Winging it (thoughts on that reinvention thing)

Yesterday Colleen posed a question about the way we reinvent ourselves as writers, something I definitely have some experience with. My career has taken me miles from my original (and extremely naive) vision, which was something about angsty quasi-literary women's fiction providing me and my progeny a life of Starbucks-fueled adventure. But I never made one sweeping change that rewrote my destiny; it happened in stepping stones. And it wasn't about abandoning one thing to embrace another; it was about being open to unexpected opportunities.

I wasn't making a kazzilion dollars, but I was happy writing angsty quasi-literary women's fiction, and when a big NY house picked up my memoir, I was living the comfy life of a respectably compensated mid-lister. After the memoir came out and was nicely received, I started getting a lot of speaking invitations, which paid well but kept me on the road a lot. Not very conducive to writing another book. My wonderful ed at Harper Collins suggested (to put it mildly) that I stay connected to my true calling by writing a weekly newspaper column. What the hey, I figured. It wasn't much money, but the syndicated "Earth to Joni" column did force me to assemble at least 750 publishable words per week.

During the two years I wrote the column, I learned a LOT about the economy and structure of essay writing and developed a knack for the suburban parable. (I like to think of it as three "Ha!"s and a "Hmm".) And by keeping the circulation of the column small (just under one million) I kept the rights unpolluted and was able to sell several of those pieces to national magazines for $2-4K each. Cha-ching. And I met a lot of terrifically nice magazine eds, one of whom called me up one day and asked if I'd like to replace Don't Sweat the Small Stuff author Richard Carlson as their monthly advice columnist. And I figured...what the hey? Good money, good fun, give it a college try, right? The monthly deadline gave me more elbow room to delve into writing another book.

So tra la la, I'm doing that. My ed at HC had a certain vision of what sort of fiction I should write, and we were batting ideas back and forth when my agent called and asked if I'd be interested in ghostwriting a memoir for Lance Armstrong's mom. I wasn't. Not at all. Frankly, I thought ghostwriting celebrity bought-o-biographies was beneath my angsty quasi-literary mid-list talents. The word "no" physically formed on my lips, but what came out was "Oh!" Because at that moment, I looked up and saw -- for the first and only time in the twelve years I've been staring out this office window -- a hummingbird.

The beauty of it took the breath right out of any negative I could have uttered. Everything in me from the crink between my eyebrows right down my backbone opened up and said ah. The unexpected, I suddenly realized. That's what has made my career work so far. The narrow vision I started with -- "I want to be the next Elizabeth Berg" -- didn't allow the sort of free flight that I find with my new goal: "I want to write good art." For some writers, that "laser-like focus" Colleen talks about is imperative, but I'm an explorer and a gatherer. And I'm willing to beat my little wings fast and hard enough that I can check out this crepe myrtle over here and that jasmine over there and still devote some hover time to the more lucrative honeysuckle. It's all flying, it's all feasting, it's all good.

So my agent took advantage of that dumbstruck moment to say I should at least have lunch with her before I turned the gig down. And so I lunched. And she was delightful. And she had a story to tell. And I am a person who is good at telling stories. Having done half a dozen of these projects, I still don't like the word "ghostwriter"; I prefer to think of myself as a "memoir guru", but I absolutely love this work. Working with wonderful eds at a variety of publishers, I've learned so much about our industry. Ghostwriting forced me to the next level in terms of discipline, research methodology, structural skills, and technical expertise --all of which nourishes my fiction writing. I learned that a book does not impart artistic integrity on its author; the author brings artistic integrity to the project, whatever it is.

Another plus: the money I make as a memoir guru makes it possible for me to write any damn kinda fiction I want, and right now, that means not angsty mid-list women's fiction. I struggled for a while to be what my wonderful ed at HC wanted me to be, but finally decided that right now, I really want to write campy, funny mysteries, which I'll be publishing under a different name because it is a huge departure from my first three novels. (I applaud authors who make their nom de plumes public, but I prefer to keep my evil twin's identity separate from mine.) It was terrifying to lose my publishing home at Harper Collins, but it would have been far scarier to face a future writing novels that someone else thought I should write. That's a whole different kind of ghostwriting. (The kind with no guarantee of payment. Cue the scream-track.)

So scary or not, here I come. Reinvented yet again, new 'n' improved, lemony fresh. What remains unchanged is my passion for words and my willingness to work hard. The only thing that stays the same in this biz is that nothing ever stays the same. Ten years of boxing the octopus has taught me how to wing it.


Great post! I know you'll find success under whatever incarnation you take.

In the nine years or so I've been in the biz, I've learned to live by the words "never say never." Since I started out saying I'd "never in a million years" write romance and didn't think I was anywhere near smart enough to plot a mystery. (I still wonder about that some days, but I forge on anyway!)

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