Sometimes You Have to Risk

That was said to me by one of the wisest young women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

The year was 1997. I was in Tallahassee, Florida, barely making ends meet after a series of economic downturns and bad policies kept killing every job I held. I got downsized on average every nine months during those difficult economic times.

I refused to move back home to Niceville, Florida. This was partly driven by the youthful pride of a 25-year-old man, but it was also partly driven by knowing I had find a way to make my own way as an adult. Even if I did return to Niceville, I’d still have to strike out again eventually. Why go backwards when I had no long-term choice but to go forwards?

I actually tried to enlist in the Coast Guard in late 1996, but medical issues deep-sixed that effort. By early 1997, I had to admit to myself that my one of my earliest dreams was to work on an aircraft carrier flight deck. However, joining the Navy would be a bigger risk than even the Coast Guard would have been. The Coast Guard, at least, would have mostly keep me in the United States. The Navy is a much bigger organization, and I had no idea where I might land in this vast world.

I was talking to Jeanette (the aforementioned wise young woman) one Sunday morning following services at Covenant Presbyterian in Tallahassee. I told her quite honestly I was so terrified that I was sort deadlocked in my own head.

Jeanette was never the most gentle of women. She was pragmatic, compassionate, intelligent, and brutally honest. She was also not long-winded (a trait I share in writing, but, sadly, not in conversation). She understood my feelings, having made some state-hopping decisions in her own life, but she refused to pat me on the proverbial head and tell me it’d be ok.

“Sometimes you just have to risk,” She said.

Jeanette’s straight-up way of facing, framing, and figuring out the issue cut through everything and gave me the mental foundation I needed to take that risk. I enlisted and shipped off to boot camp September 16, 1997.

The Navy was not just an adventure, it was a job and a half! In 20 years I worked in administration, became an F-14 Tomcat jet aircraft technician, specialized in photojournalism, taught over 4,000 people various aspects of media and public affairs, survived the direct strike of a super typhoon that partially demolished the building I sheltered in, lived through the D.C. Sniper terrorist attacks, founded a Navy school, went to war (twice), visited 22 countries, camped with the Marines in Kenya, was senior editor for the Navy’s largest annual national outreach, met remarkable people, made even more remarkable friends, got married and divorced, became a dad…you get the idea.

My struggles with mental health and the emotional scars inflicted by repeated traumatic events led me to realize in 2016 that it was time to retire from active duty. In other words, it was time to risk again. Would I have a smooth transition into the civilian world, or would I crash and burn?

Deep breath, take the leap, see where I land…

The retirement transition was easier than I expected. I spent a year traveling all 50 states and some of Canada before landing a term position (a temporary federal position) as the staff writer for a Navy command in Keyport, Washington. I succeeded wildly in that job, becoming one of the most prolific news writers in the Navy (64 published stories in 70 weeks). The command wanted to renew my term and keep me on.

However, Jeanette’s words floated back to me as I considered the offer.

I began to write murder mysteries in early 2016 as a way of coping with the changes retirement would bring. When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a famous novelist, and this was a way to nostalgically tap into that memory for comfort. However, by mid-2017, I realized I actually did wantto become a novelist! Between March 2016 and February of this year I completed four full novels (all while retiring, traveling, and working again full time). Imagine what I could do if I went full time as a novelist and used modern independent publishing to my advantage!

Once again, I took a very deep breath and took the risk. I declined the offer of renewal, and took a 2/3 pay cut to pursue this dream, going officially independent July 1. I am currently subsisting on my retirement pension and disability compensation from the VA. I am above water financially, but, to put it in nautical terms, the gunwale of my financial ship is only a few inches above water.

It’s a risk. However, there is no way to achieve anything if one does not risk.

My goal is to launch Proud Lion, the first book of the Accidental Detective series, by September. I’ve got a friend acting as editor (he’s also a retired Navy public affairs expert). I’ve designed the cover art, and have engaged a man who is way better with graphic arts than I am to create the final, high-resolution version. I’m going to buy a series of ISDN numbers next week to catalog each version of product (more on that in a later column), and am currently researching what platforms would be the most profitable to use (Amazon? Book Baby?).

Complicating this endeavour is that I live alone. I used to spend a lot of my free time writing at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. This allowed me contact with humanity (something a man who fights depression needs) while also letting me focus writing. The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated that option, so I have had to find other ways to stay connected to the world while I fine-tune the adventures of the Accidental Detective. It’s a risk.

Still, Jeanette was right. Sometimes you have to risk. You will fall on your face now and then; we all do. But if you never risk, you never succeed.

Or, to use my father’s words, you miss every shot you don’t take.

I’m taking that shot now. It’s the biggest risk I’ve taken yet, but it’s not as scary as joining the Navy in 1997. I’ve lived through too much history since I was 25 to be intimidated this time. Even if I fail, I’ll still look in the mirror and have the satisfaction that I fought the good fight, come what may.

Sometimes you just have to risk.

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524


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