August 16, 2019

this one's for 21-year-old me

Me at 21 in Southern Illinois.
Nothing by confidence, optimism and determination.

Three days after I graduated from college, I packed up my Mazda Protege and drove 500 miles from my home to Southern Illinois. I'd been offered an internship at a newspaper there for the summer. Even though I'd never been for a visit and had only spoken to the editor twice by phone, I'd accepted. Hot off an internship at my local newspaper, and with a freshly minted journalism degree sitting on the desk at home, I saw this as the first step in the career I'd mapped out for myself.

On a rare quiet evening, I'd typed up a timeline for myself in a Google document. It looked something like this:

  • Summer 2008 - Intern at newspaper, get breaking news and in-depth clips for portfolio
  • Fall 2008 - Land a reporting job at a larger newspaper, get political clips for portfolio; write first contemporary romance novel
  • Fall 2010 - Move to a larger newspaper, get human interest clips for portfolio; get an agent for fiction and publish within the year
  • Fall 2012 - Start grad school; freelance for magazines; begin pattern of publishing two new romance novels every year
  • Summer 2014 - Take off summer to backpack Europe
  • Fall 2014 - Begin part-time faculty appointment; continue to freelance for magazines; continue publishing schedule (perhaps try a historical romance too?)
  • Summer 2016 - Turn 30; teach writing workshops; get movie deal; ease up on journalism to focus full-time on fiction; repeat forever

Just a simple plan for a young woman who thought she had it all figured out. I'd work my butt off for about eight years, and by the time I was 30, I'd have everything I ever wanted with virtually no adversity or difficulty.

As a result of a computer failure, this is the only photograph I have of me
from my college graduation. But even in this you can see I was always more
interested in what was next rather than what happening in the moment.

My first instinct just now was to type "what an idiot." But I'm going to be kinder to my past, idealistic self. While I was incredibly naive, as I drove to Southern Illinois with a Foo Fighters CD blasting through the speakers, I had boundless confidence, optimism and determination. In truth, I miss waking up every day believing that even if today was tough, it was all leading me toward the professional happily ever after I'd written for myself. I miss having that much faith in myself and others.

I pulled into the first motel with a price that I could afford and carried my suitcase upstairs. I was still looking for a short-term apartment, so I figured my TV, movie and books could wait till the weekend when I'd surely have living arrangements all worked out. I settled into bed with a freshly delivered pizza and watched as Ryan Seacrest declared David Cook the winner of that season of American Idol. My future started the next day, and I was ready.

Of course when I pulled up to the newspaper, I realized I had no idea where I was supposed to park or even which door I should walk through. I used the front entrance for the first and last time that day. The woman at the front desk showed me to the news cubicles and told me to grab a chair while I waited for the editor to arrive.

That was the high point, professionally speaking.

To make it clear: I don't blame the newspaper or any of its employees for how that summer went. With the power of reflection, I see that I went into the whole experience with unrealistic expectations. Also, I forgot about the fact that I'm actually pretty shy when I'm in new settings, and I'd never been so far from home for such a prolonged period of time. It was much more difficult for me emotionally than I'd imagined. And while I came away with solid clips, more knowledge and even a job offer (which I turned down for reasons I won't get into here), that summer gave me more of an education outside of the job than in it.

Southern Illinois is beautiful. On the weekends I would often drive
somewhere picturesque like this. As a broke intern, I couldn't afford to do
much more than drive places, but the views are still ingrained in my memory.

When short-term housing didn't pan out, I booked a room at an even more affordable (translation: cheap) motel that I could pay by the week. While I had a TV in the room, I didn't have much more than a few channels on the TV and no reliable Wi-Fi connection. And in that first month, I didn't have any friends. Most of the people around my age worked on the copy desk, which meant they had vastly different working hours than me. And while everyone was kind, for the first time in my life I felt completely alone and lonely.

Though I dabbled a little at a story I'd outlined, I found myself reading most of the time. I'd stay up late in the motel, curled up with a book while I tried to ignore the sounds of the people in the rooms around me. I'd grab a Diet Dr. Pepper and cheese and crackers (you eat interestingly when you live in a motel room that doesn't have a fridge or microwave) and dive into another story while I sat with my back against a tree at a park.

