On Lies I’ve Told Myself

In the spring of 2018, I had what I like to call “a bit of burnout” because “inability to give fuck about anything including but by no means limited to working to pay the bills” seems so negative.

My daughter had graduated from high school two years before and was living at home with me but her challenges prevented her from holding a job or even doing very much without intense guidance and supervision. I tried to provide that guidance and supervision while also working full-time and trying to keep the story afloat, the one about how I would be a famous writer soon if I just hung in there, a story that required me to do actual writing, and submitting, and riding the roller coaster of getting an agent and then being dumped when the manuscript didn’t sell, going to conferences to figure out what some thirty-something woman from Bryn Mawr would want to acquire for her list, and watching other people get what I wanted.

So I decided in what was either the best or worst decision of my life that I would devote my efforts to making my dream come true. I would pull back on my day job as an editor and pile all the chips on one roll of the dice. I would live on my savings and spend six months just writing and submitting and at the end of that time, I would have agents tripping over themselves, competing for my work.

I really believed this, or at least I needed to believe it. In order to recover from not giving a fuck about anything, you have to figure out something to give a fuck about.

Which was how I woke up that autumn with an unfinished novel manuscript, no agent, and no paying work in hand or on the horizon.

It was September and I had no way to pay October’s rent.

This is the point in the story where someone invariably asks, “What about Jessica?”

To which I always want to say, “Well, what about her?” Do people think I have somehow forgotten I have a child? Failed to consider her needs in the middle of falling apart? (What was I thinking?)

Relax. Jessica was fine. She is fine. The previous year, I’d learned about a program for young adults with intellectual disabilities run by a special education professor at the University of Kansas. In the program, which started in the August of my discontent, Jessica started attending regular college classes, like other students.

Getting her ready for this program required most of my spare time for the entire year prior to her admission. I helped her become familiar with the campus by walking it several times a week with her. We worked on her being left on her own—fifteen minutes at first, then half an hour—but I always had to be on call in case she was scared or didn’t know what to do or just needed reassurance that I was there. Over and over, we role-played what to do in various scenarios, practicing everything a hundred times. Every day, just about every spare moment I had.

The program director tells parents of incoming students, “One of the members of the program worked incredibly hard for a year to be able to succeed in the program!” and if you notice that something has been omitted from this description, you’re probably a caregiver yourself. And if you’re thinking all of this caregiving might have contributed to my burnout, yes.

So Jessica was fine. I suspect Jessica will always be fine; she has a knack for eating when she’s hungry and resting when she’s tired and crying when she’s sad, unlike me.

Though she wasn’t the one with her toes curled over the abyss, she could see I was in trouble. She said, as she always does when I approach cliffs, “I don’t think you should get any closer than that, Jennifer.”

She always calls me Jennifer when I’m not acting the way she thinks a mother should act, which is to say most of the time.

“What do you expect me to do?” I snapped.

The problem—or, rather, one of the very many problems—with it being September and my not having enough money coming in to pay October’s rent was that it made it nearly impossible for me to do any creative work. Some people may find starving a spur to creative effort but I don’t: the anxiety chewed up all of my attention and I spent hours every day on the hamster wheel of What should I do? What should I do?

Jessica braved my snappishness. She braced herself and looked at me. “I know you have been a freelancer for a long time. Maybe it’s time for you to get a job.”

 


 

On Not Reaching the End

When I wrote The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman three years ago, I had reached what we might call a resting point in my life, where some of the things I wanted to do were thwarted by circumstance, and I was learning to live with that.

This very much disappointed a lot of people, who wanted more of a Hollywood-type ending, even though there are no Hollywood-type endings except in Hollywood movies. There aren’t even endings, until The End, which is usually more like a drastic interruption in the action than a satisfactory closure.

But I haven’t reached The End yet. I have been on some new adventures, and I wanted to tell you about them.

Earlier this summer, I released a novel, Coyote’s Poison, which I should have been promoting but I moved to Los Angeles instead, which was way more fun than book promotion would be, for you and me both.

