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February 4, 2009

The Art of Reinvention

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elliott holt novelist

IT IS WRITTEN Elliott Holt in her Brooklyn apartment.

Photo Credit: Anna Skladmann

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From ad copywriter to NOVELIST
ELLIOTT HOLT, 35, NEW YORK CITY

EXIT SIGNS: The first time I sold a script for a shampoo commercial and watched as six figures were spent on something I'd scribbled at my desk, it was thrilling. But by the time I was 29, the thrill was gone. Copywriting is painfully repetitive, sapping your creative juices as you try to come up with yet another way to sell face cream. I'd always intended to be a fiction writer but had restricted that pursuit to nights and weekends — the margins of my busy life. And I was afraid to quit my day job: I had great health care and a 401(k), and I was able to support myself — and my weakness for bespoke stationery, Phillip Lim cocktail dresses, and hardcover books.

GETTING SCHOOLED: I decided to go for my master's in fiction. Two nights a week, I snuck out of my Manhattan office building early to head to Brooklyn College. I loved every second — reading stories on business flights to L.A., excusing myself from conference calls to jot down some dialogue before I lost it. I was so busy, and I wasn't sleeping, but I never had more energy in my life. Whenever I hung out with my writer friends, I felt completely at home. And, cheesy as it sounds, when I wrote, I felt authentically in my own skin.

MAKING THE SWITCH: After I finished my degree, I asked my boss if I could cut back to a three-day week — I'd keep my benefits but earn 40 percent less, and I could work on a novel. "Your book is your baby," she said, and took my case to HR, arguing that my writing was the moral equivalent of motherhood. They signed off. A year later, I quit entirely.

LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE: It's scary, especially since publishing has been hard hit by the recession. But I was a good saver, and I'm renting my second bedroom to a friend from high school and doing the odd voice-over for cash. I've had people tell me they envy me because I've figured out what I really want to do. The truth is that I'm often terrified, and I wonder whether I've made a mistake. But even as I worry that I'm going to burn through my savings without a solid plan, I feel lucky because I love the work.

—as told to Lauren Iannotti

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