To take on a new challenge or veer in a different direction takes guts. Our eyes take in a wider horizon. We feel fully alive. Suddenly, the world opens up and we find a new and more true path. Gutsy! is a section featuring first-person stories of people doing something inspiring and brave, and in the process changing their lives.
As Told by Kitty Pilgrim
Three years ago, I was at CNN at the anchor desk, and I realized that every night the news was just awful. After twenty-four years of being a news correspondent, the constant stream of tragedy was starting to get to me. My boys were off in college, so I was at home a lot by myself and the feeling of all that death and disaster stayed with me all the time. The Asian tsunami happened and it was devastating. I had a long train commute every day, so I thought I’d try to read fiction to take my mind off of it. But I couldn’t really find what I wanted in terms of commercial fiction. I didn’t want to read traditional thrillers, and I didn’t want to read pure romances either. So I would double dip. I’d read a thriller, then a romance, and I thought I could get my fix from switching back and forth. What I was looking for was a beautiful lifestyle romance with some mystery adventure mixed in. So just for the fun of it I started to write short chapters of scenes that I found interesting. It was around Christmas and I had some free time, so I got carried away with writing. I’d never thought about writing a book, but as a journalist you’re always in an airport grabbing a paperback so I had read my fair share. It took me six months and suddenly I had a mystery novel.
I didn’t know if it was any good, so on a Friday in June I gave it to a friend of mine who is a literary agent. I told him to let me know if he thought it was absolute trash and promised I wouldn’t be offended! He called me on Monday and asked me to have lunch. Of course, I thought it was going to be bad news and I was fine with that. We sat down and he said he loved it, and said he would represent me if I quit my job and started writing full time. His comment came out of the clouds. I stopped eating and I said, ‘I’m a full-time anchor and correspondent on CNN. That’s what I do and have always done.’ But his pitch was pretty convincing! I came home and talked to my boys and their immediate reaction was to tell that me I was insane! They asked me, ‘You want to quit your job and write romance books? Are you crazy?’ They were convinced that I was having a midlife crisis and that I needed to take a vacation! The hard-news-journalist mom was the only mom they had ever known. I had literally carried them around as babies in the news room. They were flipping out. It was kind of hilarious.
I listened to them, but the more I thought about a career change, the more sense it made to me. It was a huge leap, because I was about to sign a new three-year contract. But I was in my mid 50s and I thought, if you’re going to do it, do it now! I haven’t regretted it at all. What I didn’t realize was that every time a disaster happened in the world, it turned into a personal responsibility. I had to tell the story well. Don’t get me wrong, a disaster is still important to me, as a member of society, but it’s not so immediate anymore. I don’t have to put myself in the middle and try to communicate to the world how horrible it is. That’s very emotionally demanding, and I didn’t realize how emotionally draining it was until I stopped doing it. I feel very different now. I’m happy in that I can use my mental energy and put it into something that’s valuable for a different reason. I’m hoping people who have a tough day can come home, put their feet up and read something that’s both pleasant and interesting. My contribution is to the lighter side of life, and not always to the tragedy.
People ask me how I had the guts to leave a very successful career at this time in my life. But you know, I don’t have a ticking time clock. I feel the same as I felt when I was 25 years old. I don’t have a sense of my own age. I’m really young and strong. I’m not at the end of my career, I’m at the beginning of a new one! I don’t understand this mentality of folding up your career at age 50. You can try new things, whatever your age is.
When you’re young and you first get out of college and they throw you off the dock, and you have to swim. You don’t have a choice; you just do it. You think, I have to make this work! But as you get older, you start putting restrictions on yourself and those restrictions build up. For example, you see so many people in mid-career saying, ‘I gave up skiing because I don’t want to break my knee,’ and life becomes a whole list of don’ts. All those negatives pile up and become a burden, and they turn you into an old person. You need to remain child-like. Every day is a new thing for a child, and you have to continue to embrace that mentality. It’s good to throw off all the “don’ts”!
I’m also really blessed in that I’m not obsessed about possessions. We joke about my attitude towards cars, because my favorite car is a rental or a taxi. I don’t need to own a fancy car. I don’t have a list of things that I must have. I need my lap top, but other than that I don’t really need anything. This impulse towards acquisition really weighs a person down. Do you really need the big house, the nice car, the jewelry and the designer handbags? We put ourselves in a trap because of our possessions, and it really holds us back because suddenly we have to support our material addictions. We’re not free to act the way we choose anymore, or follow our passions. If you really think about it, how simply do you want to live? I could make a career leap without a lot of fear, because I don’t feel I needed material things to be happy. Obviously, if you have children that are young, you have different obligations. But we don’t really need a lot of material possessions. They act as walls we build up around ourselves and we get trapped inside them.
Let me give another example. When you go on vacation, you leave all your stuff at home. You find a beach and swim in the ocean. How do you feel? You feel free. Why not do that every day? I went to the Polar Ice Cap in Norway with my son William to take some photos for my book The Explorer’s Code. I was in a dog sled with my son and a guide who was accompanying us. We were zooming across the ice and I looked around and everything was white. It was so beautiful and pristine. I thought, ‘This is perfect. All I ever want in life is to be with the people I love, to own what’s on my back and to move forward.’ It was the most unbelievable feeling. It was one of the most pure moments I’d ever had. At the end of the day, the only thing that’s important is the person holding your hand. That’s what you have when you’re born and that’s what it will be like when you die. If you can hold on to that concept throughout your life, and try to live your life to its fullest, that’s all you need. •
Kitty Pilgrim is the author of The Explorer’s Code and The Stolen Chalice. A former CNN correspondent and prime time news anchor, her assignments have taken her around the world to Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, the Middle East, Korea and South Africa. She is the recipient of a Peabody Award, an Emmy Award, an Overseas Press Club Award and a New York Society of Black Journalists Award. She’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Explorer’s Club of New York. You can follow her on Twitter @pilgrimk.
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