On Wanting

“What I can say, Katie, is that you want this more than anyone in this graduating class.”

It’s been years, and I constantly go back to that moment. Sweating through my blazer, my cheap Forever 21 necklace strategically covering a baby vomit stain on my shirt, waiting for my academic jury to reach their decision as to whether or not I would finish the MFA Program.

Before she told me I passed, my program director said this to me.  

You want this more than anyone.

I was confused. Not because it wasn’t true – it was. I’d squeezed my pregnant belly into the classroom seats. I attended class three weeks after a near-death C-section. I finished scripts for my MFA program while rocking an infant to sleep on my parent’s kitchen floor, where my husband and I lived for a year… all while completing two different graduate programs at once.  

You want this more. Not – you deserve this more. Not you are the most talented.

I rolled that proclamation around my mind, trying to place it. It didn’t sound like a compliment, and – for years – I wasn’t sure she meant it as one.   

I am thinking about it a lot more, lately. Especially since I thought that the days of sleeping on a kitchen floor were over, and it feels like they are back with a vengeance. And there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to air all my dirty laundry on here, because my brand looks better if I stick to photos of cold brew and River’s gummy grin. I have a lot more to lose, now. I have an *~image~* to maintain. Four books with major publishers. Three adorable kids. String-light filled house. Cozy writing room and the endless hustle, because I am **aWEsOOmE**.

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But screw it. I’ve been trying to write for months, and it’s like rusty water slipping from a tap because I’m trying so hard to keep this image of myself put together. So here I am, hitting the faucet with a rubber mallet while loosing a war cry. It’s going to be messy.

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This year has been really, really hard. And it’s been the year that’s supposed to be my victory lap – my book came out! It’s the year for travel. It’s the year to cash in and realize that I have arrived.

But it doesn’t feel that way.

Both of my books slated for 2020 were moved to 2021. This happens all the time in publishing, but it meant that my income shifted, as well. Fine – I took some freelance work to keep us afloat.

Then, my grandfather died.

A few weeks later, I had to sit in the radiology department with my infant daughter for a scan because they weren’t sure if she had macrocephaly.

My mom had always told me what it was like to try and hold down my older sister when it came time for heart scans. How they had to put her in a tube. How she screamed. I had to hold my own daughter down in the same way, biting back tears as the smell of antiseptic and ultrasound jelly filled nose and the thought – that River is now the same age my sister was when she died – filled my head.  My daughter is fine, thank God. No macrocephaly. But the sorrow that dislodged in me is like brick wall that shifted in an earthquake. Some of the edges are pointing out, now. Crooked teeth. I brush up against them accidentally sometimes, and I bleed.

Student loans came due. Ross described it a bit like the scene where the Upside Down slowly strangles Hopper in Stranger Things. I felt that. My freelancing gig kept us above water.

Then, there was the “Cricket has a strange growth on her lip” week. That was fun. She’s fine too, thank God. Never have I been more thankful that she’s just a loveable idiot who stuck her face in a black widow’s web.

People post things about my book on the internet. Sometimes what they say is nice. Sometimes it’s not. I retweet the nice things. I remember the mean things to convert into fuel when I feel strong enough.

Two weeks ago, the freelancing gig popped into my DMs to let me know they were discontinuing my contract “for the time being”, because they’d decided to discontinue their blog series. They wanted to let me know ASAP so I had “plenty of time! SMILEY FACE SMILEY FACCCCEEE”. (Yeah, there were EMOJIS in the message.) They gave me a week’s notice.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had bills or a life or basic human needs – but one week’s notice is not “plenty of time”. ANGRY FACE ANGRY FAAACCCEEEE

Both our cars have the engine lights on. The sliding door on the passenger side of my van no longer works. A step on our stairs is missing its front face because it just… fell off. I just got over a 24-hour flu that made it so I couldn’t even stand. I can keep full meals down, now.

Ross works overtime a couple times a week. I make mac and cheese and do baths and jammies and prayers and I try to keep the “losing my shit” to a minimum. So like… four or five times. Tops.

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Last night I had to decide whether or not to buy paper towels or fruit, because we couldn’t afford both at once. My email is full of waiting and maybes and almosts. It’s full of rewrite and no and try again.

You want this more than anyone.

I lean my head against the wall when I shower, now. Like a character in a movie. And I think about those words.

You want this more than anyone.

I weightlift in the garage and scream-sing “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen. Sorry, neighbor next door. Maybe this makes up for leaving your blind dog outside in the cold to bark for three straight years.

