Chasing a writer’s dream

SJU alumnus talks career at Elite Daily, first book release

Greg Dybec, Special to the Torch

During my sophomore year at St. John’s, a professor told me, “If you truly know what you want to do in life, you might as well start chasing that dream in college.” He was referring to my dream of being a writer. Or more so, my apprehension to commit fully to that dream. It was one of those inspirational movie moments: college professor imparts wisdom on young student, young student internalizes wisdom and his life turns out better for it. But hey, movie moments are movie moments because they happen in real life, too.

This is where I’ll age myself, but that encounter occurred in 2009, two years before I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and scooted off into the real world as a terrified yet eager writer.

At the time, however, I was an education major with a concentration in history. I chose this path for the simple fact that my favorite high school teacher had taught history. Sometimes when we’re uncertain of our own ambitions, we emulate.

The truth is, I was always certain I wanted to be a writer, I just wasn’t certain I’d ever pursue it seriously. Fear is that overbearing retail employee that reminds you that you can look, but you can’t touch.

During my first two years at St. John’s, I found myself writing more than ever. I’d run back to my dorm room after a history class to write a short story, or head to the library after a teacher workshop and get started to craft an essay that wasn’t required for any class. If anyone asked, I was doing homework.

My life’s map was showing some pretty clear directions, but sometimes directions exist to be ignored until you become lost enough that you have no choice but to find yourself.  

I won’t pretend that once I received the sage advice from my professor everything changed and I was able to shake the fear of pursuing writing full time.

It was a slow process, something akin to piecing together a puzzle. The first step I took was getting a job at the Writing Center.

The second step was changing my education concentration from history to English. I figured being a high school English teacher meant I could at least teach books even if I never ended up writing any of my own.

The third step came during my junior year, and it was the most nerve-racking of all. I dropped the education major altogether and stuck with just English. That vague, stigmatized major that in my mind meant I had a myriad  of options to write for a living, but in other people’s minds meant I’d end up homeless.

What followed my graduation was a challenging year of working a retail job while interning for a small online publication, freelancing for little to no money, and writing, writing, writing for the sake of writing. It was the part of the movie in which I question the value of my efforts and considered giving up, considering writing a mere hobby. Luckily, it was also when I channeled my professor’s advice the most. After all, I’d shifted my entire focus in college to pursue my passion.

I often meet aspiring writers who keep their pursuits private, or brush off the idea of writing a book or becoming a successful blogger as an aloof fantasy. I too had moments in which I’d concealed my true desires. In December 2013, all the fighting and clawing I’d done had amounted enough to land a job at a startup called Elite Daily.

As content manager, I’d oversee the website’s editorial strategy, manage its writers and write myself. It was a risk joining a startup, but it was a chance to work hands-on with storytelling each day. That small start-up ended up becoming one of the most-read websites in the world.

Fast forward to 2015. It’s time for the most clichéd scene of them all, in which I flashback to my college self and my professor’s advice.

Cue montage: a collection of slow motion shots that include changing my major once and for all; explaining my decision to my parents; clocking in and out of a mind-numbing retail job; unpaid internships; countless writing samples and resumes sent into the abyss. 2015 was the year I had the chance to pitch a few essays to a literary agent at WME.

It was an unexpected opportunity in the moment, but one I’d envisioned for as long as I could remember. It was the moment preparation met opportunity. I was prepared because I’d been continuously improving the craft I’d fallen in love with. I’d never stopped writing along the way.

What came of those initial few essays is now my first book, The Art of Living Other People’s Lives: Stories, Confessions, and Memorable Mistakes, and it hits shelves January 3rd, 2017.

It’s a collection of humorous essays, and a few of them even detail those insecurities and worthwhile struggles that came along with the tireless pursuit of becoming a writer, a journey which has only just begun.

If I were to amend my professor’s advice at all, just to make it even more applicable, I’d change it to: “If you truly know what you want to do in life, you might as well start chasing it this very second.” But that’s just me being a writer, tweaking and revising, reminding myself that this is what I actually do for a living now.