The first time it happened, I was sitting in an empty Starbucks parking lot on a dark and chilly April night in 2011. I was exhausted, exhilarated, and teary-eyed, but there was no one in real-life or real-time to tell. Everything was closed except for the Circle K across the street. I dashed off a couple of short emails and then went to the convenience store. I just wanted someone, somewhere to celebrate with me.
The line at Circle K included one late night partier, one Denny’s employee, and me. By the time I made it up to the line with a cup of terrible coffee I didn’t need, I realized how stupid I was being. The cashier — a blurry-eyed teen sporting a downy mustache — had no reason to care about my book. I told him anyway.
He nodded like a bartender who had become accustomed to spontaneous confessions. “Cool,” he said, as he counted out my change. I fought the urge to burst myself open against the counter — to spill everything I’d been holding in for the eight months of intense focus it took to finish that 668 page first draft.
There was so much I wanted to say, but I never said it, not to the cashier and not to anyone. Instead, the blinders I’d worn for 3/4′s of a year came off, and there was Everyday Life, right where I’d left it, with all of its distractions, grievances, and pressing business. It felt familiar in the worst way, like a rip current that I’d almost drowned in once. I didn’t want that life: I didn’t want that level of painfully acute awareness over things both petty and unchangeable. I didn’t want to start noticing that the morning barista wore red socks, or that someone lied, or that someone else told the truth. I didn’t want to care that the only woman I ever loved was already making life plans with someone else. I just wanted to wish the rip currents away.
I buried myself in editing for a few months. I went through the ups and downs of an almost-agent and almost-book deal, and then self-published Elephant Girl with the help of several friends. After that, there were so many other close calls (book deals, a movie query, magazine articles) that I lost count, but it didn’t really matter. I was depleted. I started three different books and had no interest in finishing any of them. I was offered a lucrative ghostwriting deal and almost took it, but then worried that if I couldn’t write my own story, I wouldn’t be able to write someone else’s.
I moved to Arizona for no reason in particular, other than it was a short drive. I moved into the cheapest apartment I could find. I took on a part-time job, got a dog, and tried to start writing again, but hadn’t yet really dealt with my broken heart or all the feelings I’d kept bottled up while in New Mexico. I knew I’d have to work on myself before I could find another pair of blinders.
I went to work for Rosie O’Donnell after a spontaneous offer. I was never a “fan” of Rosie’s in the traditional sense, but there was something about her that felt sisterly and familial. I thought it would be an interesting experience, but it was just strange. I arrived in Chicago just as everyone was getting fired and the show was tanking. The level of anyone actually caring was less than zero. It was like there was this big, beautiful banquet just laid out, but everyone decided they’d rather brown-bag it and eat alone. That kind of wastefulness was hard for me to comprehend. For three weeks, I sat in a cube, feeling like Milton from the movie “The Office,” contributing pitches through email to people who never responded. It was a relief to go home, but it was also sad, just like anything gone to waste.
The lesson I took away from Chicago was that opportunities shouldn’t be squandered, but I soon turned into a hypocrite. I had months of free time to write something solid, but I didn’t. Even after moving into a quieter, more private space, I found myself tongue-tied. I knew what I wanted to say — I knew what my message was — but I couldn’t find a way to say it that was fit for distribution. The voices of antagonists resounded in my head, while messages of support filled me with anxiety. This book’s got to be better, happier, more linear than the last.
I berated myself over wasted time and words. I forced myself to push ahead in the name of discipline. I became a hermit, and moved in and out of depression. I wrote, rewrote, and then threw away eight chapters before starting all over again.
And tonight, finally, I finished Hunger Like Love. The last sentence was a quiet and lonely moment. There were no blinders on for this book. HLL is simple and plain and heart-felt, but not heart-ripping. Like any book, there will be people who love it and people who hate it. There will be people I’ll want to read it who won’t — and people who shouldn’t read it at all, but will only so they can tear it down. I’m much more pragmatic this time. Not necessarily tougher, but less naive.
I didn’t feel the need to share my news with the barista at Starbucks when he opened up shop at 5:00 this morning. I didn’t feel exhilarated and I didn’t get teary-eyed. I didn’t write emails, or start ginning up my future hopes. Instead, I considered the breakfast special at Frankie’s and then decided that coffee was enough.
I came home to my tiny cottage and considered the past year and a half. I have fought for (and with) this book, but mostly I have fought myself. Some people call them demons — the fears and realities of rejection, high anxiety, loneliness, a paralyzing sense of not being good enough — but they’re not demons at all. Demons are fictional, and all of these things are real. They’re as real as any obstacle, and sometimes they can’t just be pushed away or climbed over. Sometimes, they just have to co-exist — not as a priority or an enemy — but as part of life.
Erica Jong once said, “I have accepted fear as a part of life — specifically the fear of change. I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back.” And that’s exactly what I’ve had to do, not only with fear, not only with change, but with everything else.
Knowing that I finished this book is enough for today. I’m going to take some time off to clear my head before I start the process of editing, formatting, book cover design, and all the rest. I might even take my demons — and my dog — out of this tiny cottage and into the Sabino Canyons for a leisurely, sunlit stroll.