(Second of a three-part series)
I turned the corner on the street where I live and saw a young, pony-tailed woman standing in my front yard. She was wearing Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses which cost more than I spend in two weeks on groceries. She was sporting a pink tee-shirt, appropriately with the word “Pink” blinged across her generous, propped up breasts elevated to the perfectly perky height allowing for approximately 2.5 inches of cleavage. This made me instantly not like her. Plus, she had a digital camera in her hand.
“What do you need?” I asked as pulled a third of the way into my drive, the pleasant May day allowing for my car windows to be powered down already.
“I’m with Wells Fargo,” she replied. “They sent me to take photos of your house.”
I was not only alarmed, but incensed, since I had been in the throes of paperwork hell with my mortgage lender jumping through bureaucratic rings of fire trying to get a loan modification, based on income reduction due to, uh, ummmm....oh okay, having taken a leave of my senses some eleven months prior, bailing on my day job to hit the road to write a book. I guess I took road to publication at face value. Considering that on this day in particular, I had just given notice on yet another job inside one year, in order to clear my days, nights and mind space to complete said book, I was feeling a bit testy, if not defensive.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Tiffany,” she replied. Of course, thought I.
“Tiffany, I want you to please remove yourself and your camera from my property,” I said in the most respectful, non-threatening way I could muster.
“They warned me to be careful,” she quipped. I swear she was chewing gum. “There’s a note in your file that says the homeowner is 'hostile.'” And she trounced into the neighbor’s yard, snapping photos as she went.
Hostile? This is patently absurd. I had never had any sort of interaction with Wells Fargo other than castrating myself, playing nice, begging, documenting, pleading, hell, I would have offered sexual favors if I’d ever be able to talk to a human, just to prove I was worthy of their government backed benevolence. Rather than escalating to a confrontation with some minimum wage contract worker, who’s probably trying to keep her own ship afloat by freelancing as a vulture with a camera, making $5 a snap with some manner of verifying photos of homes which are teetering precariously close to the edge of foreclosure, I drew a deep breath and simply rolled on down the driveway, where, I found a check in my mailbox.
It was from Salon for a whopping $150. This was the first payment I had ever received in my life for a story I wrote that did not include “police say they have no motive in the killing” or “operators are standing by.” After thirty years as a journalist, political press secretary, corporate script writer and video producer, I had been paid to write something in my own voice. I was elated! I took my kids out for Mexican food!
One-hundred and fifty dollars worth of validation notwithstanding, still I worried.
One-hundred-fifty bucks does not a house payment make. Once again, precisely in the same situation I’d been in a year before when I first backed out of my driveway on my writer’s quest across America, I had to shut out those needling demons of doom, much in the same way one turns off their cell phone in the movie. I had to simply click off the free fall anxiety of “what in the hell happens when I run out of money?” to be present to the story unfolding on my screen. I was writing to beat the clock, to meet a self-imposed deadline of a rough draft by Memorial Day, a book for sale by Labor Day.
But guess what sister writers? I made it! I made it through weeks of imposing empty tables at the university library which had become my summer sanctuary, slogged my way through rewrites, caffeinated myself until the wee hours of the night, cramming for Self-Publishing 101, only to wake up often, at 3:00 in the morning in hot sweats over whether I’d made a terrible mistake months before of saying “no thanks” to a big agent who wanted me to turn my memoir into a Suzy Sunshine self-help book. You see, I had the good fortune of being introduced to a literary agency, through a friend of mine who had been reading my blog posts from the road. By the time I ended my 8,600 mile journey, unloading a lifetime of baggage as I embraced (literally and figuratively !) new characters who appeared on the horizon like actors dispatched from central casting, I had an offer from an agent. They would publish my book and make me a star if I turned my memoir into “how to” book, a sort of recipe for happiness book. We had conference calls. We talked contract. I modified my proposal. I went down that path with visions of advances and book tours dancing in my head. But it felt wrong, especially when they said they sometimes hire a ghost writer to help “with projects like yours.” A ghost-writer, to write my story? Are you kidding me? It felt like I was trying to swallow a giant ball of dryer vent lint. Still I agonized. I was broke. I had somebody who saw something in me, this was my big chance. This agency represented some of the biggest names in America, their books in every bookstore, big box store and airport gift shop in the country. But, they didn’t get me. They didn’t get my story. I sat on my front porch, the same front porch where I sat on the day my dog inspired me to pack it in and pack it up to hit the road and I searched my soul. Then I remembered something I’d written in my journal during the feverish contemplation days leading up to my day of departure. I thought about those who have already departed. I had written down, and highlighted in yellow: “If i write my stories, the people I have lost will live on.”
I just said no. I said no the agency that wanted me to “not talk so much about the dog, not talk so much about the journey, just give us the 'Top Ten Lessons' book." Well sometimes, my friends, you can’t fit a square peg into an already published hole. I wrote the book in the way the miles rolled it out.
And just before I was about to roll it out as a self-published ebook, some wonderful voice inside me told me to look up a gal I had met a year earlier. A St. Louis publisher Blank Slate Press was making news. They had won awards from International Book Awards for Literary Fiction, the USA Book Award for Cross-Genre Literature to the Best First Book - Fiction from the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). I called the publisher and we set a meeting for the next day. Unlike the other calls and meetings I’d had to date, everything about this meeting and this publisher just felt right. After a solo journey across American with nobody but my dog, whistling past the graveyard of certain poverty and blowouts on the highway, pontificating at every bend in the highway about listening to your gut, who was I to question it now? We had a deal within days, I would be her first non-fiction author. Here’s how Kristina Blank Makansi describes her reaction to my manuscript in a recent press release:
“...anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer, been betrayed by a spouse, grown up in a dysfunctional family shrouded by secrets, and anyone who has ever wondered “is this all there is?” will relate to Jean’s story. Her style is funny, intensely personal, ribald, and frankly political. As head of a small press, I see a lot of manuscripts, but when I read this one—in one sitting!—I knew I wanted the Blank Slate Press imprint on the book’s spine.”
It was the book cover that almost derailed the whole deal. If Blank Slate Press was going to publish my book, they had final say on the cover. I was in love with the one we already had! I was locked and loaded, done and done. But these are the things you learn as a first-time author, it’s called the “art of compromise” or “ the details are in the contract.” I knew the publisher had final say. I also knew the publisher did not want me unhappy about the cover. I even cried, not like a bratty kid who cries, just an author with too much emotion tied to a cover. There was a point in the conversation where tearing up the contract was on the table. I backed down. I realized I needed a partner. This was an important lesson for a headstrong gal.
Because in this day of rapid-fire self-publishing here’s what having a traditional publisher will do for you: open doors. They can open the doors to book reviewers, to independent bookstores, the big box stores, on-line and on-the-go stores at the airport. All those places I just talked about and have dreamed my book would be some day. It’s a long-shot, even with a publisher, but at least I have a partner. I partnered with a visionary, a woman who had the courage and love of literature to open her own small press, who has parlayed her years of editing and marketing into something she’s passionate about: publishing books of caliber, helping authors like me reach an audience. Fellow dreamer, schemer, working days, nights and weekends, juggling the demands of making a living and living our dream, challenging the institutional boundaries which try to tell us no, she and I joined forces to start the ripple of what we hope will become a tide of success right here in St. Louis. Not everything has to emanate from New York, although I would be remiss in not reminding you sister SheWriters, that I met her for the fist time in Manhattan, a group of women, pitching our books over cocktails at a Meet Up hosted by She Writes, the remarkable product of a vision hatched by a couple of smart gals a few years ago. See? We can rule the world!
(+ 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.