I still get to say I'm a bestselling author, but it's not exactly true. I'm not a bestselling author. Not at the moment. I was, a long time ago. I had one bestselling book, 16 years ago. Wait, two. Two bestselling novels. One that was huge, another that did pretty well, sales-wise, but not as well as the first big seller. After that, I had a bunch of books published that sold for crap, and, in an industry where a writer is only as good as her most recent book's sales figures, my career as a novelist - a dream I'd had since I was nine years old - was over as quickly as it had begun. Editors who'd fawned over me no longer returned my emails. Agents who'd begged to represent me no longer had any interest. I wrote novel after novel after novel, but no one in the industry even wanted to look at them. I was no longer profitable. I was not a sound investment. I was a loser, a has-been, as pitiful as a former prom queen who's now the fattest and most alcoholic of the lunch ladies at the very same school. Publishing couldn't even look at me as I ladled mashed potatoes onto their trays; it was too painful to remember how pretty and promising I'd once been.
I'm not supposed to say any of this publicly, of course. Image is everything. I'm supposed to pretend everything is still awesome. I'm supposed to pretend I'm not having to borrow money from my parents to pay the gas bill, again. But I don't see any value in lying about any of it.
I am a writer because the truth matters. I became a novelist because I had more freedom to tell the truth in fiction than I ever did in journalism. If there is value to be found in my truth now, in having essentially been a one-hit book wonder and a publishing failure, it is that in the nearly two decades that have passed since then I've had to learn a lot about what matters in life. The world tells us to dream big, to chase our dreams. But no one tells you how to keep on living a life that matters when you've achieved your dream only to lose it, with decades left to go. No one prepares you for the emotional hell that can come with realizing you're over.
In my case, I took the loss of my career, income and relevance hard. It came at the same time as an excruciating divorce, followed by several abusive and terrorizing relationships and the onset of a debilitating autoimmune disease. It all hit at once, and came to a head in 2015 when, broke, sick, and battered, I succeeded, for a while, in ending my own life. On Easter Day in 2015, feeling beyond hopeless and worthless, I intentionally took nine times the fatal dose of lamictal, prescribed to me along with Prozac for my crippling depression and anxiety. My breathing and heart stopped. I died. I was clinically dead, three different times, once at my house, then again in the ambulance, and then again in the emergency room. I ended up in coma, on life-support machines, for twelve hours, and woke up ripping the breathing tube out of my throat.
All of this, in hindsight, was a blessing. It was through the suicide that I was finally diagnosed with a severe mental illness that had tormented me my entire life, but which I had not realized I had (or even knew existed). I was able to finally understand why my all of relationships had been so unstable, professionally and personally, why I'd been seen as a loose cannon who burned bridges, why I'd sabotaged my own marriage, friendships, career and other relationships (including with my own readers) for so long. I was able to get treatment, and, through it, manage my disorder and begin living a peaceful, stable life for the first time, ever.
The therapy that helped me is based in the tenants of mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism. I consider myself a Buddhist now, and believe that without the insights (and brain rewiring) I've gained from the philosophy and practice (I hesitate to consider it a religion) I would have probably ended my life again, for good.
The most revelatory lesson I've taken from Buddhism is that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Enlightenment is not a constant state of bliss; rather, it is defined by Buddha as the absence of suffering. Most of human suffering is self-induced, and comes about when we resist that which cannot be changed. Divorce is painful; but resisting that he's found someone else, cheated for years, and left you to marry her is a pointless torture. Losing your literary career after having been a star for a hot minute is painful, but to remain stuck in that time, wishing to resurrect it, creates suffering.
This is why I don't call myself a "bestselling author" anymore, at least nowhere but my website. Because I'm not. Simple as that. I was, and now I'm not. And that's okay. In fact, that's life. To continue to refer to myself as something I'm not anymore is an exercise in suffering. It is far better, I've learned, to simply live fully and mindfully in this exact moment, with what is, and to be grateful for whatever things I have that are good. The love of my dog. The kindness of my parents. The beauty of my favorite hiking trail. The taste of good coffee. The pure pleasure of writing for its own sake.
Armed with new skills to regulate my disorder, able to be at peace regardless of what is going on outside of my control, I discovered new paths open to me. I wrote a young adult fantasy novel, set in a universe based on 18th century Cuba, with mermaids and lady pirates, and sold it to a very small yet very supportive press, for almost zero money. It will be published this year.
I also realized I didn't have to be just a novelist anymore. I could be a screenwriter too. Why not? When you've got nothing left to lose, you're liberated to take big chances. And I didn't have to write about the things publishing thought I should be limited to. So, I've done that. I've taught myself to write movies. Right now, I have two films in development, including a biopic about Fanny Mendelssohn, a forgotten classical composing genius from 19th century Berlin. And while I'm happy that it looks like we'll be shooting in Malta later this year, I also know that if both film projects were to fall apart and never get made, I would still be just fine. I also know that even if they're made and succeed, that attachment to outcome is a recipe for suffering. Things come, and they go. That's how this place works.
Anyway, one of those projects is a film adaptation I wrote of that first bestselling book. There's interest from some powerful people, and the wheels are turning. On the heels of this interest, my publisher has decided to reissue that first book this year, and the editor who loved me, and then ignored me (with good reason, my disorder drove me to burn bridges like a muthafucka), is now talking to me again. And, it turns out, she would like to see a new novel from me, for the first time in ten years. To get back into the public eye, I've relaunched my blog (this blog) and a Twitter account. To my great surprise, I had nearly 200,000 unique readers visit it, in just its first week. This caught the attention of other publishers, who've contacted my agent asking for material.
I'm happy about all of this, naturally. But there's also something paralyzing about it, too. While I take full credit for my own part in ruining my career in the past, through regrettable public emotional outbursts, fights and tantrums related to my disorder, I do think publishing had a role to play in it as well. After that first bestseller, I was limited as a writer through a corporate branding effort focused on ethnicity and sex that I feel did not embrace my full potential, and which I know would not have happened to a white male author of similar ability. I'd tried to suggest a different approach after my first novel, but was redirected to go the corporation's preferred route. In retrospect, that was a mistake, for all of us.
So, now, here I sit. I have five completed novels on my hard drive, written over these years because I have that tendency and compulsion. My agent has his own strong views about which of them makes the most sense to send in. I have my own views that aren't totally in line with his. Neither of us know what publishing might or might not want from me, and none of us - agent, author or publisher - really know what readers might desire, or whether I can even come up with anything like that anymore.
I was 31 years old when I wrote that first bestseller. It was a bestseller because it was sincere. I will be 51 this month, a very different writer now, in a very different time. Question is: will my agent, editor and readers allow me to be the writer I am now?
I hope so.
But, if not, I finally know I'll be okay. And this is a blessing.