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On dreaming big, and why it’s essential

Yesterday was one of those days. And I mean, that’s an overused phrase. So in order to truly paint a picture, I’m going to go ahead and describe my yesterday in visceral detail by giving you a glimpse of just one scene: the hour and a half I spent attempting to get my 21-month-old son to sleep.

7:15 PM. I’m sitting in my son’s nursery, still in my gym clothes from my morning workout. My hair looks like I’m fresh from a particularly angry windstorm. I can still feel the salt-grime of sweat on my skin. I have to shower, I think above the shriek my son is emitting in an attempt to get me to pick him up out of his crib and soothe him to sleep. But if I shower, when will I finish reading the forty pages I need to read, the proposal I need to write for a prospective new client, the two contracts for my editors’ new jobs, two invoices, and the fifteen emails gmail is oh-so-generously reminding me came in “5 DAYS AGO. RESPOND?” before bed? And if I pick my son up as his screaming sobs are demanding, he won’t get himself down to sleep. Which means he won’t sleep through the night. Which means I’ll have to go in every couple of hours to soothe him back down. And again, when will I get my work done? But he’s pissed, and loud, which I get. My husband, an adjunct writing professor spread between two universities, has just returned to work after winter break. We’ve got a new babysitter after our last one left for a full-time job. And after waking up an hour and a half early from nap, he has spent the afternoon being parked in front of Madagascar while mommy tries hard to finish her work.

His screams turn into shrieks, and then into words. Through the dim, muted-to-the-lowest-setting light of my phone, I see him reaching his little hands towards me. And then he drops the baby A-bomb—the thing that I know will turn my nervous system into a switchboard gone haywire: “Mama!” he screams. “Maaaaaaamaaaa!”

My heart lurches. I refocus. Start a to-do list so I won’t forget anything. I think about the pile of bills on my desk, write pay bills. I think about the ghostwriting contract I was promised months ago, debate whether it’s even worth another subject line: update? email to the editor who promised it, write another reminder email? But the crying is still going and our upstairs neighbors are probably getting pissed and my to-do list is kind of depressing me, so I bring up instagram on my phone to help distract me. And there, I find a friend has just announced that she’s finally an adult now: she’s just finished paying off her student loans. Well, shit. FedLoans is going to be coming to my grave to collect my final payment, so what does that make me?

Another sob, and this time accompanied by the heaving, hyperventilating breath of desperation, followed by the hardest of cries. Oh, kid. I get it.

So I do the thing every book, every parent, every sleep expert will tell you not to do: I pick up my son. I kiss his sweet, wet-from-tears eyelashes, and I soothe him to sleep in my arms. And while he falls into a deep sleep, I’m the one who dreams.

It’s a familiar dream. A dream I’ve had ever since high school, when I read Francesca Lia Block’s The Hanged Man and realized that you could do insanely cool and beautiful things with words, things that broke all the rules and made people feel from the tips of their toes to the enamel of their teeth. I dream of a book contract. An advance. A career writing the books that live in my head all day, the ones that often wake me up at night. When I’m feeling extra John-Hughes-y, I dream of movie deals. TV series. You know what, stop looking at me like that. It’s called a dream for a reason. And here’s the thing: dreams are important.

Let’s get this out of the way rightquick: all of the authors online who tell you writing as a full-time gig is rarer than rare, and not the romance you expect it to be? They’re not wrong. When they tell you not to quit your day job? That’s not chilly condescension; it’s practical. They want you to succeed. They want you to be able to pay your bills. They don’t want you to hang all your hopes on a very narrow window of success. They are right.

Years and years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I returned to my hometown to attend a book-signing by Laurie Halse Anderson. Tattered, dog-eared copy of Speak in hand, I brought her a gift—a journal. A small piece of gratitude for her words, heroic and lyrical and meaningful. With it, I wrote her a note expressing my desire to write someday, just like her. A week later, I got a gift in return: a thank-you note from Ms. Anderson. In it, she encouraged me to follow my dreams. But, she cautioned, (and I’m paraphrasing) don’t quit your day job. At the time, working simultaneously as a diner waitress, a receptionist at a doctor’s office, and writing into the wee hours of the morning (a terrible, plotless freshman novel that will never see the light of day), I bristled at that advice. Back then I was imbued with the confidence only youth and more than a little ignorance affords you. I would make it, dammit. I would show everyone. But, she was right.

You should not roll out “New York Times bestselling author” as a five-year plan to get you out of a situation you hate, working a job you despise with the hope that you will be able to quit once you get that illustrious six-figure book contract and subsequent movie deal. That’s silliness. I’m all in on pursuing that dream—in fact, I’m actively pursuing mine to this day; I have my current novel-in-progress out with my own freelance editor right now and am awaiting feedback, gulp—but achieving that particular dream is rare. It does happen. And if it happens, why can’t it happen to you? Still, it’s great to have a job you enjoy if you can swing it, even if less than writing full time, because chances are that even if you win the book-contract lottery, you’ll need that job for more than a little while. Now, several jobs, marriage, a child, and a new business later, I can appreciate Laurie’s advice for what it was: wisdom of the highest ilk.

And something else? Despite the stress that creeps up and crescendos, despite the bills and nighttime half-assed sleep-training dance, despite the exhaustion and the lack of showers, my life is pretty damn good. I get to live inside other people’s imaginations for a living. I get to help many of them realize their dreams. My husband is such a good man that I jokingly call him “Mr. Wonderful.” And my baby. Just look at that damn beautiful face.

If I never publish my own novel, my life will still have been a wonderful, fulfilling, blessed-beyond-belief life. But dreams. Dreams keep us tethered sometimes. Dreams get us through the sleep training, the parts of our otherwise wonderful jobs that have us questioning ourselves in the hazy twilight of pay-your-bills o’clock. Yesterday was one of those days. So while my son drifted off to sleep in my arms, sighing that sweet baby sleep-sigh that means he’ll be out long enough for me to get my work done, pay my bills, and catch a quick shower, I turned off my phone and dreamed. I dreamed the dream that’s always been there, a fuzzy shape just on the edges of my periphery. As good as a hot shower, a comfortable pair of sweats, and a bottle of red wine at the end of a marathon day. That dream sustains me. It inspires me to keep reaching. To me, it’s not a lazy, nothing-will-come-of-it what-if, but something vital.

So keep dreaming. Allow your dreams to pull you through the tough stuff. And never stop pursuing what gives you hope.

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