I was fired from my job as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992. “I’m increasingly unhappy with what might be called your voice,” my editor told me in a letter.
He added that my columns had “an annoyingly negative tone” and “lacked warmth.” This was right around the time I was ending a relationship with a guy who couldn’t be bothered to read my newspaper column. He claimed it appeared in a section of the paper he didn’t read. This made me feel increasingly unhappy and, yes, annoyingly negative as well. I was 29 years old.
It wasn’t a great time for me as a person or a writer. But instead of giving up, I did something that felt brave. I sent a copy of that discouraging letter from my editor to my sister Sarah in California with a two-word note: Now what? Sarah’s response: “This is great! Now you have time to do what you really want to do, which is write children books. I’ll illustrate them.”
So I did. Or rather, we did. I wrote and Sarah illustrated several manuscripts, none of which anyone in New York wanted to publish. Yes, I wanted to be a writer, but I really needed a job. So I did something else that felt brave. Ignoring the criticism of my former editor, I made photocopies of what I considered my best newspaper columns and sent them to the chief of correspondents at People magazine in New York. She called me a few weeks later.
Eleven months after I was fired by the newspaper, I was reporting my first story for People. Okay, so it was in Branson, Missouri, and was a group interview with Bob Hope, Ross Perot, and Wayne Newton. (One was deaf, one was crazy, and one was trying to look down my shirt.) But it was a job, and it felt really good—all except the shirt part.
Over the next 15 years, I reported a lot of stories for People. I covered everything from celebrities to music to crime to sports. I interviewed Harper Lee, Brad Pitt, Johnny Cash, Faith Hill, Albert Pujols, Nelly, Peter Frampton, and many others. Best of all, I was lucky enough to work with a team of smart, funny, and kind editors and bureau chiefs who took a chance on me and helped me to become a better writer.
Between magazine assignments, I continued to work on children’s books. Finally in 1998, my first book was published. Illustrated and designed by my sister, Regarding the Fountain received nice reviews. Kirkus called it “an unequivocal delight.” That was the first of more than 25 children’s books I’ve collaborated on with my sister Sarah, many of which feature—what else? —strong female characters who won’t take no for an answer.
I’m 50 now. These days when I’m not writing books, I lead writing workshops around the country for aspiring authors of all ages. I love teaching people how narrative works. From fairy tales to Hollywood blockbusters, there’s a classic storytelling model that appears time and time again. Early in the story, the hero must be confronted with a problem that sends him or her on a journey of self-discovery.
I still have that letter I received from my editor in 1992. I don’t know why I’ve kept it so long other than it’s a nice reminder of how storytelling works. Sometimes what feels like a bad ending is really just the beginning of a better happily ever after.