You want this more than anyone.

Those words used to haunt me. I’ve thought a lot about why.

Because girls aren’t supposed to want things the most. We’re not supposed to claim and conquer. Hell, we even look around the room before we raise our hand when we know the answer. We’re taught cautionary tales about women who want too much. I learned the fate of Joan of Arc in history class. I’ve seen women candidates poll low for their “crazy eyes” and Serena Williams suffer criticism for the passionate defense of her game. I watched Daenerys Targaryen’s body collapse to the stone before the Iron Throne, undone by her excess of want.

We’re prized for being demure, and winning only looks good on us when it catches us by surprise.

And sometimes still I wonder if maybe this is what I get for wanting. Maybe the road doesn’t have to be this hard if I just.. stopped pushing so damn hard and did something else. Anything else. Maybe I’d feel less delusional. Maybe things would be easier. (Even though, full disclaimer: I know full well that my hard time? My worst time? It’s still a time where I have a house. I have a van to gripe about and food to feed my kids – my healthy, safe kids.) Still. Maybe that thought is why I didn’t blog for so long. I didn’t want to let you know how hard I was trying.

How much I want this.

But I have this little metal ball spinning under my ribs. It glows at night and warms me up, and it tells me that I serve a God who made me with a specific purpose. And that I will fulfill it, and that I really believe, with everything I am, that this “writing thing” is it. I believe this is what I am made to do. I am made to tell stories. I am made to raise my kids. I am made to do both, so I believe He will show me how to do both. My moment will come. I have to believe that.

And when it does, I don’t want to arrive with my hair in place, sly smile on my lips like I just flitted down and lighted on this opportunity by pure happenstance. Shiny little wings winking as I cover my mouth like the winner of the Miss America pageant. What is this? Success? Me? No! Oh my gah I can’t believe it—

No way. I punched through steel for this. I wiped tears off my face with my wrists because my hands were covered in baby shit for this. I woke up at five in the morning for this. I cried in the pantry so my kids couldn’t see for this. I re-wrote from page one six times for this. I crash-landed for this. Dirt and flames and blood and ash on my sweaty face for this.

This year has been a trial by fire. And through it, two small, still-piping hot ball bearings roll through. They clink across the floor, and they’re hot in my palm as I cradle them. Tiny wins:

I signed with UTA for my screenwriting. They’d always represented my book-to-film stuff, but now they represent me. My agent took my pilot out last week.

I made the semi-finals for NBC Writers on the Verge. I made the cut from about 2500 down to about 120. I’ll take that.

Maybe I shouldn’t write that. Maybe it will just be embarrassing when I don’t make it to the finals. Or when my pilot goes back on a shelf.  

But I just told you I can barely afford paper towels, so I guess we’re past that, right? And honestly, it won’t matter. I’ll keep going, even if the answer is no on these things. Even if I tuck these ball bearing wins into my pocket to cool and carry them through the rest of 2019. Even if these are the only professional wins the fire spits back out.

So now I open a new Final Draft doc and crack my knuckles. I have dried blood on my cheek, and I’m not sure where it’s from. But I’ll handle that later.

I have work to do.

Because flattering or not, the words are true.

I want this more than anyone.  

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This Year in Story

It’s the end of the year. Christmas Eve, to be exact.

I’m thinking a lot about where I was this exact time last year. I was a mother of two, just finishing my first semester as a college professor. I had just signed my second book deal, this time with Penguin. We were living at our first actual house as a family – a small little condo with a red door that overlooked a gully full of trees. I had just got my first huge tattoo, which moved me from the kind of girl who has a couple little delicate tats to a girl with full-on bicep ink. I lost both my grandmothers within three months of each other.

I’m thinking a lot about what changed in this year, but story was a constant. It was the God-given balm on my soul that got me through a lot of the curve balls this year chucked at my head.

I got pregnant with River Grace, and our little red door condo was too small. I fell in love with the Gallagher family as I binge-watched Shameless. I taught myself how to apply for a home loan and open escrow because if Fiona could fight for a better life, I could, too.

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We moved two doors down from my parents, which meant an overlap of a couple months where we lived with each other. I finished drafting while vomiting. I thought I miscarried and sat in a hospital room, a crinkly paper gown hanging off my shoulder while they brought in buckets and scalpels and wouldn’t tell me what was happening. Then, I felt relief I didn’t know I could experience when they did an ultrasound and I saw her little heart beating. I still couldn’t shake the feel of the thin gown and the whisper of the blood as it dripped down my legs, so I lost myself in Signs – the movie that marked me as a child and told me to hold on. That no matter what, there was a God who would see me through.

