Ten years ago this month, my career hit rock bottom. The wounds of 9-11 were still raw, the lingering malaise still thick. I’d just been screwed out of a screen credit for the movie, Red Dragon (actually, I wasn’t screwed; I’d merely lost an arbitration, but when you’re living it, there’s precious little difference). I’d been orphaned twice on Scott Free, my second book of a two-book contract with Atria, on the heels of Even Steven, on which I was likewise orphaned twice. The publisher had lost interest in me, and they’d made it clear that they were going to ship a tiny number of books and do nothing to support them.
My book-writing career was in severe jeopardy.
I was able to keep it all in perspective, though, until I got a phone call from my film agent that no one—no one—even wanted to take a look at Scott Free, which to that point had everyone in my publishing food chain convinced that it would be an easy movie sell. The call came in at around 6:00 pm Eastern time, and I remember Joy rubbing my shoulder as she read the body language of the call. When I hung up, I felt like I had nothing left. I tried to smile and shrug it off, and then she hugged me and I lost it.
I don’t cry much, but that one came from a deep dark place.
It wasn’t about how to make the mortgage payment. It was the realization that I had all these stories inside of me that I wasn’t going to be able to tell because people who’d liked my books well enough to buy them no longer liked them enough to sell them. It felt so . . . unfair. Our own Mr. John Ramsey Miller took a lot of phone calls from me back then. Thanks, John.
I make it a point not to dwell in dark places very long, so I went on to write a book called Living Wil, which I couldn’t give away, but really, that just kept me busy while I took a long look at where I was:
FACT: My bestselling books to that point had been written while I’d had a full-time job.
FACT: While “writing full time” I actually spent a lot of time hangin’ out and playing Dad.
FACT: The entertainment business makes no friggin’ sense.
FACT (and this one’s embarrassing): While I actually craved the normalcy of a Big Boy job, I resisted for fear that others would see that as an expression of failure.
When all was said and done, I reverted to one of my overarching philosophies in life—“fuck it”—and I forged ahead. It turned out that no one was watching me as closely as I thought they were. In fact, I was shocked to find that most of my friends who write full-time were envious of my Big Boy endeavors.
Funny what an adventure life turns out to be sometimes.
I write of this now not just because of the ten-year anniversary, but because it’s American Idol season again, and the sight of those devastated young people who’ve just found out they didn’t make the cut churns up memories. When you want something so badly, the pain of rejection can be unbearable. It feels like there’s no future.
But of course, there always is. The problem is, too many of us work so hard to engineer the future that we lose sight of the fact that we’re powerless to affect it. The best we can do is dream big and work hard and maximize opportunities.
After ten years, you look back and realize how much better a person you are for the pain.