During one of the tightest and most uncertain periods of our life — not the worst, which was when older son was born, Dan lost his job and there was nothing around that even resembled what he used to do but not very far off — we were talking to an old friend who had invited us to dinner, and we were talking about a lot of our circle caught in the same vise-grip.
“I’m not worried about you two,” our friend said. “You’re the luckiest people I know. You’ll fall on your feet.”
This made us stare because the joke in the house is that if we didn’t have bad luck we wouldn’t have any luck at all. Note the reference above to the worst period in our married life. Can you imagine a worst time to be unemployed than when you give birth, in a complicated emergency caesarean? Or to be worried about money than when you are ill and have a brand new baby?
Me either. But there it is. Our life tends to work like that. Later, when I was writing, it was guaranteed that if Dan lost his job my series would also be terminated and everyone would close their doors to me.
I didn’t argue. You can’t argue people out of this sort of perception. But it was almost as flabbergasting as meeting a high school friend and being told that in high school she’d been jealous of me because I always had a boy on the string. I attended an all-girls school. And though I developed early, the stuff inside the head came very, very late. I didn’t even know enough boys to have on the string. I had an unavailing platonic pash for one of my brother’s friends between 14 and 18 and wrote him over 200 sonnets. If he’d asked me out on a date I’d probably have panicked and run. I lived 90% inside my head with occasional peeks outside to make sure the coast was clear.
I went on my first dates at 17 — and ran — and had my first kiss at 18.
Ten years after I figured out what she meant. There was a boys school across the street and boys called out and sometimes followed us to the train station. Looking back, there were some persistent shadows. It’s entirely possible that one or two just as socially awkward boys followed me and made what my mom called “ill killed lamb” eyes at me. I’d not have noticed. It wasn’t within the realm of possibilities for me, yet. But if my old friend was more sexually aware and dying for those pathetic glances, she might have envied me.
OTOH it’s possible she imagined it. Considering I dressed in my brother’s old sweaters (with leather elbows), scruffy jeans and work boots, she probably imagined it.
In the same way it took me a while to figure out why someone would consider Dan and I the luckiest people we knew.
And then I realized when we hit a rough patch we panic. We do the equivalent of “fight like a cornered cat” but with job searches, money making ventures and taking on random work that might pay (and sometimes opens other avenues of success.) You see, we’re both very security oriented, and even if there’s still money in the bank, or if there’s a payout from former job, or whatever, we want “security for a year.”
So at the slightest bobble, we go nuts. The times Dan has been unemployed (usually because something awful happened to the company or the entire industry) he sends out ten to fifteen resumes a week, ranging from bullseye appropriate to “reach above” to “things I could do till I find a job.”
2003 was the closest I’ve come to being completely unemployed. Lots of people were, then in my field. Because that’s when the fallout from 9/11 hit. And loony as it seems to look at the — then, I’m sure it’s worse now — worst quarter in publishing industry hitting thousands of authors at once and think “it’s the writers’ fault” the publishing system really had no other way to assign blame for failure. By the numbers, the book failed, you fired the writer.
To an extent they had a point too, because back then the ordering to the net system meant all those names were dead forever more.
Which is not to say that it was just or made any sense. It was just the way it was. Which is why trad pub is now failing… by the numbers.
Anyway, Dan was unemployed too, as his traveling job had not endured the strangeness of post 9-11 flight cancelling and delaying (it was weird for about a year.) Which wasn’t a big sadness, as we’d calculated we could live on half his salary and it would be worth it, because well… we both hated being apart, and the kids hated it even more.
And of course we’d just moved and were paying on two mortgages while I got the old house ready for sale. (So this time we didn’t buy before we sold and I’m not sure it was the right thing to do. We still had to move because you can’t sell a house with four cats in it, and the year renting was just wasted money. Never mind. If we’re allowed — none of them was intended except one in 34 years — we’ll reduce it to a cat, maybe two, and take them out with us when the house shows, if we need to sell this one.) Of course we were.
The writers mailing lists I belonged to were full of threats of suicide, sobs over lost long-running series, general despair. Someone was very upset her agent expected her to write a completely different proposal.
