed that I had cultivated this desire without ever considering finances. I wanted to write, as a profession, but I also wanted to be a writer. I loved reading. Through books, I had lived in a world far larger and more interesting than my own limited circumstances. I had tried on identities that had given me new ideas about how one might live. Reading had made me want to create imaginary worlds for other readers like me. Children’s books, novels, poems—whatever I had read, that’s what I wanted to write.  But I’d never thought about “making a living.”

Only now did I see how impractical I’d been. For this boy, solidly middle class, the idea of earning a living and feeding a future family was an abstraction he was slowly but surely working toward, a guiding principle he’d inherited by example from those around him. For me, making a living would cease to be an abstraction the moment I finished high school. My truck driver stepfather with an eighth-grade education and my stay-at-home mother with a seventh-grade education had already said that when I graduated, I’d have to pay rent if I lived at home. I would immediately assume at least some of an adult’s financial burden. How had I managed to keep that out of my mind? Desire. The wish to be that thing one most loves—which was, for me, one who put thoughts on paper and crafted them into something. Now that the idea of making a living was in my mind, there was no room for anything else.

In retrospect, I’m struck by how easily I was convinced that I couldn’t have what I most wanted. I’d transferred my faith in the boy’s musical ability and general intelligence, and his adult pose, laughably cardboard, to an area he knew nothing about. I was shamed by his response, and unnerved by his sense of outrage and smug certainty.

I have become a writer. It took me a long time and I became other things first. All that time, the desire to write remained. Mastering other things taught me that one becomes something not by wishing to be, but by learning to be. Mastery is the result of hard work. And ardor.  And the slow accretion of knowledge that comes from study and from practice. I recently completed a translation of Dante’s Inferno. The entire effort took six years. Which is about how long it takes, someone once told me, to become anything. He actually said it takes seven years. I think he’s right. If I had known that years ago, I wouldn’t have shrunk into some received notion of what I could and couldn’t do. I would have gone steadily forward, toward where I am now, and perhaps arrived there sooner. Or, as another writer once said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”



Mary Jo Bang is the author of six volumes of poems, including The Bride of E and Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Award. Her translation of Dante’s Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, was published in August 2012 by Graywolf Press. A brief review of the book by Elissa Schappell can be found at: An interview by Zachary Lazar can be found at BOMB Magazine:






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  • Mary Jo Bang

    Thank you, Kamy! And thanks for She Writes. That too is a labor and a gift.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Thank you Mary Jo, for this inspiring post...and for your new translation of Dante's Inferno, which I can't wait to read. What a labor, and what a gift!

  • Mary Jo Bang

    Yes, the truth is that first novel, or first book of poems, doesn't necessarily establish one's name, or bring the financial rewards one may have hoped for. The first book is a beginning that a person can hope to build on. I keep learning, and whatever I learn, as a writer, and as a person, gets incorporated in the next piece of writing.

  • Kate Campbell

    Thanks for the encouragement, Mary Jo. Although I've written as a journalist for more than 30 years, I've been making a transition to creative writing since 2005. I just published my first book after 7 years of study and hard work to resounding reader indifference. Following the 7-year model, I'm now a novelist. But, I'm far from a success in terms of readers and dollars. I’m struck by how easily I was convinced I could make the transition to creative work, what I've wanted most all these years, and generate some income from the effort. So far, it hasn't worked like that. But, just as I won't hold my breath until I expire, I will not stop writing creatively. Mastery may or may not not come in predictable increments. What I learned from your post is the value of commitment 7 times 70. That's a gift. Thanks.

  • Daphne Q

    Mary Jo... congratulations on following your dreams and desires. You are an inspiration to me.

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Very gratifying.... I'm on my way!

  • Mary Jo Bang

    Hi Janet, Thank you so much for these kind words about my poems. In terms of the seven years, I didn't mean to say that all book projects could be realized in seven years, only that by seven years, if someone devotes themselves to learning the craft of writing, one usually has the skills necessary to do a book project.

  • Janet Tracy Landman

    Wow! Mary Jo Bang on She Writes! I *love* your work. Thank you for the poems.  

    And thank you for cautioning us not to allow ourselves to be so easily convinced that we can't "have what [we] most want . . . ." 

    (Although I have to add my sorry truth, which is that sometimes it takes even longer than 7 years, as with my latest book project.)

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    "All that time, the desire to write remained" is a beautiful statement of your truth. Keep writing and sharing. Thanks for being here.

  • Wendi Nitschmann

    Regarding the "seven year metamorphasis" I just have to throw in what I learned in a spiritual study group I participated in years ago (anthroposophy).... It takes exactly 7 years for our bodies to completely regenerate (that is, all new cells). So the 7 year cycle is a fact. At 7 years old the child becomes a "different" person, per se, (including getting new teeth). At 14, new again (adolescence). At 21, 28' etc., etc. Just think of the way you felt at all those ages. Different. Mid life crises do not "coincidentally" happen in the 40's. We become different people. Think about it!

