This was several years ago. I arrived to work, logged onto my computer, and saw an email from Sheila.
Sheila was a work contact, a single mom living in Northern California. We’d emailed back and forth for three years (mostly job-related, but during the downtime we’d make up song lyrics, send music trivia. I’d been tinkering with a memoir based on my acting experiences and she’d offered suggestions) and developed a cyber friendship.
Sheila was creative beyond end, able to pluck ideas from the air like a blues musician plucks a guitar. With a curious smile, I opened the email. Hey you! Here’s what we’re gonna do today. I’ll write a paragraph of a story then you write the next one.
Sipping my coffee, I read her description of a 12-year-old boy named Daniel, who steps onto the school bus and sees a monster.
The passage hooked me from the start (Teen fiction was all I read). I blasted out a paragraph and returned it to her. She wasted no time with the next. Back and forth we went. By the end of the day, we had two pages done. I left work in a sprint, having hardly thought about the stresses in my life—that burned out feeling.
At the time, I was still pursuing music and acting. But I was frustrated. Not with the performance side. Nothing beats standing onstage, being lost in the moment, audience so quiet you can hear a pin drop. It was the other stuff that had zapped my enthusiasm—the hours spent in traffic, the pointless auditions my agent kept sending me to.
A commercial for which I had to do the robot dance. A reality show starring a well-known porn star. A drive to Vegas to try out for the Blue Man Group. I wasn’t sure what the Blue Man Group did—and sure couldn’t do any of it. The low point came when my agent called me for a Britney Spears video. On my headshot, I was shaved with short hair. I showed up with a shaggy beard and hair that hadn’t been cut in months.
I didn’t book that job. Or the robot one.
The next day, Sheila and I continued our story (no longer trading paragraphs, each writing scenes). We liked the direction it was taking—two brothers, a hint of danger, the appearance of magic. Let’s keep this train rolling. By the end of the second week, we’d filled 50 pages. I sent them to a friend, a writer, asking his opinion.
He replied a week later—an almost shocking reply. He loved it. And encouraged us to keep going. “Chasing the story,” he said. Encouraged by his response, Sheila and I decided to complete the novel together.
We were now writing partners—a little weird, in that we’d never met. I’d never seen a photo of her. She could have passed me on the street and I wouldn’t have blinked. But we were swept up in the moment, sharing visions of greatness. Writing the next Harry Potter. Quitting our jobs and doing this full-time.
Things went great for a while. We spoke often on the phone, ironing out the story. Discussing plot points. Characters. We provided a balance to the other. Sheila wanted to write all action, all the time. I wanted to write gut-wrenching scenes of grief and loss (I’d forgotten the genre—this was teen fiction, not romance).
But soon we started fighting. I believed in strict discipline and argued for deadlines. Sheila wanted to write when inspiration struck and would go weeks, sometimes months, without working. She’d had a tough life, and writing was an enjoyable outlet. If it wasn’t fun, she didn’t want to do it. And deadlines were no fun.
I became a taskmaster, pressing her for pages. Ones that didn’t come. Yes, I was becoming curmudgeonly. But I wanted this—the fruition of my efforts over the years, the big payoff. Our relationship grew impossibly strained until, finally, she quit.
I stayed numb for days, unsure of a next step. I wasn’t good enough to go it alone. Sheila had masked my weaknesses. But I’d invested too much in this, so I pushed forward, through months of writing, and reached the end.
The book wasn’t very good—I was a songwriter learning prose on the fly; our writing styles were very different, giving it a schizophrenic feel. But the experience taught me what it would take to be a writer—perseverance. Stick-to-itiveness.
It’s the hardest part of writing—the finish. But when you get there, you can live off that thrill for weeks, maybe months, knowing you didn’t quit … even when the temptation was there. Every artist knows that self-doubt. I’m not good enough. This is a waste of time. No one will like it. And they may not. But you have to do it, anyway.
Here I am, six years later, having written a handful of books. I just finished a novella about a serial killer on a final murder spree through Los Angeles. This summer, two friends and I will go into production on an “audio-drama extreme” we’ve written. After that, I’ll finish my Young Adult fantasy novel, one three years in the making.
I haven’t talked to Sheila in years. But I owe her big-time. And I hope she’s still pulling ideas from the clouds.
Who can say where our days will take us? Who knows where passion leads? The best we can do is follow.