Dan was sending out resumes, asking everyone we knew (he stopped short of buttonholing strangers in the street, but not by much) if they’d heard of a job. He was looking for short term pay-by-the project work to make do meanwhile.
And I was doing the equivalent. I contacted a book packager I knew and asked he send me anything remotely related to what I could do. I contacted my friends who edited anthologies and asked for slots. And I buckled down and wrote 17 proposals (detailed out line for first book, first three chapters, five or six short outlines for subsequent books. About 100 pages give or take) for 17 different series, in three different genres.
It all came back together — of course it did — so I sold 15 of the series over the next 3 years (the shelved ones were for stupid reasons. Apparently I was so panicked I proposed a Merlin murder mystery series. I have read Arthurian stuff, but talk about your rabid fans. It would take me 3 years to research so they wouldn’t hate me, and frankly I’m not that rabid a fan The other was for Leonardo da Vinci mysteries, which at that time got returned with “these aren’t the da Vinci Code” which obviously they weren’t. I’ll write them sometime. Yes, there’s someone else writing those. I haven’t read them, on purpose, because I intend to finish mine. But I’m sure mine will be sufficiently different. Different is not a thing I have a problem with.) Meanwhile I got enough short story invites that year I made 5 thousand dollars. And I wrote a book for hire, and ghost wrote two books. While these didn’t pay crazy money, they kept roof over head. And the series I sold kept me making a middle class income for the next 5 years.
And Dan found a job from a bizarre concatenation of circumstances. And because he asked.
So, we fell on our feet, sure. But what you didn’t see was the made scrambling up the cliff face on our bleeding fingernails. It’s who we are, it’s what we do, partly because we hate insecurity, and it’s worse as was then, when you’re responsible for small children, and partly because we don’t expect any luck. So we go out and bombard everything possible in attempts to shake some money loose. We really should print cards for those occasions that say “we also walk dogs.”
I found out recently one of the ghost written books (for an author who was critically ill and willing to pay for someone to fulfill her contracts) which I didn’t even know the final title of because it was written through three layers of secrecy, made someone else’s career taking her from mid list to bestseller. She’s been going on in that series ever since. No, I can’t say more, because it would be opening myself to lawsuits. I only know because I bought the book from audible and then stood transfixed, in the kitchen I’d been meaning to clean going “oh.”
When I found this out, my friends thought I was very upset, but I wasn’t. It’s actually a relief to know something I wrote had that kind of result for someone else. It means I haven’t had that kind of event for other reasons than my writing: possibly the politics thing, possibly because I’ve been too ill to push consciously, possibly because I’m really bad at kissing butt at publishing offices, but mostly I think luck.
Not that my “luck” as people will think is anything to sneeze at, with over 100 short stories published, and 34 books I can admit to in a 20 year career (since I sold first book, not since it came out, which was 2001.) Most careers in my field last 3 books and five years.
But it wasn’t luck. It was mad scrambling on sometimes bleeding fingernails. I don’t know how much of the ill health of the last 20 years has been the result of scramble and stress. I know the last three years have been the result of stress causing multiple auto-immune attacks. It seems like (knocks on head) I’m in the process of resolving that.
Oh, yeah, and I did all this while slowly turning more and more hypothyroidal, for 23 years, which reached disabling levels 10 years ago, and should not have allowed me to write at all. (It really affected my memory. I kept having to turn back to remember my characters’ names.)
For those who haven’t experienced that wonderful condition, besides making you gain weight and making it impossible to lose, the condition also gives you what’s known as “brain fog.” It increased until the last three years before it was treated (three years ago. So, six years total. And honestly until my dose was adjusted this year, to some extent, just not as bad.) It’s like being unable to wake up. Until I got treated, I was up to three pots of coffee a day, just to get something done. (I’m back to a cup, sometimes half a cup, because I forget the cup half-full.) Oh, and yes, I was being tested, sometimes twice a year because the “hypothyroidal mask” (sort of a moon face, with your eyebrows receding towards the center) and the pallor were a give away but the problem is they only measured how much thyroid precursors I produced, not what I was doing with them. My autoimmune attacks the precursor for t3 and turns it into reverse t3. (This isn’t exactly right, but I don’t have the right words and it rhymes.)
