Three years ago this week…
I lived in a mobile home. A very small, 1,000 square foot trailer house. With black linoleum, horrendous gold trim, an air conditioner that didn’t work, a patio door that didn’t open because the floor was rotted through and appliances that would only run one at a time or the breaker would trip. We had a huge pile of trash in a backyard pen because for an entire year, we couldn’t even afford the $25 a month trash service.
I drove a minivan that had no heater, and every winter I would have to leave for work at 6:30 in the morning and pull over every few miles just to wipe and defrost the windows so I could see out it.
Our kids were on free lunches, and for a while, we qualified for food stamps.
All of this, and I had a college degree, which I was utilizing. But working as a social worker wasn’t paying all of the bills, and I was still having to borrow money from my mother and father to make ends meet. When my older sister would come visit, she would bring me groceries. My aunt would send my kids shoes for Christmas, because we could hardly afford them. We dreamed of living like kings on payday, but in reality we were paupers, digging in the couch cushions during the week to afford the banquet TV dinners we lived on most of the time.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
It was wonderful.
I loved my life. I loved my crappy house. I loved that my children were growing up in the town I grew up in, and going to the same school I attended. I loved living half a mile from my mother, and taking the boys for walks every night. I loved paydays, when we would splurge and take the boys to Wal-Mart to buy them a toy. I loved when my mother would show up at my house after everyone went to bed and she’d give me twenty dollars and we would drive to the casino and play penny slots for five hours straight. My favorite present was when my little sister gave me twenty dollars in quarters for Christmas a few years ago because we love arcades, and we spent the entire twenty bucks on claw machines. I loved the days my older sister would come visit and bring me her old clothes and old makeup and groceries and it would feel like I hit the lottery. And I especially loved it when my husband and I would dream about one day building our own house. Of course we never believed it would actually happen, but dreaming was free and it was fun. So we dreamed a lot.
I worked eleven hour days, but I loved my job and I loved the women I worked with. In October of 2011, my son told me he wanted to audition for a play and I knew the hours would kill me, but I loved that he was brave enough to audition in front of a crowd at the age of eight. When he got the part, I was both ecstatic and pissed off. Of course I wanted him to get the part, but my husband was working over the road and was only home a couple of days a month. That meant every weekday, I’d be leaving my house at 6:30 am and wouldn’t get home until 9:30 every night, after rehearsals. But I made it work, with the help of a lot of people.
A friend of mine, and sometimes a few of the teachers at my children’s school, would drop my son, Cale, off at my work every afternoon. My other two children would go to my mother’s house every night. When work ended at 6pm, we would head straight to rehearsals. This went on for a couple of months, and sitting in the auditorium sometimes got boring. I would borrow my mother’s laptop, which honestly couldn’t even be considered a laptop. It was one of those mini laptops that was so tiny, it was hard to type on. Not to mention it was missing a few keys. It was really sad looking, but I didn’t own a computer, so I made it work.
I would play around on youtube, read a book or two on Amazon, anything to pass the time. But one night after watching a lot of slam poetry on youtube, I decided I wanted to read a book about a slam poet. When I couldn’t find one, I started writing one.
I wrote the first few paragraphs on that tiny laptop in the auditorium of the Sulphur Springs community theater. All I could think about while I was driving home was how much I wanted to write another paragraph. And another. I would take my mom’s laptop home with me at night and stay up writing until about 2am. Then I would drop it off in her car at 6:30 every morning so she would have it when she worked all day. Then on my way home every night, I’d borrow it again and use it until 2am. The cycle continued for a week or two, until I had about four solid chapters. I still didn’t know what I was writing. I had no idea that I would eventually let people read it. I just knew that it was fun and I was sacrificing sleep and sanity to do it. It felt so good to be excited about a hobby. I was falling in love with Lake and Will’s story and it consumed me night and day. I would write at work on breaks and lunch and between clients. After a couple of weeks, I printed the first few chapters and gave them to my mother to see if it was something she liked. I also gave them to my boss, who honestly didn’t think anything of it when I said I was writing a book. She was used to my crazy ideas. I think the month before, I wanted to open a pottery story. The month before that I wanted to major in business. The month before that, I wanted to go back into teaching. It was always something new, so she wasn’t expecting this to stick, and honestly, neither was I.
After they read the first few chapters, they didn’t come to me with praise or criticism. They didn’t say how good they thought it was, or how crappy they thought it was. Both of them just basically said, “Where’s the next chapter?” And when I said, “I haven’t written it yet,” it was as if I slapped them in the face. Their reaction was by far better than any compliment they could have given me.
It was my inspiration.
Just knowing that someone other than myself wanted to know what happened after Will ran into Lake in that hallway, was enough for me to finish that book as fast as I could. And even then, I expected nothing. Of course I had dreams that maybe I would sell it to a few friends and I could pay my water bill. But I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to be disappointed, so I never aim high with my goals. I set very realistic goals for myself. Finishing the book was the only goal I had at that point.
