If you ever wondered about the power of a little encouragement, whether it really can make a difference, read on!
When I was young, in high school and in college, I wrote short stories. I thought they were pretty good. At age 23, with a reasonably promising career as a Coast Guard officer ahead of me, I wanted to quit and write literary stuff.
I was dissuaded from doing so by my family, who perhaps expected more from me economically. So instead of getting an MFA, I got an MBA. Instead of writing literary stuff, I ended up at Lehman Brothers.
A career in finance is all-consuming. I put my writing aside for a very long time (along with pretty much everything else), and I focused on trading and making money. I was happy, because I found this to be a worthwhile pursuit. But, in parallel fashion, I was mentally ill, seriously so. Though I didn't know it at the time, I suffered from a severe form of bipolar disorder, which may have been made worse by the stressful, almost sadistic working conditions of an investment bank.
I was hospitalized in what was an emotional and spiritual bottom. I went from a trading desk at Lehman Brothers in the middle of Times Square to a psychiatric ward, where the usual precautions against sharp objects were taken. I didn't know how long I would be there. I didn't even really care.Alone in my room, a nurse visited me and told me that a talented, famous writer would be conducting a writing seminar, of sorts, for the patients. She strongly suggested that I attend. I was still pretty miserable, even after more than a week in the hospital, and I didn't much feel like it. But I was willing to try anything.
The talented, famous writer ended up being Siri Hustvedt, and my chance meeting with her was the turning point in my illness and in my life. It is hard to overstate this. In that room, in that hospital, with Siri and the other patients, I wrote with such a ferocity that I surprised everyone, especially myself. That feeling you get when you have a perfect circuit between heart, mind, and hand, when you can simply communicate and change the way people feel--I hadn't had that feeling in a long time. I had forgotten what it was like.
Afterward, Siri approached me and said I should be a writer. Because I was heavily medicated, the details are lost to me forever. But I remember the complete and utter absurdity of it, such a luminous talent saying this to a mental patient.
Later came my memoir, Street Freak. A few words of encouragement was all it took. Free, but seldom freely given. I still wonder if Siri could have predicted the impact of it. She must have known.
Jared Dillian is the author of Street Freak (Touchstone) and the founder of the daily financial market report The Daily Dirtnap. He was a trader for Lehman Brothers from 2001 to 2008 and lives in South Carolina. The above article first ran in Shelf Awareness on Sept 25 and is reproduced with permission of Jared Dillian.