Those first weeks, I worked my way through the small pile of books I'd packed along. I finished all of my Catherine Coulters and Julie Garwoods. Then I picked up a couple of books by new-to-me authors that I'd received in a grab back at a writing conference. One of them was Rachel Gibson. Reading her books led me to do some Google searches (when the Internet worked) and somehow I stumbled upon a copy of Julia Quinn's The Duke and I on Google Books. I'd guess it's because they're both published with Avon, but however it happened, I started to read the story.

Within a few pages, I was completely hooked on Simon, Daphne and the rest of the Bridgerton crew. I stayed up all night to finish, because I desperately needed to know that everything would work out.

The next day, I drove to the bookstore after work and bought the only Julia Quinn books I could find (the recently released The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr. Cavendish, I Presume) and put in a request that they order the Bridgerton books so I could finish what I'd started. 

Even now, I can't entirely explain what it was about these books that gripped me. I suppose that's how it works with most books we love, right? We just love the stories and the characters, and we think about them all the time.

But as I'm in a reflective mood, I know that one of the reasons I still love these books is because they became my friends at a time when I needed them. They made me laugh. They were with me when I wanted to cry. They became my friends.

Almost exactly one month after I started my internship, I made a few friends in Southern Illinois. We went out for drinks and dinner. We attended concerts and parties. I learned to play darts and Elton John's "Levon" and Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman" became two of my favorite songs to play on a jukebox. I didn't have as much time for reading as I did before. That was a good thing. I lived a lot in those two months. It changed the experience I had there for the better. And as a writer, it's important to live, feel and experience as a point of reference. Okay, it's good for being a human in general, but it's still important for the writing!

Even though I was busier, I still made time to continue on with my Julia Quinn books as they began to come into stock at the story. I took days to read them instead of hours. She became a favorite author then. She's been a favorite ever since.

So I was ridiculously excited when I saw her name on the agenda for this year's Romance Writers of America Conference in New York City. I had already signed up to attend, but I cleared my schedule of everything else on Friday afternoon, because I desperately wanted to attend her AMA session.

That shyness from more than a decade ago came back. I'd only been sitting at the AMA a few minutes when I realized I'd never be able to form a question clearly enough in my head to ask it out loud. It was only a few minutes after that I realized I was too shy to wait in line after the program to go up to Julia Quinn and tell her exactly what she and her books meant to me. I knew I'd have zero chill. Even more than I wanted to meet her, I didn't want to completely nerd out and look like an idiot.

It was approximately ten minutes after I left the AMA that I regretted not saying anything. I'd had a chance to talk to one of my all-time favorite authors--one of the people who inspired me to stick with my dream of writing a book--and I'd been too scared of looking like a dork.

I must have had a few karma chips to cash in, because the next day as I was leaving my final event of the day (one I hadn't even officially planned to attend) I saw Julia Quinn standing between me and the exit.

This was it. My second chance. And I might not get a third.

Even though I was every bit as nervous as I had been the day before, with a friend by my side, I casually made my way toward Julia Quinn. Not wanting to be rude, I stood off to the side a little to avoid interrupting her conversation. In that minute or two, I must have talked myself into staying and being brave half a dozen times.

When she noticed me, I did my best to speak at a reasonable pace. And even though I felt like a character spilling her guts in a very grand gesture way (I'm still as dramatic as I was a decade ago), I told her how much I loved her books, how much they meant to me, and how excited I was for the Bridgertons to be made into a Shondaland Netflix series.

(In case you haven't heard that news, yep. It's totally happening.)

And you know what? It was wonderful. Julia Quinn was grateful and gracious. She talked to me a little about the series and her excitement about that. The more seconds that passed by, the more normal it felt. From it, I learned a few more valuable life lessons.

  1.  Don't be afraid of putting yourself out there or doing something just because it scares you.
  2. It's okay to nerd out. People appreciate knowing that their hard work has meant something to someone else.
  3. Make time for people. Be kind. Be gracious. You never know just how much an interaction will mean to that person.
  4. Go ahead and meet your heroes. I know there's a saying to the contrary, but the potential reward is worth the risk. Plus the hopeful, idealistic young person still inside of you will be forever grateful and proud.

Meet your heroes. Here's me meeting one of mine, Julia Quinn,
at the Librarian/Bookseller/Blogger Networking Mixer at the
Romance Writers of America 2019 Conference in New York City.

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