I watched The Exorcist TV show to distract me during the move. I don’t really know what that says about my mood.

My parents moved to their new house, and the morning sickness ebbed. We made a home, and the first night I sat in my finished living room, we watched Spider-Man: Homecoming. My parents house became mine to the sound of Tony telling Peter: if you’re nothing without the suit than you shouldn’t have it.

A voice in the back of my head that told me something was wrong with my inner circle got louder.

I ended a professional relationship. It was really hard. He talked me out of it once before the women in my writing circle reminded me that I’m not a fainting violet and that I need to follow my gut. I watched Game of Thrones – the scene where Olenna talks to Daenarys. I thought about that while drafting one of the hardest emails of my professional career.

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I met my book-to-film agent, Mary Pender. We ate speghetti in Beverly Hills and talked big dreams. I had coffee with Lee Jessup and she took me on as a client. I let Avengers: Infinity War break my heart into a million pieces as I held the hands of one of my best friends in the dark theater.

Through the summer, we watched True Blood and I fell irrevocably in love with Eric Northman and all of Bon Temps.

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Aryn started kindergarten, after I fought tooth and nail to get her into a good school they said was full. I got Liam into a new daycare so they could be at the same place. It was expensive. I finished another rough draft of the joint project I’m working on. I did copyedits on The Beckoning Shadow and edits on The Breath of Bones. I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and The Men We Reaped by Jesamyn Ward. I dove head-first into Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I let myself get swept away by Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians. I got thoroughly spooked by Mindy McGinnis’s This Darkness Mine.

I started working on a pilot as I licked the wounds from the professional breakup. I wasn’t sure I trusted my story sense. I signed up for a class at Script Anatomy, and a working TV writer told me I have something worth fighting for. So I did. I am. We watched The Americans, and Oleg deserved better. Don’t @ me.

I went into labor, and they made me sign a paper saying that I understood going for a natural birth after a C-section could kill me. I countered that any kind of birth could kill me.

Touché, they said.

The epidural was only partially effective, but I pulled my daughter out with my own two hands, and it was worth it.

River Grace was born, and the postpartum anxiety kicked in. Hard. I bit back adrenaline as it rattled my jaw. I started grinding my teeth. I weaned her, because breastfeeding is a mindfuck and a half and anyone who wants to give me shit for that can eat a bowl of butts.

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Sleepless nights with a fussy baby, then. But The Haunting of Hill House came at me sideways, knocking me down in a way I was incredibly thankful for. It rattled me. It rattles me still and now I have to close my office door at night because the BENT NECK LADY fear is REAL.

Then, Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass Series, where I met Manon Blackbeak while sipping bourbon and listening to the rain pelt the windows. She left a mark on me I never want to fade. On the cliff edge with Abraxos, with all eyes on her, turning to her troops: We are the Thirteen from now until the darkness claims us. Let’s remind them why.

I thought of that as anxiety ripped up my throat over and over, and I think of it now as I peer around the corner at 2019.

2019.

My book comes out. I will have another nephew in April. My youngest sister is getting married. And I’m excited to see what stories will catch me by surprise. The class of #Novel19s is not going to disappoint. (Seriously, all. Go look at that hashtag. It’s gonna be a good book year.) I have things in the works with my books at both Harper and Penguin, and things I’m going to shoot for in the TV space. I’ve got Writers House and UTA at my back, and they’re telling me to go for my wildest dreams.

So don’t blink, 2019. Because I’m making more moves.

So I Guess More Dreams Came True? (An Update and Thoughts on Finals Week)

It’s finals week.

bahahahah not for me, I’m done with that.

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But being a writer professor gave me a bitch-slap of nostalgia and suck, and I couldn’t help but reminisce, badly and mostly while sipping a whiskey sour, about my finals weeks.

The ones where I was under-prepared, under-motivated, and over-caffeinated.

All-nighters, triple-shot espresso, sweats and highlighters. And, of course, that was always the week you a) found out the guy you were ‘talking to’ was ‘talking to’ another girl at the pool table in the student lounge, b) caught the viral plague, c) started your period, or d) all f***ing three at once.

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But I when I would feel overwhelmed, I'd write that E.L. Doctorow quote on a piece of paper and stick it somewhere I could see it: "You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." It gave me comfort.

