I had a writing professor who liked to talk about this moment in a story he called “the inexorable surprise.” It’s not hard to find. It takes place at the end — the very end. He would say the end of the story has to surprise the reader, yet be completely unavoidable. When they think back on the story, they should say, “Of course, it led to this! It had to!”
Around the time I was in his class, I had a solid plan for my career. I talked about it with such confidence, I am now haunted by all the times my awestruck classmates said, “Wow, you really have your shit together. I have no clue what my plan is.” That’s the magic of the bullet-point list. This was mine:
- Get my undergrad degree in writing
- Get some kind of writing job
- Move out of my parents’ house
- Pay off student loans
- Write and publish my novel
- Get a graduate degree in writing
- Teach fiction writing at the college-level
For a while, things seemed to be on track. After I got my degree, I started working as a public relations writer for my alma mater. I moved out just a few months after graduating. My job even came with benefits for continuing education. I applied and enrolled in the graduate writing program. Since I could only afford the one free course per academic quarter that my benefits offered, my master’s degree would take even longer to get. But that was fine. I still had enough time to keep working on my novel. If I made aggressive payments on my student loans, those could be paid off before they started earning interest. And, once I had my master’s degree in hand, I could look into applying at my alma mater as a professor.
See? I had it all figured out. All I had to do was keep my head down and work hard. Everything would work out.
I had actually wanted to teach fiction writing since I was in high school. While there was a lot of support for poetry and realistic fiction that dealt with friendship, loss, fitting in, and growing up, the attitude toward fantasy and science fiction was very different. I started reading craft books on my own as a teenager because no one was around to teach me what I wanted to learn. Not until college, anyway. And college students have to pay to be there, so they want to be there. Right? So teaching writing at college just made sense.
At that point in my life, I shared my family’s view of coaches (ahem, “That sounds like a fake job. Who would waste money on this?”). You learned from teachers. That was it.
Of course, life looked at my bullet-point list and laughed.
That PR writing job? Toxic as hell. I escaped into my writing and finally finished a whole draft of my novel. That continuing education benefit? Well, if you left the job for any reason, you owed the cost of any courses you were currently enrolled in. I couldn’t afford that. When I saw the writing on the wall, I dropped out of grad school to save myself from even more debt.
Just like that, my list went out the window.
I went into survival mode for a few years. My job was for money, not enjoyment. And I had no plans beyond that. My novel continued to develop in the background. I did manage to pay off my student loans. Never had to move back home.
Then several big life changes happened. Moving halfway across the country. The pandemic. Getting married. Getting the nerve to start a business. Moving back across the country again. Starting a business (for real this time). And that’s when something strange happened.
My business idea started out simple. I have about a decade of experience in digital marketing. Sometimes I was able to help my fellow creatives figure out solutions for marketing their writing, graphic design, or photography. Why shouldn’t I make money from doing that for total strangers?
Of course, I made many more bullet-point lists to make this happen. Despite the hiccups along the way, it is happening. But here’s the weird part.
I joined a marketing coach’s program. Why? Because marketing for other people is a hundred times easier than marketing for yourself. But that program is designed to help coaches market their programs. And I am no coach. Sure, I thought about it. It’s on one of those lists. (Second year of business, study coaching methods. Third year of business, offer marketing coaching services. By five years, transition business to focus on marketing coaching for creatives.)
Wait, what? Since when was becoming a coach part of my plan?
I mulled that over while unpacking in our new house. The more I thought about it, the less crazy it sounded. In fact, it felt like that had to be where I ended up with my business.
I wanted to teach people the stuff I had to learn the hard way. And I wanted to teach people fully committed to learning from me. I wanted them to do the work for themselves.
Huh. Doesn’t that sound like what coaches do?
So here I am, in the middle of my own inexorable surprise.
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