by Toni McGee Causey
Eleventy quibillion years ago, when I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote terrible poems, which I think only got worse as I got older and the teenage years descended like locusts, leaving only WOE and ANGST. By college, I had brief bouts of sanity, whereupon I attempted architecture (ohmyGod, they do not tell you about the math), business (my first accounting teacher gave me the final exam in advance, with the answers, if I would swear to her I would never, ever, take another accounting class again), and then journalism (where I learned they had the picky little annoying habit of wanting reporters to not make crap up)(this was before Fox News).
And in spite of a fine history of liking to eat and wanting a roof over my head, I still wanted to be a writer. If you asked a question, you would get a story instead of an answer. If I could sidetrack into a couple of tangents? You might as well park a while, because the stories? They would not stop.
All the while, I wrote. Much of it was bad.
I ran into a former high-school teacher, who’d also been a librarian, who asked me the tough question: why wasn’t I submitting for publication? Have you ever run into one of your former teachers? THEY ARE SCARY. It’s like they can retroactively fail you or their eyes shoot truth serum rays or something, and I did not want to stand there in front of my two-year-old and explain I hadn’t submitted anything because I was a big honking chicken. So I took her advice and started writing and submitting to the local paper. (They were insane enough to buy the very first one. That’s like feeding a stray puppy. They did not realize this, I think, until I was around so much, they added me to the regular staff AND the food staff, and this was a fairly prominent paper. One of my relatives realized that I was being assigned to write about how people COOK things. He asked, “Isn’t that… fraud? You use the fire alarm as an oven timer.” I look back on this as the beginning of my fiction career.)
Over the years, and we are not discussing how many, maybe more than two but less than a hundred, I wrote more articles than I can remember or count for newspapers and magazines. I started querying and submitting (and getting sales) at national magazines, but my real love was fiction. I tried my hand at a novel, but it was a spiraling mess, and my husband could see how frustrated I was. (And EVERY husband out there just substituted the words “complete raving loon” for “frustrated.”) So, being a very wise man who liked to wake up breathing in the mornings, he encouraged me to go back to school for some writing classes.
For a while, I was lured to the dark side (screenwriting), and landed an agent, and did a lot of stuff that was almost-but-not-quite what I wanted to do, which was to sell something I made up. Hollywood, by the way, will kill you with encouragement, because when you meet the executives, you will be told you are the most brilliant writer they have read in forever and where the hell have you been all this time and they want to be in the “Toni Causey” business. Swear to God, they will say it and you will believe it because they are that good at sincere. Until you’re sitting in the Warner Brothers commissary waiting for the next meeting, furtively looking around to see the FRIENDS stars on their lunch break (yes, I am dating myself, hush), and the same executive walks by with his arm around someone else who is not you, telling them how utterly brilliant they were, the most brilliant person they’d ever read. That’s when you look down at the script in your hand that is an action thriller that everyone absolutely loves but could you make the man a woman and the woman a duck and wouldn’t it be great if the horse saved the day? and you think, “I’m crazy, but I’m not this crazy.” Some writers (our very own Alex and Rob) have the tenacity for that. Me? I kinda wanted to just kick people. (I never claimed to be mature.)
See, I had this idea. An idea for this funny, take-no-prisoners kind of southern woman, who loves deeply and means well, in spite of the chaos she causes, and I wanted to write that story and be true to that story. So I quit screenwriting. (I had had some offers if I’d move out there. I was not going to move the family.) I had a hard time convincing my former agent that yes, I was serious. I was quitting to write a novel. (I think she still thinks I am going to change my mind.) But I quit, and I started writing Bobbie Faye. I wrote a quick draft in script form, because I was used to that format, then a friend showed a friend, the lovely Rosemary Edghill, who said, “Send me some chapters.” And I did. She gave me some notes (smart, smart woman), and taught me how to write the kind of synopsis an agent needs (“I did not think you could make this worse,” she said of one draft of that synopsis, “but you did.” That’s because I am an overachiever. It took a lot of tries before I figured out that writing a marketing synopsis is a lot like writing a non-fiction article, and that I could do.) Next thing I know, I’d signed with an agent and Rosemary had pitched it to an editor, who made an offer, and St. Martin’s Press bought that book and the next two based on three sample chapters and a synopsis. Almost twenty years from the point where I saw my old high-school English teacher and she’d said, “Why aren’t you submitting for publication?”
(Thank you, Mrs. Ross.)**
There is a great big huge world of “no” out there. Sometimes, following the dream does not mean hoppity-skipping down the easy path. In fact, a lot of times, it means zig zagging past mortars and incoming and a lot of almosts-not-quites and despair and frustration what-the-hell-were-you-thinking? and ugh-this-sucks and occasionally wow-show-me-more. And in spite of how long it took, and how much hard work, I have been exceptionally lucky–there have been friends and mentors who’ve said, “keep going,” and who’ve said, “send that in.” They changed my life. They were the tipping point for me.