Now, I’m not in school anymore. I mean, not technically*

*Technically I am because I FA-HAILED my language exam for my MA in Lit and have to take it again. Le sigh. Can’t win them all. Or – no puedo win todos. SEE, I KNOW SPANISH.

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Anyway. Even though I’m not in school, I still had one hell of a semester. 

This will be a three-year long blog if I go in to detail, but here’s the short version:

We got a Border Collie/Lab mix named Molly. She’s adorable and Cricket is still getting used to her big little sister. Liam can now walk, and – oh – he can open up Molly’s kennel and eat all her dog food while sitting on her bed. Impressive and disgusting.

My grandmother passed away. That’s too painful to poke at, so if you’ll follow me, we’ll continue down the Gallery of Things That Happened Fall 2017.

I got a huge tattoo. I taught three college writing classes. I fell in love with Trollhunters, Stranger Things, and Shameless. I had a cool dinner with a cool person in LA and we talked about things I never thought I’d ever be talking about. I turned in revisions for my debut novel.

Oh, and we’ll pause here at some big news.

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I signed another two-book deal!

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This is where I insert my sister’s reaction when I told her this, which was to eye me suspiciously and ask through a mouthful of Chipotle: “I thought you already had a book deal?”

Yes, I do. I have a two-book deal with HarperCollins, but that’s different than this one. This one is super, super cool and with Penguin RandomHouse.

Earlier this year, my agent, manager and I decided to take another look at a book I’d set aside for a year while I focused on my debut. This book didn’t fit at Harper, and I was totally fine with that. But it still bopped around in the back of my mind, my characters tugging at my heartstrings every once in a while like… “hey, remember us?”

So Bri (kickass agent boss lady) and Scott (kickass manager extraordinaire) decided to take this book, then titled A HAUNT FOR JACKALS, out again to see if we could find it a home.

I cleaned it a bit, and then Bri sent it out on submission. I put it out of my mind as much as I could, because anyone who has ever been on sub knows how it feels to wonder if anyone is going to get this bloody little shard of your heart in their inbox and think it’s worth their time (and their house’s money).

Anyway. Six days later, I was teaching my writing class. They were in the middle of a writing exercise when my phone buzzed. I look down and it said “BRIANNE JOHNSON”.

And I sputtered out “hey guys I need you to give me a minute, okay?” and I ran to the door as fast as I could, because I had a boot on–

(–Oh right because I fell off my bike and flashed a bunch of freshmen boys on my way down and partially tore a ligament. That’d be bad enough, but I was already prepped from the humiliation of my first day where I a) taught the wrong class and then b) set off the fire alarm while saving a baby lizard. But that’s a blog for another time.)

“Don’t run on your boot, Professor!” someone yelled at me.

I was in the hallway outside my classroom when Bri told that PENGUIN wanted my little book about secrets. Not only one, either. They wanted a duology. They wanted me to finish telling the story I started back in 2015 while living in my parents’ kitchen.

I doubled over crying as she told me the details. Then I called my husband and my mom, because that’s what you do when your book finds a home. I turned around, tears streaming down my face, to see my students all pressed against the classroom window.

“My book sold!” I called out, and they erupted in cheers as I cried. They hugged me.

So 2019 is looking like a pretty busy year, you guys. My book from Harper and my book from Penguin will both hit the shelves… and then 2020 will also see two books releasing – one from Harper, and one from Penguin.

And that’s not all.

Back in 2016, I wrote a screenplay for a client, who also happens to be a Director at Apple. (Like as in Apple… like the thing you’re probably reading this on, right now.)

Earlier this year, we decided to go ahead on a joint project we’re referring to as “Darker Percy Jackson”. I’m writing that book, as well, and the website for the franchise will be launching soon.

I wonder what Finals Week Katie would think about this, now. I wonder what I’d tell her. Probably something like this – your headlights are good enough, girl. Especially when those headlights are Jesus.

He led me through living in a kitchen. Through post-partum depression while living in a kitchen. Through shitty internships where I was waking up at 4am to beat LA traffic and shitty internships where I was seen as a pair of boobs and not a writer like they’d promised I’d be and then shitty jobs where my soul was sucked out through my eyes and then back to a shitty internship where I doubted my ability to make a photocopy.

He led me here.

So my bebes who are doing finals week? Listen up. (You too, Becca. I know you’re reading this.)

You are enough. These exams are tough, but you’re tougher. Remember who leads you, and He’s not gonna let you fail. And this is coming from someone who wrote a joke about a duck on her math final.

You’re gonna get through. And you’re gonna find some fucking amazing things at the other end.

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