Technically I wrote all my books while half awake. And honestly I shouldn’t have been able to write them at all. But what else was I going to do?
From the outside this looks like “luck” and yes, there are people who were sidelined in 2003 and who think I stayed on with some “trick.”
Sure, there was a trick. I panicked and scrambled. It’s a highly reproducible trick for anyone.
I’m not telling you guys this to ask for pity for mah victimhood. Dan and I have been married and real adults for 34 years. Sure there have been periods of mad scramble, but over all it’s been great. I could have done without 20 years of diminishing capacity, but no one asked me, and I got very lucky to find a doctor who could figure out what was wrong and adjust my thyroid before I died. One of those true pieces of good fortune.
I could wish the career had gone better, but that’s fairly irrelevant now, that there’s indie. I’ve been moping and lamenting that this should hit when I’m in my fifties, not my twenties, but I made the mistake of saying this in an older friend’s hearing and she put it in perspective with “Try seventy.” And she’s right. Besides, with the thyroid adjusted, I’m getting back all the crazy energy I had at twenty. (The intensive exercise and diet also seems to help.)
So, in a way, I’m at the beginning of the story, with all of it yet to write. And the kids are ALMOST off our hands too (look, long training for complex professions, okay?) So in a year or so, I should have more time and, for lack of a better term, mind space. Always barring illness and death of course, which in our fifties, must be taken into account. But my ancestresses lived to their mid eighties with no or crap medical care, and again diet and exercise are helping. So let’s hope I have another thirty years, because I have SO MUCH to do. And thirty years, honestly, is a career. And hey, when son worked at hospital (in his gap year) he saw a ton of people over a hundred. If I WORK at the health, I might get LUCKY and be one of those and have forty or fifty years left to write and build. Who knows?
What this post was in name of was to show the mad scramble behind “falling on your feet.”
It seems to be true that looking from the outside we assume everyone else is “lucky.” Because, remember the commercial from the seventies? They don’t let us (either on purpose or through chance) see them sweat.
The problem is that people don’t see you sweat. Perhaps those people who never had to struggle for anything are more prone to imagining that others have it really easy, and therefore they melt at the first blow of misfortune and assume they’re not “meant” to succeed. (I’ve seen it with a lot of colleagues and a few friends.)
And then there’s whole multitudes that our media and school system have convinced they are mistreated, whether that makes any sense or not. The notions of “white privilege” or “male privilege”, the notion of invisible racism or sexism, the notion that somehow people you don’t know and who don’t know you are conspiring against your success. There must be a vast number of these people who buy into this crap, because no one NO ONE who has experienced the real thing and/or not been indoctrinated to ther eyebrows would believe the notion that we live in either a patriarchy or a white supremacy. Anyone who thinks so has been wrapped in cotton and fed garbage.
Tons of people try to attribute my reverses to “foreign born” and “has accent.” And, hell, maybe it’s true, but so what? You push on and try harder. What else are you going to do? Only infants and crazy people think the whole world can change to suit them, instead of their trying another route to success.
Everyone has reverses and trying times. The only people who don’t know that have been molly coddled and spoiled from birth. And even for them, luck eventually runs out.
The difference is in how you face them. Oh, sure, it would probably be best if I approached mine in the serene confidence I’ll overcome. But that’s not me, so I approach them crazily, with fear and horror and scrambling. But I work to get out of it.
Believing everyone but you lives golden lives produces poison and envy, which corrodes the soul and disfigures the personality, turning you into the sort of person who can’t succeed.
Don’t do it. Instead, try clambering up, on bleeding fingernails. It doesn’t matter if you don’t advance for a while. Just don’t stop trying, and don’t blame anyone else for your troubles.
Yes, sometimes it’s bad luck. So what? Others have their trials and many still manage.
Just ignore set backs and work harder. And then you too can always land on your feet.