I first read Charity Shumway's Ten Girls To Watch in August of 2012. It was just past my two year anniversary of graduating from college with a journalism degree, and it was the ultimate case of the right book at the right time. Before reading this book I had never seen a description of just exactly what it was like to be a young woman trying to break into the magazine industry in New York fit so identically to my own experience. I remember at the time thinking, "WHY didn't I think of writing this book?" But, perhaps surprisingly, my emotional response to it has only kept evolving as the years have gone by, continuing to inspire me both creatively and in my career in general.
Ten Girls To Watch follows 23-year-old Dawn West who, like so many other recent graduates, is trying to make her way in New York City. Her writing career has only gotten as far as penning an online lawn care advice column. So when Dawn lands a job tracking down the past winners of Charm magazine's "Ten Girls to Watch" contest, she's thrilled. After all, she's being paid to interview hundreds of fascinating women. As Dawn gets to know their life stories, she'll discover that success, love, and friendship can be found in the most unexpected of places.
Talk about life imitating art, imitating life. As a 23-year-old also looking for full-time wrting career, this story definitely hit home for me in many ways when I first picked it up. And even though I know I would not feel quite as connected to Dawn's experience now at 28 as I did at 23 (i.e. Dawn's mention of applying for 116 jobs in a year makes me smirk in memory now rather than nervous sweat in stressful recognition), I can't help but feel reinvigorated any time I reread the book, or go over highlighted passages. And that has a lot to do with the many women Dawn interviews, and all the myriad stories they have to tell.
Every single one of the many women Dawn reaches out to, from the famous talk show hosts and physicists to the women who found their success and legacy in more noble and quiet ways, have something to say about building a unique path to their own personal success, and the different definitions for what it means to make good.
And that feeling of diverse feminine power, of women who are successful in more ways that one: in big, flashy ways and in small ways; in careers, in artful pursuits, in family and in relationships...it reminds me that our lives change all the time, and that our idea of what it means to be happy and fulfilled changes too. After all, Shumway writes:
"We get so used to thinking success means one thing...like you can take a snapshot and see if you have it. It's not like that. It's your whole life, and you have years and years to work with. I always want to tell young people, don't be so hard on yourself. Life is long. Be patient."
And even now that I have been writing and editing professionally for the past six years, I admit that I still feel a little bit like Dawn sometimes; and I know I'm not alone in that. I worry about making ends meet. I worry about living up to societal expectations as a freelancer (people still don't really understand freelancing... because if you can do it from home, is it really work?) and I'm still looking for that full-time gig with the livable salary and the health insurance (admittedly, very important things) but that is still joy-inducing and creatively fulfilling.
So reading about all of these women that failed, and failed deeply, but failed well and reading their stories about messing up, letting yourself be confused and afraid sometimes, letting yourself change your mind...these are all lessons that I am still learning. Ten Girls To Watch has become a continuous reminder to me that, well, things have a way of working out in the end. That career and love and family and everything else worth working on and working toward are a part of a long journey. And that everything I have done and will do adds up to that bigger picture. It might sound cliché, but the creative life is hard and not always supported by the world at large; it's up to us to make our own milestones and to honor our own journeys, whatever they end up being.
"If you want to know the truth, most days I feel like I'm miserably behing and only doing about half of what I should be doing. But when you look back you can see that your're building something. I think people who say 'Don't look back' are crazy. I wouldn't survive if I weren't looking back and patting myself on the back all the time for making it this far...I just know that if you look back at it, the days add up to something."