Eleven years ago, Harper Collins had my manuscript for two months. I was sure the woman I sent it to hated my writing, because she didn’t respond. Every day I searched in my inbox to see if I missed an email. I looked in the mirror and saw my inner critic over my shoulder.
My inner critic said your story was too victim-y, you ramble, there’s too much metaphor, the stories don’’t thread together. She sat on the edge of my bathtub filling her nails down to the bone.
Fucking inner critic.
She flossed her teeth in the car, and without concern for the environment, threw those little plastic threads out the window with Kale and spit clinging to them. She followed me around like an old cat who wants more than milk.
Meow, my inner critic whines.
Meow, she said. Write better.
I decided it wouldn’t be stalking if I sent a second email about my manuscript, and I hit send, and within five minutes, she called me on my cell phone.
The timing, she said. She was breathless. I’m sitting in a cafe with your manuscript crying. Crying into my latte. All over your pages. How could you know I was here reading your words at this exact moment?
She did sound like she had been crying.
My inner critic leaned over the outdoor redwood table. Do you really want to make people cry? Why not make people laugh? There’s enough sadness in the world, she said.
SHHHH, I said to my inner critic – I’m having a conversation.
Then this publishing executive paused. A long pause.
I love the one chapter in your fourteen-year-old daughter’s voice, when she’s doing drugs and hiding them under your own bed so you won’t look there. And how you had a tracker on her boyfriend’s car.
Oh, I said, that was just one chapter, I meant to take it out.
I want to offer you something to write that story. We need a good fucked up teen story, she said.
I had to gather myself. My daughter was fourteen then.
I wanted her to grow up and become the the strong, empowered woman and mother she is today. I didn’t want to freeze her in fucked up moment, forever on the page.
No, I said, I can’t write that story.
And the publishing executive paused and sipped her latte.
She suggested a pen name, which felt like a lie to the person I loved the most in the world. I declined again.
Then may I ask you something very personal, she asked.
This editor had my whole life in your hands, what could be more personal than that?
She asked me if I was dying, if I had a terminal illness.
I had nothing to sip, so I sipped in air. Took a deep, deep breath and let it go. My exhale travelled across the bay to the edges of the sun setting across from the Atlantic. I told her what I had, the kind of cancer, and I said it was bad, but I was doing great.
She said, we’ll pay you to write about the experience of dying. She went on to tell me how death sells, how writing about the end of life was the new trend.
And I said what about the experience of living? I’d like to write about living. I told her those dying people who write about dying end up dying. It’s like playing Jesus in a movie, I said.
And that’s how I turned down my first publishing deal.
And here’s why I’m telling you this story.
Your story is your ANTHEM, your lullaby to someone. Words have intention and spirit and breath and life in them. They are what you leave behind, how you become immortal, there is no other way to stay here forever except through words.
Three years ago, I opened a spoken word show at the Church of the Pacific on Kauai. My adult daughter was in the back of the audience in an orange jumpsuit. I opened the show by telling the audience about the first time I was on stage. My daughter was twelve, and when the show was over, she said
Mom you sucked.
If you want the goddamn truth, ask a twelve -year-old.
My twelve-year said – You didn’t connect with your audience mom. You didn’t own your story and it was really good. You didn’t look up once.
Flash forward and she is twenty-three and now the only thing between us was a laughing, smiling audience. We made eye contact across the heads of our community. It was a rare moment I would see her without a child on her hip. The strong, empowered woman I knew she’d grow up to be laughing at my story of us.
My daughter and my inner critic had showed me how to connect in a meaningful way. Both of us alive against the odds.
We had both been deeply initiated into something new. One might call it a type of resurrection. Instead of being dropped into an old story, sometimes you have to find a new story altogether.
That new story just might save you.
Turning down my first publishing deal might have saved both of us. Now my inner critic is different, too. She says good job, see the difference? You weren’t ready then.
It’s possible, my friends, everything that is happening in your life is getting you ready. Use the preparation time wisely. See time as your gift. I know it’s hard to look at it that way when you want to be published right now. Take a moment and listen.
And then pick up your pen.
It might be time to rewrite that story so the story rewrites your life.