A friend of mine mentioned that she’d be interested in seeing a blog post about my move from the hinterlands of Kansas to the big bad city, but the idea that I could describe the experience – motivation, conflict, resolution – in, say, five hundred words is of course ludicrous. I’m a novelist. So there won’t be a post. There will be a bunch of posts.

But first, a story.

I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was five years old, a fact that surprises almost no writers but seems to stun everyone else. “You decided when you were five? And you never changed your mind?”

Certainly I have wished I could change my mind and become an accountant or a salesperson or something lucrative, but yes, I was five, and no, I never changed my mind.

If you’re a writer or know a writer or have read a writer, you’re probably aware that according to received wisdom on Twitter and elsewhere, we’re all going to be famous and successful authors if we just persist. There exists in the writing community a naive and some would say evil belief that if you are “good” at it, you will find your audience and the aforementioned fame and success will be arriving at any moment now. That is to say, if you merit it. Which I guess is like having faith the size of a mustard seed in some merit committee that you cannot see, hear, or touch.

If you are not now famous and successful, you have not tried hard enough or perhaps are not good enough, as if luck, connections, timing, and the systematic oppression of certain voices were all well within your power to control.

I suppose “just keep trying” is better than “give up hope” but I’m not convinced. Collectively a lot of us are wasting our time, time that might be better spent having a conversation with a friend or going for a walk.

You are wondering what this has to do with moving to LA. Patience, grasshopper.

When I began my writing career more than twenty years ago, I had the idea that being a published author would change my life. I would be admitted to that august group of people who matter, whose opinions are listened to, who garner respect and understated reviews in the New York Times. I would have a seat at the Algonquin table.

If you’re detecting the setup for a Disillusionment Plot, you would be right, but I didn’t see this at the time. It was just life. And I was in the middle of it.

When my daughter Jessica was born with a catastrophic brain abnormality, I didn’t let that stop me or silence me. I kept trying. I had successes – books and articles published, good reviews received, interviews and signings booked, enough money earned to keep on paying the rent. But I could hardly say I had arrived anywhere. I never made the New York Times Bestseller List. I did briefly rank #1 in my keyword on Amazon once.

I had been more successful than some but not as successful as I’d hoped, a truth that most of us have to wrestle with at middle age, no matter what career we’ve pursued or how it all went down.

Being a single mother with a massively disabled child is challenging, especially when you’re not a trust fund recipient, have little social support, and are responsible for paying all the bills yourself no matter how many days your child spent in the hospital this month. It is hard and grinding and it will break you.

So you tell yourself stories. The story I told myself was that someday, if I just hung in there long enough, I was going to be a famous writer whose pluck and courage would have publishers pre-empting the auction for my memoir with frantic offers. The fantasy was never about the number of zeroes on a check, since I view the accumulation of money as a contemptible activity, but about validation. That the world would agree I was something special.

When Jessica was older and showed an interest in making glass art, I embellished the story. She was going to be a famous glass artist, stunning everyone with the power of her work. We would be an unstoppable mother-daughter team like no other, recognized for our incredible achievements.

It was a good story and I liked it a lot. But it wasn’t true. That is, it didn’t come true, as we say. After a while I could see the story had gotten a little shopworn and threadbare. I didn’t believe in it anymore. Jessica stopped making glass, pursuing other interests, as young people do, and should do. I faced that fact that if I were going to be discovered, it would have happened by now. It’s not like I haven’t been jumping up and down for twenty years screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!”

The thing is, my life can’t be changed now, or at least not by external validation. I could rocket to the top of The List tomorrow and it wouldn’t change anything. It wouldn’t cure my daughter. It wouldn’t make me young again, and full of hope.

Still, I had this story about bestseller lists and enough reliable income to buy a house before I’m too old to live in one. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the story, why I wanted what I wanted when I knew that fundamentally it didn’t make any difference. It wouldn’t change my life. It couldn’t.

So what was all the scrambling for? Ego? Maybe I had something to say. But to think I deserve to be heard above all others is the epitome of privilege and entitlement.

What I needed, I realized, was a new story. A new story about how I was going to live, knowing that my big break never came. Or that it came and I squandered it or didn’t notice when it arrived. Because I didn’t want to be the person who used up her life and said at the end of it, “I never got what I wanted.”

