Leaving the Law Behind for My Dream Job
Maurice Carlos Ruffin on finding the courage to pivot to fiction writing in mid-life.
By the time of my Jesus year, nothing was going as planned. I’ve always been a studious, conscientious sort. The kind of person to consider the bedding arrangements for people who may or may not be visiting until many weeks or months later. Any success in my life is built on this foundation: make a few smart choices early to smooth my future path.
But it was clear that by 2010, the path was an ice-covered lake I had wandered onto. The temperature was rising. (Thanks, climate change.) The snow melting. The sheet of frozen water cracking beneath my heels. I’m a so-so swimmer and a coward in the cold. A dip in the frosted fantastic would not end well for me.
In 2010, I was a corporate lawyer in probably the largest firm in New Orleans. Six-figure salary. Expense account. BMW. But I felt that cracking ice.
To drop the extended metaphor for a moment, in 2010, I was a corporate lawyer in probably the largest firm in New Orleans. Six-figure salary. Expense account. BMW. But I felt that cracking ice. I didn’t like the work enough to envision myself doing it in the distant future with a gray beard and a pipe. Yet, I was too afraid to make any sudden moves.
Still, one of my saving graces is my anxiety. It compels me to plan and develop contingency plans. During the decade before, I had dabbled in politics and music, two of my lifelong loves. I had also dabbled in my true love: the writing of literature.
But my love of the written word was like one of those romance novels where everyone but the main character recognizes the obvious connection. My loved ones knew I was writer. However, I told myself that writing wasn’t for me. I read books by “real” writers, but I wasn’t like them. I dabbled, but by 33 years of age, I had never even published anything of significance.
Yet, I took steps. I hung out with other amateur writers. I attended workshops. I enrolled in an MFA program.
But back to metaphors.
I told myself that writing wasn’t for me. I read books by “real” writers, but I wasn’t like them. I dabbled, but by 33 years of age, I had never even published anything of significance.
The ice was cracking, crumbling, and melting. I had no idea when I would fall through. But it was a matter of when, not if. My foot slipped through a hole. The near freezing water sent a shock right up to the top of my skull. There are heroic ways to go out. Sacrifices that make sense. This was not one of those ways. There was no logic to going out like this.
Off in the distance, I saw a shape in the murky dusk. No time left for caution. I ran for it. The fading light of evening made it hard to know where to step. And just behind me, I heard a sound that sent my heart into a panic. An extended crack. I made the mistake of looking back. The sheet of ice was splitting in two. The chasm was heading right at me.
I ran as fast as my legs allowed. The object came into view. It was a jet ski sitting atop the ice. Someone had left a jet ski in the center of the foreboding frozen lake. I hopped on. I put on the life vest--because safety first. I turned the key, but the vehicle wouldn’t start. The crack drew ever closer. I saw myself falling into the water, sinking into the inky, cold blackness. My final thought would be of…
I thirsted for the wild expanse of the sea like the sailors of old. Turning the headlight in that direction, I sped off toward the great unknown.
But no. The engine screamed to life at the precise second it dropped into the water. I cranked the accelerator. I pointed the jet ski toward shore, then I stopped.
I glanced up. Beyond the steam of my own breath, night hawks circled above. I would not go back to shore. I knew what was on dry land. I thirsted for the wild expanse of the sea like the sailors of old. Turning the headlight in that direction, I sped off toward the great unknown.
That’s where I live today. On the high seas. I’m a sailor, which is to say I’m a writer. At 41 I quit my law job. I published my first book that same year, and I’ve never looked back. On average, I made more money as a lawyer. But the satisfaction I have now is more than worth it.
I’m 44 years old. I’ve never been happier. I’ve never been more confident about my work. The path has never shone brighter. I’m exactly what I was too immature admit before. I love to write. I’m good at it. And I’m just getting started.