By Michael Katakis
February 9, 2015
Lately during the early morning hours, I find it hard to sleep. At such times, I occupy a space between dream and memory. Recently, a recollection from my boyhood had me sitting at the edge of a YMCA pool in Chicago. It was my first swimming lesson, and I was quite anxious and afraid. After much trepidation, the frustrated instructor finally said, “Just jump,” which turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received, and not just with regard to swimming.
Hungry for the world, I left home at 17. I knew that I wanted to write but had no idea what about. I simply knew instinctively that I had to travel the world and pay close attention to life around me if I was ever going to find something to say. I was scared, much more than I had ever been at the pool. But whenever I hesitated, I remembered, “Just jump,” and jump I did.
I traveled the world with nearly no money, taking odd jobs to support myself along the way—a kind of international hobo wandering with purpose and somehow understanding that to become a writer, I would have to take risks, not just with words but with life. These years of finding my voice were difficult, but what I lacked in material wealth, I made up for with one of the greatest gifts you can possess: love for your work.
Along the way, I wrote books and had them published. Older now, I am still hungry for the world, and every morning wherever I am, I wake knowing that I will be engaged in work that I love and that sustains me.
I have been asked to speak over the years and have met some wonderful young and not-so-young people who wanted to be writers. I remember one young woman, in particular, who asked many questions. She was trying to find a way to begin. I told her that a writer had to be brave and understand that there are no guarantees. I told her that if she loved to write, needed to write, then through all the difficult days that were sure to come, she would at least have that. The woman looked at me for what seemed a long time, as if waiting for something more. “Just jump,” I said.
In that moment, I was back at the pool in Chicago, but now I was the instructor. I urged her on and was excited about the roads that lay ahead and the glorious unpredictability of it all.
Michael Katakis is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and ambassador to the British Library. He also manages the literary estate of Ernest Hemingway. His most recent book is A Thousand Shards of Glass: There is Another America.