My older sister is a different story. She had huge dreams for this book and she’s a very big believer in positive thinking. She makes vision boards every January, and the week before I self-published SLAMMED, she wrote on her vision board that she hoped I would make $100,000 that year from the book. When I saw it, I got so mad at her. I knew that was ridiculous and she was just setting herself and everyone else up for failure. I thought that if she had that expectation of me, she would be disappointed in me. I made her take it down. I didn’t even want my book mentioned on there, because to me, it was just a silly story and no one other than my friends and family would ever care to read it.
When I self-published it to Amazon, I think I sold 30 copies the first week or month. I can’t even remember. I just know it was enough to pay not only my water bill, but my electric bill. And most of those sales were from the first day when all my friends downloaded the book out of curiosity, so I knew the next month wouldn’t really see any sales and things would slow down. But that didn’t matter to me, because I wrote the book simply because it was fun, not because I wanted to make it a career. The thought of actually writing full-time was a crazy notion and I wouldn’t even allow myself to entertain it.
I started on the sequel, Point of Retreat, shortly thereafter. I began immersing myself in the online book community, which I didn’t even know existed. Every few days, something exciting would happen. I’d get an email from someone I didn’t know about the book, or the book would move in rankings from 100,000 to 99,000 and me and my sisters and my mother would freak out and call each other. The simplest things were so exciting. I remember calling my mother one day saying, “SIX people bought my book today and I don’t even know them!” It was insane.
After about three months of this, things started picking up even faster. The book was blogged about by a popular blogger, which really gave it a huge jump in rankings. And from there, it just continued to climb. I was still working, because I refused to believe that the money I was beginning to bring in was actually going to continue. I remember sitting in the floor of my trailer one evening, calculating the number of books I had sold that week. They were both in the top 100 at the time and I realized I had made more money off the books in that one week than I could have made in three months at my job. But I still got up and went to work every day because I was so convinced that all of it would stop as fast as it had started.
Then came the big day. The day every writer dreams of.
The day I was notified that I had hit The New York Times.
I was at work and in between clients that day. When I hung up the phone after receiving the news, I just sat there, staring at my computer. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t excited. I was…dare I say it…embarrassed.
I just knew that everyone was going to find out that it was a fluke and I didn’t deserve it. After all, I’d only been at this a few months. I hadn’t paid my dues as a writer yet. I waited a while before calling my husband and my family to let them know. My mother cried, and I acted happy. But the truth is, I felt guilty. Extremely guilty. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Still to this day people ask how it felt to hit the list for the first time and I smile and say, “It was awesome.” Because who in their right mind would say, “It was awful?!” But it was, because I was still so unsure of myself. So unsure of my books. So unsure that I deserved anything that was happening to me.
A week after the books hit the list, things became a lot busier. The emails were coming in from readers, the blog interviews, the calls from publishers. It came to a point where I had to choose between making this a career or focusing on the job I was still working at, because I couldn’t do both. I ended up choosing to pursue the writing, which was a no brainer. Even if it all stopped the very next day, I would have regretted not giving it a shot.
It was the best decision I ever made. In the weeks that followed, I was offered contracts with traditional publishers. Something that I wasn’t even capable of dreaming, because it seemed so far out of my reach. I chose to sign with Atria Books, and have been with them for two years now. It’s been exactly three years since I sat in that theater and typed the first paragraph of my very first book onto a broken keyboard, and my life has changed tremendously. I don’t have one single regret. I don’t even regret the fact that I couldn’t enjoy hitting the New York Times list for the first time. Because the last thing I ever want to feel is entitled to success.
I’ve hit the New York Times list with the six books that followed, and I promise you I enjoyed every second of those. Of course I still feel undeserving, but I’ve learned that it’s okay to feel undeserving. It’s good for you. The second I feel confident and deserving of success is the second I deserve to lose that success.
As long as my readers continue to support me, I will continue to write. And even when this genre fades, which it will, and my books stop selling, which they will, I will continue to write. Because when I wrote the first paragraph of Slammed, I wasn’t writing to hit a list. I wasn’t writing for a paycheck. I was writing because I had to. I wanted to. I longed to. And I hope these feelings will always be the foundation for every book I complete.
Three years ago, my husband and I dreamed about the day we would be able to build a new house. Tomorrow, that’s going to happen. On the same land where we happily lived in our single-wide trailer, we will be breaking ground on the house we will spend the rest of our lives in, and I still can’t wrap my head around it.
I know this started with the fact that I wrote and finished a book, but that was as simple as putting a pen to paper. Nothing would have followed had it not been for the support of my readers. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the motivation. And remember-
Dreams are free, so make sure you have a shit-load of them.