How One Author Got Her Big Breaks: Two Versions

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There are two ways to tell the story of my early twenties. One is a story of of luck or fate, if you want to call it that. Maybe it’s not a Cinderella story—there are no wicked stepsisters, and the only thing I ever had to scrub was the New York grime from my feet—but there are some elements that feel like a fairy tale. The second is the way it felt at the time, when I was 24 and living in a third-floor walk-up in a city I couldn’t afford and wondering just how long my parents would help me stay afloat before I had to tuck my tail between my legs and come home and get a temp job at Circuit City corporate headquarters (back when there were temp jobs at Circuit City headquarters).
I had not one but three big breaks that led to my current career as a young adult novelist. The first came a year out of college. Eager and passionate and totally wet behind the ears and desperately missing college, I was living in Washington, D.C., and trying very hard to break into journalism. I landed an internship at Newsweek, then the second biggest news magazine in the country. That was my first big break.
My second happened about a year later, when an editor at The New York Observer let me write a personal essay for their section, New Yorker’s Diary. The essay was about being a Southerner newly transplanted to the city, and it led to my third big break: An editor at Disney-Hyperion, a publishing house, read the essay and liked it. She thought I’d be a good writer for a YA novel idea they’d had in-house. She wrote me at the email address provided by the Observer. The problem was that it wasn’t a real address, and I never got the email. And here’s where the fairy dust really comes in. I had emailed the essay to a bunch of my friends. They sent it to their friends, and you know how that goes. I wouldn’t say it went viral, but it made the rounds, right onto the desktop of my roommate’s high school friend’s college friend, who incidentally was that Disney editor’s assistant. She got my real email address, and the rest is a dream come true.
Now, here’s the other way to tell this story.
When I took the internship at Newsweek, it was my fourth internship (a nicer term for indentured servitude) in three years. I worked very long hours. Sometimes I was the last to leave the office at 1 or 2am on a Friday night. I did research for other reporters, who got to do the fun part of writing the articles, and rejoiced when I got to pen my own stories, which were often about very important and controversial things like the new poncho trend or doggy yoga. (One step from the reporting on war-torn Sudan that I had envisioned myself doing in college.) I’m not complaining. I was an intern, and it was an extraordinary, life-changing experience. I made bylines and mistakes and learned from the latter. I even got a couple of big scoops. I thought I was on my way to an impressive career in journalism.
But it was 2004. Print media was contracting. People were going to the Internet for their news, not magazines. So after nine months and all that hard work, Newsweek said they could hire only one intern, and it wasn’t me. That was that. Thanks for playing. Hope you’ll continue to subscribe. The cherry on top was that my boyfriend at the time, who also worked at the magazine, had just dumped me—at work on a Saturday—about a week before.
I was living in New York, paying a truly ridiculous amount of money to live in a room that had only two walls and share a bathroom with two other girls, and I had no job and no boyfriend and no hope. I was eating ramen noodles and peanut butter during the week so I could afford to drag my sad self out to restaurants on the weekend, which half the time I paid for with a credit card anyway. Perhaps now this sounds like an episode of Girls, but at the time, it reeked as much of desperation as of zeitgeist.
During the week, I scoured the Internet for journalism jobs. I sent out probably five queries a day for both employment and freelance work. To most of those, I never got a response. No one was hiring. When I got the chance to write that essay for the Observer, I was piecing together as much of a living as I could writing the occasional article and reviewing bars, shops, and spas (which, okay, was actually pretty cool if not lucrative). I was incredibly lucky to have a father who viewed this time in my life, this quarterlife crisis, as life’s graduate school, which he helped bankroll with no-interest loans until I got on my feet. The problem was, I couldn’t even feel my feet, let alone know where to plant them. I was lost and depressed. It was as uncertain and disorienting a time as I’ve ever known, and I knew I wasn’t the only person my age feeling it either.
I wrote the essay for the Observer “on spec,” meaning you write it, and they only pay you for it if they like it enough to run it. It was a gamble, I guess, to put the effort in without the promise of reward, but that’s laughable because I had nothing to lose. Because, if you’re lucky, that’s what your twenties are about, having nothing to lose. Only then do we take the real risks to our identity, do we poke our heads out of our gopher holes and look around to see what else is out there, what opportunities have we missed, what else can we possibly do? Of course that makes us uncomfortable, even frightened. But that’s when we stretch ourselves into true adulthood. My life and my career drastically shifted not just during but as a result of my quarterlife crisis. The rejection of my early twenties is what guided me into a much happier late twenties and early thirties.
A quarterlife crisis is about perseverance. Not the perseverance of making the things happen for you that you want to happen—because sheer will only gets you so far and often not where you intended—but the perseverance of getting up every day and seeing what opportunity might float your way. It might be an opportunity you didn’t expect. It might be an opportunity you first look at askance. But it’s the opportunity—in fact, the inevitability—to live your story and to figure out which way you’ll tell it years from now.


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