The story couldn’t be about trying harder or believing even more delusionally in rewards. It had to be a story about having a good life, even a great life, despite its, and my, very many imperfections.

And this is where that story starts.

Growing Your Freelance Career

When you first begin freelancing, it’s like being parachuted, blindfolded, into a ten-acre field you’ve never seen before and your job is to grow a crop. You have no idea where you are or what the soil is like or what the seasons will bring or what grows here. You’ve got a plow, or maybe a shovel, depending on your skill level, and you don’t even know where to get seeds to plant.

At this point, some people give up and go work on someone else’s farm.

But if you stick with it, you start to get a better idea of where you are: Minnesota or Arizona. And you have a clearer idea of what grows here: cactus or corn. But other people around you seem to be doing better planting soybeans or apple trees and maybe you should, too. And still other people are selling up and trying again in Oklahoma, where the soil is better for wheat. Or so everyone says.

Now you have alternatives: you could go to work on someone else’s farm, or you could change your crop, or you could move. Or you could stick with what you’re doing.

Later, you get to the point where you’re growing cucumbers, amazing cucumbers, you’re good at cucumbers but now no one is buying cucumbers. Should you keep growing them? Maybe the cucumber market will bounce back and you just need to be patient. Who doesn’t like cucumbers? Surely there will be buyers again soon. Maybe you just need to remind everyone of how delicious Greek salad is, with all those tasty cucumbers. Maybe you should partner with someone who produces feta cheese!

Now you have many more alternatives: you could go to work on someone else’s farm, or change your crop, or move, or change your marketing plan, or form a strategic partnership, or just stick with what you’re doing.

In other words, you thought you had challenges when you started? The one thing you can count on in freelancing is change. There is never a point where you have it all figured out. If you think you do, you don’t.

Which, conveniently, brings me to my main point: Be firm in purpose but flexible in your means.

As the market has changed, as I have changed, my career has gone through countless iterations and corrections. Through it all, I have maintained my core purpose in freelancing: to be able to raise my daughter, with all of her challenges, in the least restrictive and most supportive way. This has always meant earning a reasonable income and having almost total control over my schedule.

Secondarily, I wanted to grow my craft as a writer and an editor. So I try to choose projects and approaches that keep me challenged. It’s why I’m not doing the same work I was doing ten years ago.

Through the years, I’ve been a nonfiction book author, a magazine writer (then a magazine editor), a book development editor, a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, a novelist, and a teacher. These are all related but they are by no means the same thing. At each turn, I had to find ways to learn new skills and to “empty the cup” of what I knew so that I could find out news ways of doing things.

Change makes it easy to doubt yourself. It can make it difficult for you to find clarity about next steps. At those times, I go back to my core principle. Is it still meaningful to me, the most important priority? If it’s not, then I reflect on what my new principle is, and see how that affects my next steps. For example, as my daughter has gotten older, my need for total control over my schedule has lessened. That makes it possible for me to consider new paths that weren’t available before.

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On Aging Well

Whenever I look in the mirror, I’m always surprised to see all the silver in my hair. How did that happen? Last I checked, I was nineteen. Of course, with a twenty-year-old daughter, I can’t still be nineteen but I can pretend.

A few weeks ago, I started re-reading the Travis McGee mystery/suspense series by John D. MacDonald and realized I loved them as much as always. Some of the attitudes are a bit outdated but McGee was surprisingly ahead of his times. In contrast, a suspense novel written by Helen MacInnes (who was very popular around the time of WWII) didn’t hold up as well. I’d enjoyed it when I was younger but couldn’t even finish it now.

Have you ever re-read a beloved story only to find it hasn’t weathered the years well? Do tell!

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Don’t forget to join the club – my online book club (on Facebook) for lovers of mystery and suspense. Join here!

Spatial Relations

An excerpt from The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman (now available!)

The cab driver has intense crazy eyes. I see this right away as he stands by his cab, waiting for a fare. The crazy eyes make him my kind of guy so I hand over the bags and tell him where we’re headed.

We’re in Munich. Since I was bred on war movies and spy thrillers, the word Munich sends a little shiver down my spine.