  • Mary Jo Bang

    I should give credit where it's due for that seven-year rule. In the late 80's, I lived in London and studied photography. One Saturday, I took a half-day workshop with the photographer Ralph Gibson at The Photographer's Gallery. Each of the workshop participants, in turn, laid out their prints and he commented on them. He said when he first began to take pictures, he'd been very frustrated because he hadn't been able to make the images turn out the way he wanted. He said one day it came to him that it takes time to learn how to do something and perhaps he just hadn't been doing it for long enough. He said he thought about how long it took to become a doctor, or an electrician, or anything that involved skill. He came up with seven years based on the idea of a course of study, plus an internship or apprenticeship. He said he decided he'd keep at it for seven years and then see where he was. The calculation proved to be correct. At the end of seven years, he was finally able to make the photographs he wanted to make. When it was my turn to show my photographs, he asked me how long I'd been making pictures. I said, Two years. He said, You're on your way. That was all he said. For me, it was enough. I knew what I had to do now, which was to continue for five more years. And it turned out exactly as he said, at the end of seven years, I could make the photographs I wanted to make. Of course, I also took classes, both craft-based courses, and classes in the history of photography. And in semiotics. I knew the idea wasn't simply to wait for seven years and I would wake up one day and know what I wanted to know. When I went from photography to writing, I kept the seven-year rule in my mind at every step and it proved to be correct there too. So now I believe in it. It makes sense. And it often consoles me when I set out to learn something new.

  • Agnes Macmillan

    A poignant story, and one all aspiring authors could relate to hearfully and mindfully. The seven-year span of the growth journey is informative, too. The framings and positionings of family and childhood are also significant in this story. I thought the juxtaposition of the awareness of financial provision for the middle class student and awareness of inner desire for yourself was fascinating -- how often that must happen!! Continuing to tune in to the aspiration and tuning out of distracting thoughts and events seems to be very important. Congratulations on your success, Mary Jo, and thank you for your posting! 

  • Kristine Goad

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. It is amazing how quickly thoughts can become "facts" and how other people's opinions can suddenly drown out our own voices and become our opinions, too. I have recently begun to realize just how much the words we use to describe our lives (whether they were generated by our own brains or adopted from someone else's)--the thoughts we have about who we are and what we want to be and what it would take to be that--can become the largest, most impenetrable walls. We can know too much, think too much, and with sheer thought keep ourselves from just being the thing we probably already are. For me, it has felt like it would take an enormous amount of effort and momentum to help me "jump tracks" from where I am to where I want to be. Then, just this week, I finally realized I had been thinking about it all wrong for all these years. There is only one track and I am already in it. I am already me. I am already a writer, even if I have not yet demonstrated that in a way that might convince the rest of the world. All the energy I expend getting in my own way is only keeping me from realizing who I am and what I have to offer. If we can allow ourselves to be who we really are, let ourselves do the things we love, and slowly fill our lives with the things that support us as writers, I'm betting that eventually those things will nudge out the things that have acted as impediments to our progress. I'll let you know how this theory plays out in about seven years....

  • Mary Jo Bang

    I think people who aren't writers are easily confused about what it means to be a writer, and so they don't know how to talk to someone who does write. The awkwardness doesn't go away because one is always trying to find the best way to negotiate through that confusion but I think the shame or guilt does go away. When I tell strangers I write poetry, I often get the question, "What's your favorite poem?" Which isn't a useful question because a poet doesn't have a single favorite poem, and because the person asking isn't likely to know any of the poems I might say were my favorites. I tell them that I have many poems that I admire and then the conversation will often open out from there. If things go well, I can give them the name of a book of poems that they might enjoy reading. Or suggest a novel or memoir I've read. I try to be a spokesperson for writing by encouraging people to read. I often meet people who say they'd like to read, but don't know where to begin.

  • D. B. Stewart

    Isn't it a shame how we sometimes let the words of others limit who or what we could be, or worse, when the voice delivering the limiting belief is our own?  I'm guilty of that for sure.  

    I especially love the line " becomes something not by wishing to be, but by learning to be".  

    It's wonderful and inspiring to see that you've overcome this adversity by giant leaps!

  • Wendi Nitschmann

    Yes, it is such a shame that when we say we want to be writers (or even sometimes when we say that we are writers) it is often met with raised eyebrows and the look of "you must be kidding, right"? And then we have to justify or explain what we're doing while trying not to feel guilt, or shame. Tell me, does that ever go away completely?