On getting what you want

I’ve spent much of my life going after goals. Striving, creating daily to-do lists.

That’s how I’ve achieved most of my life’s accomplishments—a Ph.D., a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a teaching job, a number of published books, even my daughter.

I wanted a healthy child, like pretty much everyone else seems to have. Then the child and my husband and I would all live happily ever after. What I got was a badly disabled child who would turn every day of my life into a minefield. That was the first time I didn’t get what I wanted once I’d set a goal.

Things started tumbling from there. My marriage failed. My career went to pieces. People stopped returning my phone calls. I wondered what the hell I’d done in a past life to warrant this.

And then came the time to rebuild, to set new goals, to keep my eye on the prize . . . and I just couldn’t do it. I just could not.

Of course I accomplished things. I worked hard at being a good mother to my daughter. I wrote more books, and made new friends. But I had stopped planning. I think I had stopped being able to plan. I had this unsettling feeling that maybe if I just saw where life took me, it would be interesting. More interesting than yet another to-do list.

I realized that for all those years that I’d had goals and action steps, I had stopped paying attention to my dreams. And I thought maybe it was time to let those dreams back into my life. Two of the dreams related to my profession – which is very important to me —  mattered a lot. I had always wanted to be a fiction book editor, and I had always wanted to be a novelist.

The Best Part is the Road There

And of course the part of me that makes lists thought that reaching those dreams would best be accomplished by outlining a series of action steps . . . but something in me resisted—rebelled, in fact. Having attained any number of accomplishments, I was starting to realize that though it was nice to have the product in my hand—the diploma, for instance—the very best part of every endeavor was the road there. In other words, graduate school was way more fun than having a Ph.D. has ever been.

So I began to write, for fun. To explore. To find out what I could do. To learn. And I got better as I went along. And then one day my agent suggested that I try writing a romance because what my work was lacking was heart. And so I wrote a romance, just sat down and wrote the 50,000 words because that might be a way I could learn to write with a little more heart. And at the end of the exercise I had what I thought was a pretty good book. So I sent it off to a publisher and to my enormous surprise, they bought it. And the next. And then a mystery.

And during this time, I was writing nonfiction books and articles, I was teaching classes, being a mother, making ends meet. And while I enjoyed the genre writing I was doing, I knew I was capable of better work, work that changes people. But I didn’t make any action plans about that. I just told myself, “do the work, do the work, do the work, and try to get better all the time.”

Let The Plan Go and Live the Life

I had no way of measuring this, no way of knowing if I had succeeded. And then one day I wrote an essay about my daughter, For Jessica, and I put it on my blog, and I found out that I had succeeded. Hundreds of blog comments later, I realized that I had told the truth in such a way that people could not help but respond. And yet I could never have done that if one of the steps on my to-do list was “write a blog post that will be visited by a quarter million people in the first week.”

Around the time I wrote For Jessica, I learned that a Boston-based publishing company, Adams Media, was looking for a nonfiction development editor—someone who had a lot of experience writing and coauthoring books, and who knew how to edit. They were willing to let me telecommute. This was right after everyone in book publishing was let go from their jobs, so it would never have occurred to me to go look for a book editing job. A friend just happened to mention that she’d seen a post about it. I mean, who would make a plan to apply for book editing jobs during one of the worst times in the history of book publishing? But there was the job, and there was me, and what a wonderful match. I loved the job. I knew a lot about how nonfiction books can go wrong, and a lot about how to fix them, and that is exactly what Adams Media wanted me to do.

I didn’t suppose I would want to do it for the next fifty years or anything, but it was good work that I enjoyed, and I didn’t have to make a battle plan for how I would move up and take over the world. I just kept in mind that eventually I wanted to be able to edit fiction rather than nonfiction. But I didn’t set out with an agenda and a to-do list. I just thought, I would love that.

Put the Dream Out There

I mentioned to a colleague or two that I wrote romances under a pen name, but this was a nonfiction publishing company, so it never occurred to me that a comment tossed off in random conversation would have such a profound effect on my life.

In the fall of 2011, the publisher asked me to review a plan she’d developed for starting a romance imprint. Since I had romance writing experience, loved reading romance, and knew a bit about the genre’s readers and writers, I was the logical person to ask for input. So I gave it. I remember thinking, I hope if this project gets approved, they ask me to edit some of the titles. But I did that all wrong. I said, “Let me know if I can help!” I didn’t say, like you’re supposed to do, “I would really like the opportunity to be an editor in this imprint, and here’s why you should consider me.”

So you can imagine my surprise when the publisher called me up in January and said, “We’d like you to launch and manage the new imprint.” Without having to move a thousand miles, without having to change the way I already did my work, without having to do one single thing that would disrupt Jessica’s life. Dream job, no strings attached, handed to me on a day I will never forget.

When I could speak, I said, “Yes.” And then I thought, There is no way I could ever have planned this. There is no way I could have gotten here with a to-do list. And yet here I am.

In my new role there are plenty of to-do lists and agendas, of course. But even as I tick action items off my list, I am aware that the to-do lists are for the tasks, and not for the dreams.


Jennifer’s blog is at: http://jenniferlawler.com/wordpress/

She welcomes submissions for the Crimson Romance imprint. Guidelines here:


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