It turns out that Munich is charming, and that somehow makes it worse, because it’s not melodrama that way, with leering villains twirling their mustaches, it’s ordinary people, people who smile and hold open a door, who do the nightmare things. People like you and me. You and me. I think I speak for all of us when I say I would much prefer it to be monsters, the kind you can see coming from a mile off.

Eventually I integrate this new knowledge with the old, that this place can have contained horrifying acts while brilliant red begonias spill out of window boxes and everyone has a friendly smile (“That’s because they know you’re leaving,” a cynical acquaintance tells me later.)

The cab driver turns onto a narrow cobblestone path that cannot correctly be called a street but he drives down it anyway in order to deliver us to our pension in Marienplatz.

Here there is another blonde Ukrainian but also behold: a lift, the first lift in all Europe. It is too small for more than one person at a time, so I put Jessica aboard with a bag, then tromp up the stairs with everything else to meet her on the third floor, the duffel bag hitting my butt with each step.

We get inside the room and I collapse on one of the beds for a minute and she says, “Good thing there’s an elevator.”

When I am capable of ambulation, which doesn’t take as long as Jessica thinks, we go out into the plaza. Our travel rule is that we must first explore the area around our hotel so that we can always figure out how to get back.

Just down the alley from our pension I spot a clock tower.

“Look,” I say. “That’s perfect. The clock tower marks the spot where we’re staying.”

It turns out that this would work better if there weren’t clock towers on every street corner in Munich.

“Okay,” I revise. “The clock tower by the tourist shop that sells gingerbread.”

Then: “Okay, the clock tower by the gingerbread shop that is triangular in shape, not square like that one—”

In this higgledy-piggledy collection of buildings in the city center, you could conceivably trudge aimlessly for a week without ever finding your way back to wherever you are staying.

“On the prairie, they lay everything out in a nice grid,” I say to Jessica. “The numbered streets run east-west and the named streets run north-south, or vice versa, and either way you always know where you are in relation to where you want to be.”

“Uh huh,” says Jessica. She doesn’t tune me out a lot but when she does, it’s fairly decisive.

We wander the streets and I marvel at the buildings. They look so German! Just what they are supposed to be. In the square is the famous glockenspiel, and it is exactly right, too. I find that I am standing behind a man playing accordion in front of said glockenspiel, which means I am in a million summer vacation pictures. I step aside as a woman in a bright red hat pedals her bike past.

A boy is chasing pigeons while another is feeding them. Both are about the same age. I think this is the world writ small: half the people think it’s okay to do whatever you want no matter how terrifying it is to the pigeon, and the other half is trying to save the world from the first half.

Then I realize there is a third role, mine: the one who is watching.

We stop for ice cream at a stand run by a tall blond young man with icy blue eyes, exactly the kind of guy you see playing the part of a skinhead in a movie. Every time we stop by, he remembers that it’s still, not sparkling, water for me and vanilla ice cream for her. He flirts with both of us impartially the entire time we’re in Munich. He is adorable and scary.

“Okay, so we’re staying at the pension near the corner that has a triangle-shaped gingerbread shop by the clock tower with the ice cream stand at a diagonal to it.”

“Or you could write down the names of the streets,” Jessica says.

“That would be a map.”

“What’s wrong with a map?”

“Maps are two dimensional. The world is three dimensional. What I have to do is somehow get the three dimensional world my body inhabits to mesh with the two dimensional map I can read on a piece of paper, but my brain does not like this task. However, if I wander around and look at things, eventually my brain makes its own map.”

“Uh huh,” Jessica says.

In this we are opposite. Jessica can look at things but she won’t remember them. Unlike me, she can look at a map and use it to get from here to there.

I pluck one from the stand at the square-shaped gingerbread shop and hand over a few euros.

“Here.” I give it to Jessica. “Between the two of us, we’ll always find our way back.”

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The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman is now available in print and ebook formats.

If you’re looking for a lovely Mother’s Day gift, check out Jessica’s glass at www.jessicalawlerkay.com. Order by May 8 to ensure delivery in time for Mother’s Day!