(First of a three-part series)
Affirmation is to writers what shoes are to Imelda Marcos. If we’re honest with ourselves, we admit we want it. We need it. We love it. We sometimes feel like we simply can’t go on without one little crumb of recognition and approval.
In the long, lonely hours which define the writing life, hunched over computers, staring into space as if the elusive word we need is floating above the couch or over the house across the street, where ofttimes our minds trail off to those toxic thoughts of “Why am I doing this?” we writers need to savor every precious nugget of affirmation we can get.
I never needed it so desperately as the night I heard the sonar “blip” of an incoming email which turned out to be the most positive reinforcement I’d ever received as a writer to that point. I gasped, “Oh my God!” reading the email from She Writes, which made my daughter jump a foot because we were all on high alert, a somber vigil, waiting for word about my brother’s passing. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just eleven months prior and the cancer was holding sway. I had just returned from visiting him in New Mexico, where I had the blessing of being able to say goodbye while he was still aware of who was in the room. I had stayed as long as I could, but with work, plus family demands and knowing that soon I would need to return for his funeral, I said goodbye and came home to St. Louis full of sadness. He passed away five days later.
In the midst of all this grief though, nestled deep inside my heart, was a bright spot; a shimmering, ice-blue sliver of hope for something I held as dear as my dog. The email from She Writes had informed me that I was one of eighteen finalists in the first-ever Passion Project contest. I was over the moon with excitement! The winner would be announced in mid-September. A week later, on Labor Day, where I had just delivered a eulogy to more than 300 people, and had not even begun my own grief work, we mourners sat in lawn chairs in Don’s front yard, parked like crows on the crispy summer grass, dressed in funeral black, far too hot for the late summer sun, juggling plates piled high from the funeral buffet, catching up with long lost relatives. Would have been a great party if my brother had been there. All the while, in the back of my mind, was this tickle of hope -- hope that for all the years I’d been working and dreaming of becoming a published author, it might finally come to pass. I’m sure you can relate.
On the heels, or I should say on the “paws” of that shiny object we call affirmation, came a burst of inspiration. The morning after I got the exciting email from She Writes, my dog Libby delivered a message from the universe which would inspire me to stop living with regret, to challenge my fears, and to pursue my writing goals, no matter the cost. I was sitting on my front porch drinking coffee, with Libby at my feet. It was hot and quiet on this early Sunday morning, no work-a-day traffic, nobody up yet walking their dogs. I felt so overwhelming sad, steeped in regret that I’d lost my chance to take my brother Don on a road trip back to our childhood. He was the eldest, I’d already lost another older brother, and I’d wanted to take Don, the keeper of the family stories on a road trip to Texas and California where we’d lived as kids. Don was the only one who knew about that other brother, out there, somewhere, in northern California. But on this day, that trip was a pipe dream, Don’s remaining days were few. I was crying. All of a sudden, Libby jumps up, takes off like a shot across the yard, running and barking like a rabid dog.
It was the damn cat next door. The neighbors had let out their cat.The calico temptress was crouched under a boxwood bush not twenty feet away, but once Libby bolted past the driveway, where our two front yards blend together, she stopped short, yelping and writhing, running up and down along the drive, in restrained misery. She dared not go any closer to the object of her most fervent desire, because of the electric fence around our yard.
“You silly dog,” I mused. “If only you knew, that barrier has no bite! The battery in your shock collar has been dead for months.”
It was as if a giant billboard had dropped down from heaven with this headline: “What truly is holding you back?”
I sat there in stunned amazement at this message from the universe --a stinging indictment on my life. What was it, really, that stood between me and giving it all I had to be a writer, a real writer? Not a journalist, reporting on the worst day of other’s people’s live, not a press secretary, writing talking points for some candidate, but a story teller, a story teller writing stories that I wanted to tell. And I had a few -- the backstory to my odyssey across America read like a screen test to appear on the Jerry Springer show: born an illegitimate child, abused as a young girl, the story-book marriage collapses like a house of cards with the former husband who ends up in prison for sex crimes, as family members dwindle year by year. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so God-awful tragic.
Aided by the nod from She Writes, (although I did not win the contest) and inspired by the epiphany play on my front lawn, my crazy idea to quit my job, grab the dog and hit the road became an all consuming obsession. Have you ever felt that way? Like you just didn’t believe in what you were doing anymore? Like the dreams you held were dying? That’s how I felt. I backed out the driveway, a few months after this obsession took hold, with barely enough money to survive on, and a fair degree of certainty I’d have a repo man waiting for me when I got back home, but I went anyway. What I didn’t know is what the open road would open up. It paved the way for a book I didn’t know I had in me, Off the Leash.
I’ve always taken things too literally. When I was growing up, I thought every elevator operator in the country was named “Otis” because of the brass plate on the floor which of course, read, “Otis.” Silly me. I guess I took “road to publication” quite literally too, embarking on a two-month, 8,600 mile road trip with my dog, my muse, my confidant, my foil, my inspiration. But it took the spark of affirmation and encouragement from a group of my peers to help give me the confidence to believe in that inspiration. If there’s bit of advice I would give sister writers it would be this: lean closer to your inner voice, it will guide you, but don’t be afraid to open yourself up to external forces greater than yourself to help you along. Shortly before I left on my road trip to write a book, I used my last free flight, leftovers from all my corporate travel, to go to New York for a Meetup with other writers during the Book Expo of America. I wanted to practice my pitch for Off the Leash and gauge reaction to the concept. I needed to test my wheels, boost my confidence. In a noisy, somewhat dark bar on New York’s Lower East Side, a bunch of writers sat around a table and talked about their projects. This was heady stuff for a novice like me. I chatted briefly with a woman who had recently started a publishing company in St. Louis, who, more than a year later, would end up falling in love with my book and agree to publish it. Kamy Wicoff and She Writes organized the Meetup, which only goes to show that sometimes, all you need is nudge.
(+ Giveaway details: Tell us about what nudged you! What was your epiphany, the point of no return, when you decided to give it your all? To nudge you to comment, at the end of this three-part series on October 3rd, we will be giving away a free book to three commenters chosen at random. Seems pretty, uh, random, right?)
Jean Ellen Whatley is the author of Off the Leash: How my dog inspired me to quit my job, pack my car and take a road trip across America to reclaim my life, published by Blank Slate Press, October, 2012. Whatley is an Emmy award-winning journalist cum author who has been featured on Salon, More.com, and as a guest columnist for the
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Winston-Salem Journal, the Albuquerque Tribune and KMOX (CBS) radio, CNN and ABC. For more information about her ebook and print release events, please visit jeanellenwhatley.com.