I have always wanted to be a writer. Not just a writer, but a REAL writer, a writer with my name on the cover of a book and a glowing review in the New York Times.
My writing career began with a story I wrote in second grade about a candy cane that escaped the conveyer belt at the grocery store and I never looked back. I took AP English in high school, majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing in college, and edited and wrote for my university’s literary magazine, brushing elbows with Kurt Vonnegut and Joyce Carol Oates in the process.
Then I graduated and life happened. I had bills to pay and fell in love with a man who hated New York City (how anyone can hate NYC is still beyond me!). My dreams of being a REAL writer took a back seat to things like paying rent and not starving, and although I wrote for a variety of local newspapers, magazines and advertising agencies, my bread and butter came from my job in the legal field.
Eventually, my first daughter was born, followed by a son and another daughter, and although I continued to write for local magazines, it never felt like the REAL writing I wanted to do. As forty loomed on the horizon, I realized it was now or never, so over months of stolen moments and late nights, I wrote a book. It was called Wine in my Sippy Cup, and it was a funny, poignant, and (mostly) fictional account of a career woman turned mom trying to rediscover her romantic mojo and who she’s become post-motherhood. I sent it to agents and even pitched it at a writer’s conference, but the response was always the same—great writing, but people don’t want to read a book about a slightly imperfect mom trying to find herself. Could I write a gritty murder or a nice Amish love story instead?
I put it in a drawer for a year before I decided to self-publish it. In my mind, I wasn’t a REAL author since I published it myself, but it was better than leaving it in a drawer. As it turns out, a lot of women did want to read a book about being a mom. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads fed my soul. My favorites were the ones that said my book made them feel like they weren’t alone, that we were all in this beautiful, terrifying thing called motherhood together.
Despite the positive reviews and the thrill of seeing my name on the cover of a book I wrote, I would cringe every time some asked if I had self-published it, because to me that somehow felt like I still wasn’t a REAL writer.
What was real was my passion for writing, how happy it made me, how it filled a hole in me that I hadn’t realized was there. I decided to write something more marketable and started a romance (although this time I wrote under a pen name to avoid awkward moments with my kids' friends).
I fell in love with my book and I fell in love with writing again. There literally weren’t enough hours in the day for me to write. The story flowed out of me like a river. I finished it in a record six months. On a whim, I submitted the finished manuscript to the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart contest for an unpublished manuscript.
Two weeks ago, I received a phone call that my manuscript was a finalist—one of only three books in my category that had received the requisite score of 90 or above from all of the judges. Many in the industry say the Golden Heart award is like an Oscar nomination for romance writers, and that’s exactly how it felt. This was the moment I had waited for and dreamed of my entire life. Finally! Validation that I was a REAL writer. To say I was thrilled is an understatement. I was beside myself with joy, jumping up and down ecstatic. The board member who called to give me the good news said something about author photos, a black tie dinner where the winner would be announced, and a champagne reception, but all I could think was, “They like me! I’m a REAL writer!”
That evening, a writer friend of mine who was almost as excited about the award as I was looked up how the final round was judged and reluctantly pointed out to me a line in the eligibility requirements that said the competition was only open to unpublished authors.
“But I am unpublished,” I replied.
I certainly didn’t think the little book I’d put out two years earlier counted. Besides, as I'd read the rules, I’d thought they meant the manuscript you were submitting couldn’t have been previously published. My friend read it as contestants couldn’t have published anything at all.
I spent a long night with a heavy weight on my chest. What if my friend was right? Since I was writing under a different name, it was doubtful anyone would ever know. And while I may have misread the eligibility requirements, I had done so innocently. Should I tell them?
The next morning, I got on my knees and then I picked up the phone. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The contest director was sweet and understanding and tried to find a loop hole for me, but my friend had read the rules correctly. I was technically ineligible because I had previously self-published a work of fiction. Twenty-four hours later, I officially withdrew from the contest.
Disappointment is a bitter pill. I cried. I prayed. I wondered why I had been given such a gift, such validation, only to have it snatched away. And because I am a mom with three kids, I also went to a piano recital, took my son to basketball practice, and stayed up until midnight waiting with my oldest daughter to find out if she had made the drill team, putting my disappointment behind me to celebrate with her when she got the news that she had.
A few days later, I was reading The Velveteen Rabbit with my youngest.
“’What is REAL?’ asked the rabbit one day,” she read in her sweet seven-year-old voice.” ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.’”
I started paying attention a bit more to this wise stuffed horse.
“’When you are REAL, you don’t mind being hurt….It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept.’”
As women and mothers, we get a lot of practice at being real. We love without boundaries, often living with our hearts outside our chests as our children go out into the world. Those of us brave enough to be real do get hurt, but rather than let it break us, we let love in through the cracks of our brokenness. Over time, we love and we lose and we keep trying and eventually, we become.
Suddenly, I got it. Real isn’t an agent or publisher or a contest telling me I’m a success. Real is my sixteen year old daughter seeing me give up the opportunity of a lifetime to do the right thing and saying, “I’m proud of you, mom.” Real is going to a piano recital and basketball practice and cheering on my kids when I all I want to do is crawl under the covers and eat chocolate. Real is loving what you do so much that you can’t wait to do it again. Real is getting so involved in the characters you’ve created that you accidentally call your teenage daughter’s guy friend by your book character’s name. Real is not being afraid to try. Real is showing your children how to act with grace in the face of adversity, and to always keep dreaming and pursuing your dreams.
Real isn’t how you’re made. It happens to you.
Turns out I was real after all.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!