Gail Gilliland


I had no idea as a six-year-old that I would become a writer. All I knew was that I loved stories. I loved to hear other people tell them, and I loved to make them up. My older sister took dictation for me until I could write my stories down. One of my earliest products was a version of my mother’s childhood. It began: "Thousands of years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and my mother was a little girl...." I didn’t understand why everyone at the dinner table laughed.

As the years went by and people asked me, "What are you going to be when you grow up," it never occurred to me to answer, ""A writer."" That was what I already was, inside. And I knew they wanted me to answer with some sort of job—a career that provided a living wage. So sometimes I answered: "A diplomat." (I liked people, and I was good in French.) Or: "A nurse." (Once I took care of a visiting child who had the measles, and my father told me that girls didn't usually become doctors, but that I would make a very good nurse.)

As it turned out, writing did give me a living. I ghost-wrote speeches and corporate letters for important people. I taught English composition and grammar to college kids.

But somewhere along the way, after my poems and stories started being published, I became ambitious about my writing. I wanted people to know my name. I was flattered when they seemed to be impressed. And yet I couldn’t lose the memory of the purest, sweetest moments of my life when I had been inside the stories—when I’d become so enthralled with the music and magic of the words that I completely forgot myself. I might look at the clock and see that hours and hours had gone by; it was as if I had become the story itself. The ambitious human being did not exist. The impossible had happened; time had stopped.

Then, when I was almost 40, I decided to take a beginner adult ballet course after work. It was an evening class, when I’d already put in eight hours at my corporate writing job. And it was in these ballet classes where I learned how wonderful it felt not to be driven by ambition in an art. In ballet class, I had no ambition. I didn’t want to dance professionally. I just loved how it felt. The rhythm and the beauty and magic didn’t have to account for themselves; they were themselves a gift. I didn’t have to make a list for someone else of the places where I had danced; I could just feel joy in my participation in the art itself. And whenever I attended professional performances, I could feel what the dancers were doing without that gnawing insistence that I wanted to be better at it myself.

I’ve learned as I’ve gone on writing that that gnawing feeling in my gut when another writer succeeds where I did not is called envy, and it is never comfortable. Worse yet, it robs me of that original wonderful pleasure in the act of art itself.