When seen from space, the road of my writing journey closely resembles the curvy shoreline of the Gulf Coast—starting as far south as a person can go, heading north for a ways, sidetracked by an abrupt left turn, a bumpy stretch, then a dip south again, before—bam!—out to sea with a full sail.
The funny thing is, I never wanted to be a writer. I’ve been a voracious reader since I discovered Nancy Drew, but I never wanted to actually write. My brain was always on page three while my pencil seemed stuck on the second sentence. I was the student who, when instructed to write a four-page story, I’d write so big that by the time I’d run out of paper, I’d written a single paragraph.
Through the years, my teachers told me I was a great storyteller (my mother had another word for it) and that I should be a writer. When I was twelve, my family moved to London, England and our flat was across the street from the location of Charles Dickens’ house where he’d lived while writing David Copperfield.
Friends and relatives naturally assumed that I was meant to be a writer. For every birthday and Christmas, I was showered with journals and diaries in the hopes that I’d be inspired. Instead, I used up the pages recording what I wore each day so I’d never repeat an outfit.
Then in tenth grade, something miraculous occurred. I had to take a typing class, using a manual typewriter (for those of you under thirty, Google it). I was soon typing eighty-eight words per minute. Suddenly, my writing could keep up with my thoughts, and I could get the words down on paper before they were forgotten.
However, I continued to profess a dislike of writing. I still loved to read, but when assigned a fifty-page research paper I wanted to curl up into a ball. All of those words I was expected to create.
Through my years of college, working in the business world, and raising small children, I didn’t have a lot of time for reading. At least not until I discovered Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, and I was once again pulled into the world of story. The book affected me enough to make myself sit down in front of my computer and start to write.
I wasn’t thinking about words, or word count, or how many hours I’d been sitting in front of the computer. I was thinking about the story, and the characters and wondering what would happen next. It was like discovering a new kind of food that was so delicious but had no calories (or, for the guys, like discovering a new power tool that was lightweight yet did everything you needed). It was like falling in love all over again. Suddenly, I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a writer.
It took me almost three years to write, rewrite, and then rewrite again, but by the time I typed “The End”, I had a book I was proud of. I entered it into a writing contest, and won first place. The finalist judge was a New York literary agent and she offered me representation. That first book was published in 2000.
This is usually the part in these tales where an author gets to type, “And they lived happily ever after.” But the winding path of my career has never been about the long, straight highway. My first book had a tiny print run and was out of print shortly after its first publication. Same for the next three books, followed by me being unceremoniously dropped by my second publisher.
This place on my career roadmap is illustrated by a large brick wall. I almost stopped writing. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was also one of those “a-ha” moments in life that we don’t quite appreciate until much, much later.
A few years ago, my high-school aged son told us that he wanted to stop playing football. When we asked why, he explained that all the stuff he loved about being on the football team didn’t outweigh the stuff he didn’t. I’d like to think that my career skirmishes had taught him this clarity of thinking. Because back when I almost quit, I realized that all the stuff I loved about writing far outweighed the stuff that made me want to run screaming into the night. So I soldiered on and kept writing.
About a year after being dropped by my publisher, I sold a book to Penguin Publishing Group. However, being the proverbial tortoise, I didn’t win any land-speed records racing toward bestsellerdom. It took eight books before I cracked the New York Times bestseller list, and two more before I hit the top twenty. I pinch myself daily to remind myself that I used to be the girl who hated to write.
A few weeks ago, I had one of the best days of my life. I typed “The End” on my seventeenth novel, and I also got an email from a reader. It was a thank you note of sorts telling me how during the last two years of her husband’s life when she’d been nursing him through illness, my books had become a life-preserver for her. They were her escape from a difficult situation, a place she could go to laugh, and even to cry over somebody else’s life.
I think there are very few occupations where one has the ability to touch a stranger’s life in such a personal way, and I’m humbled and so grateful that I managed to stumble into this profession.
Granted, on the day when I received that email, it was late in the afternoon and I was still in the sweats I’d worn for three days, but still. It just doesn’t get any better than that.