It’s a given that we don’t know what’s going to happen in our lives, yet once a life-changing incident has occurred, it’s also precarious to evaluate the outcome too quickly. Sometimes that which we believe will be our ruin turns out to be our salvation. In other words, it’s foolhardy to judge things too soon unless the end result is inevitable.

Ten years ago I quit painting after my last show in New York ended. I had drawn and painted obsessively for 31 years, so it was a major decision for me to stop. At the time it almost felt like a form of suicide because I’d dedicated so much of my life to art. Everyone was shocked and questioned my judgment. “How can you quit? You’re such a good painter. Why?” they said, or disbelieving, “You’ll go back to it. No way you can quit.” After all, my work had hung in museums, my first show in New York had sold out, I’d received a few grants and an award from the National Academy of Design, and I’d supported myself with art for almost 20 years. Quitting seemed like insanity.

I quit because I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Sure I hated the politics of the art world, the unfairness of being judged by people whom I noticed over time knew way too little about art, and the sheer nastiness of the business, but that was only a splinter of the problem. Though I was fully committed to what I was doing, or what I was attempting to accomplish, I never did enjoy the process of painting. I might have continued anyway, but the passion, that enormous amount of hope and determination and pure willpower that one needs to spend years alone in a room making professional art, was gone.

For six months I didn’t know what to do with myself. Then one night I had an unusual dream. On waking, I remembered one scene with such vividness that I couldn’t remove it from my mind. I decided to try to write it down.

Ten years later my first novel has been published. It’s been a difficult process, first learning to write, fielding criticism, fielding more criticism, locating a larger glove to field more criticism, finding an agent who found a publisher, Cadent, that believed enough in my book to print it during a time when publishing is not exactly thriving.

It turns out, that though I’d disliked the process of painting, I love the process of writing. Not that I find writing easy; it’s actually impossibly difficult for me. I began trying to write at the age of 13, but as I continued, it seemed progressively more insurmountable. I kept journals; I wrote and self-published four books of poetry and sold them in bars; I stopped painting for a year in 1990 and wrote a novel — awful thing. So I had always tried, but I’d never given myself over fully because painting earned a living, and writing sure didn’t. But now I’ve finally been published, and though I haven’t seen a paycheck, I wouldn’t trade the 10 years of writing for anything.

Here are a few of the things I learned.

First I obviously needed to understand the mechanics of the language in order to write a readable book. Having quit school at the age of 16, this felt daunting. Even punctuation seemed impenetrable, yet eventually it softened, and then miraculously turned into something not only edible but tasty. I started to be excited by a really good semicolon. It wasn’t an icy beer on a hot afternoon but still something to savor.

When I initially began to understand punctuation, I wanted to show off my new knowledge, and I used lots of different punctuation marks at the slightest provocation, slinging em-dashes, colons and ellipses around like a snake handler. Now I’m reluctant to use anything besides commas and periods. I even break punctuation rules if I feel I’m serving the reader, slowing or speeding up the narrative like a jazz drummer.

Next I sensed I needed to envision a million-word world and choose the perfect hundred-thousand that would make it compelling and believable. When I began writing my novel, my imagination saw each scene, understood it, lived it, but that’s where it remained — in my mind. Though I believed I’d transferred my vision onto the page, it wasn’t there. This dichotomy might be why many beginning novelists think their work is great and cannot understand why no one else agrees, except perhaps the occasional spouse and their mothers: “It’s simply lovely, dear. I don’t know why no one wants to publish it. Those people must be idiots.”

I cared more about my fictitious world than my own. I would get up in the middle of the night to add one ideal sentence or jot notes for a coming scene. And I’d be eager to do it — even in winter, bedroom temperature about 46 degrees — willing to rewrite until the book was fully realized even if it took me 10 years, which it did. I worried about my characters as if they were my children. I cried when something horrible happened to them. I drank toasts to them. I was tempted to send them birthday and Christmas cards. Well, maybe not all of them.

I became my characters in the same way an actor or actress does, transferring my consciousness into their bodies, knowing how they moved, how they thought, and of course how they felt. Then, oddly enough, they began to talk to each other, and all I had to do was write down what they said. The most difficult character to find inside myself was Deirdre, a lesbian surfer from California, but eventually even she became real for me after a series of failed attempts. An exciting process since I can’t even swim.

Years ago, I heard the rumor that characters can take over a book. I rolled my eyes at this. How can characters do things an author doesn’t want them to, or hasn’t envisioned? But it’s true. Sometimes I needed characters to say something to move the plot along. And they refused to cooperate though I begged them. Frustrating, but I learned that without exception, the character is always right, not the author. Besides, putting desperately needed sentences in quotation marks does not make good dialogue, and readers sense that; the author must figure out another way to move the narrative, which can lead to wonderful discoveries. Sometimes characters do something completely unexpected, something you’ve never even considered. This can be extremely touching, a thrilling experience, The Blue Pearl of writing fiction.

One of the problems of writing a novel is finding a way to present narrative information to the reader. If you just list everything like the specifications of a new car, it’s boring and obvious, so I tried to find ways to move the story without the reader noticing. This is what makes writing exciting, placing the author into the book as if it were a lucid dream.

I came to understand that plot is not story. A story is a series of events that happen to characters. Plot is more difficult. In my novel “LiveCell,” the protagonist Jay Chevalier wants something desperately. He wants to change the world by facilitating peoples’ ability to understand and communicate through increasing their intuitive awareness. Plot starts with a character wanting something, but the character must also put something at risk in order to get it, the more crucial the better. As readers, we then want to find out if the risk was worth it and if the principal characters will achieve what they desire or get what they deserve. Simply put — will they reach their goals before they are destroyed?

In “LiveCell,” Jay has enraged the world’s powerbrokers by not selling them his invention. He puts his own life at risk, which he’s willing to do, but what he hasn’t foreseen is that he’s also placed the people he loves at risk. Huge dilemma. What should he do? Give up his ideals and all he’s worked for in order to protect those who trust him, or continue and risk other peoples’ lives. This is plot: we need to know what he’ll do since either decision has shattering consequences.

Would I have begun to write seriously if I hadn’t quit painting? No. My life required that unprecedented jolt, that willingness to ignore what most everyone, including even my mother, thought of as insanity. I fully realized that the possibility of succeeding was remote, particularly since so few manuscripts are published, but because I was doing something I loved, it made the time spent worth it regardless of the outcome. And 10 years later, as it turns out, I’ve made a book and had an irreplaceable experience achieving that.