Many a young person
tells me he wants to be a writer. I always encourage such people,
but I also explain that there’s a big difference between “being a
writer” and writing. In most cases these individuals are dreaming
of wealth and fame, not the long hours alone at the typewriter.
“You’ve got to want to write,” I say to them, “not want to be a
The reality is that writing
is a lonely, private and poor- paying affair. For every writer
kissed by fortune, there are thousands more whose longing is never
requited. Even those who succeed often know long periods of
neglect and poverty. I did.
When I left a 20-year career in the Coast
Guard to become a freelance writer, I had no prospects at all.
What I did have was a friend with whom I’d grown up in Henning,
Tennessee. George found me my home - a cleaned-out storage room in
the Greenwich Village apartment building where he worked as
superintendent. It didn’t even matter that it was cold and had no
bathroom. Immediately I bought a used manual typewriter and felt
like a genuine writer.
After a year or so, however, I still hadn’t
received a break and began to doubt myself. It was so hard to sell
a story that I barely made enough to eat. But I knew I wanted to
write. I had dreamed about it for years. I wasn’t going to be one
of those people who die wondering, “What if?” I would keep putting
my dream to the test - even though it meant living with
uncertainty and fear of failure. This is the Shadowland of hope,
and anyone with a dream must learn to live there.
Then one day I got a call that changed my
life. It wasn’t an agent or editor offering a big contract. It was
the opposite - a kind of siren call tempting me to give up my
dream. On the phone was an old acquaintance from the Coast Guard,
now stationed in San Francisco. He had once lent me a few bucks
and liked to egg me about it. “When am I going to get the $15,
Alex?” he teased.
“Next time I make a sale.”
“I have a better idea,” he said. “We need a
new public- information assistant our here, and we’re paying
$6,000 a year. If you want it, you can have it.”
Six thousand a year! That was real money in
1960. I could get a nice apartment, a used car, pay off debts and
maybe save a little something. What’s more, I could write on the
As the dollars were dancing in my head,
something cleared my senses. From deep inside a bull-headed
resolution welled up. I had dreamed of being a writer - full time.
And that’s what I was going to be. “Thanks, but no,” I heard
myself saying. “I’m going to stick it out and write.”
Afterward, as I paced around my little room,
I started to feel like a fool. Reaching into my cupboard - an
orange crate nailed to the wall - I pulled out all that was there:
two cans of sardines. Plunging my hands in my pockets, I came up
with 18 cents. I took the cans and coins and jammed them into a
crumpled paper bag. There Alex, I said to myself. There’s
everything you’ve made of yourself so far. I’m not sure I ever
felt so low.
I wish I could say things started getting
better right away. But they didn’t. Thank goodness I had George to
help me over the rough spots.
Through him I met other struggling artists,
like Joe Delaney, a veteran painter from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Often Joe lacked food money, so he’d visit a neighborhood butcher
who would give him big bones with morsels of meat, and a grocer
who would hand him some wilted vegetables. That’s all Joe needed
to make down-home soup.
Another Village neighbor was a handsome
young singer who ran a struggling restaurant. Rumor had it that if
a customer ordered steak, the singer would dash to a supermarket
across the street to buy one. His name was Harry Belafonte.
People like Delaney and Belafonte became
role models for me. I learned that you had to make sacrifices and
live creatively to keep working at your dreams. That’s what living
in the Shadowland is all about.
As I absorbed the lesson, I gradually began
to sell my articles. I was writing about what many people were
talking about then: civil rights, black Americans and Africa.
Soon, like birds flying south, my thoughts were drawn back to my
childhood. In the silence of my room, I heard the voices of
Grandma, Cousin Georgia, Aunt Plus, Aunt Liz and Aunt Till as they
told stories about our family and slavery.
These were stories that black Americans had
tended to avoid before, and so I mostly kept them to myself. But
one day at lunch with editors of Reader’s Digest, I told these
stories of my grandmother and aunts and cousins. I said that I had
a dream to trace my family’s history to the first African brought
to these shores in chains. I left that lunch with a contract that
would help support my research and writing for nine years.
It was a long, slow climb out of the
shadows. Yet in 1970, 17 years after I left the Coast Guard, Roots
was published. Instantly I had the kind of fame and success that
few writers ever experience. The shadows had turned into dazzling
For the first time I had money and open
doors everywhere. The phone rang all the time with new friends and
new deals. I packed up and moved to Los Angeles, where I could
help in the making of the Roots TV mini-series. It was a
confusing, exhilarating time, and in a sense, I was blinded by the
light of my success.
Then one day, while unpacking, I came across
a box filled with things I had owned years before in the Village.
Inside was a brown paper bag.
I opened it, and there were two corroded
sardine cans, a nickel, a dime and three pennies. Suddenly the
past came flooding in like a riptide. I could picture myself once
again huddled over the typewriter in that cold, bleak, one-room
apartment. And I said to myself, The things in this bag are part
of my roots, too. I can’t ever forget that.
I sent them out to be framed in Lucite. I
keep that clear plastic case where I can see it every day. I can
see it now above my office desk in Knoxville, along with the
Pulitzer Prize, a portrait of nine Emmys awarded to the TV
production of Roots, and the Spingarn medal - the NAACP’s highest
honor. I’d be hard pressed to say which means the most to me. But
only one reminds me of the courage and persistence it takes to
stay the course in the Shadowland.
It’s a lesson anyone with a dream should
The Shadowland of Dreams by Alex Haley
Soup for the Soul at Work
Copyright 1996 by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Maida
Rogerson, Martin Rutte & Tim Clauss
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