When I started Project 29 to 30, I did so with a single goal, and that was to write. Writing was something that I had all but stopped doing since landing a full time job and real-life adult responsibilities; but there was a time when I used to do it a lot, and it was one of the few things I feel like I'm good at. Writing is one of the few things that I can lose track of time while doing, a feeling that is strangely satisfying, even if it has made me late for dinner dates and even work a handful of times.
Soaking up each day of my 29th year by trying 365 new things -- well, that was just a gimmick for me to have something to write about. I wasn't necessarily passionate about changing my routine or looking to cross things off a "Before 30" bucket-list; all of that was secondary to the challenge I set forth to sit at my computer everyday and write about my life.
I expected that the blog would be humorous and entertaining to the people who know me well. I knew that my friends and family would enjoy checking in on me from time to time to see what kinds of wacky adventures I could get myself into. I didn't expect for people, many of whom I don't know, to respond so positively to my writing, and my take on being 29. Months after the project began, I was completely floored, and truly flattered when people other than my mother would come up to me and say things like, "You could turn this into a book," and, more aggressively, "Who is going to play you in the movie?"
The remarks were sincerely touching and at times, overwhelming, and though I'm terrible at accepting compliments, after months of consistent, positive reaction, I'd started to consider that maybe Project 29 to 30 could be something more than just a silly blog for my friends and family.
The same was true for my friend Julie of Julie vs. Vegetables. Her personal decision to tackle her fear of cooking and eating foods she thought she hated became hilarious entertainment for me. And like my blog, Julie's had resonated with far more people than just her circle of friends. Thanks to endless flattering comments, Julie had started to consider, as I had, about turning Julie vs. Vegetables into a book.
She had done more than just think about it, though. And in her usual bubbly way, she could not contain her excitement after taking a book development class offered in Atlanta by local columnist and author, Hollis Gillespie.
"OhmygodyouhavetotakethisclassHollisisamazingIalreadyhaveanagent!!!!!!!!!," she said to me at the end of her blog party I had recently attended.
"You have an agent?," I asked her.
"Julie! That's amazing!"
Julie's blog is a riot and a great idea, so I wasn't surprised. I was incredibly impressed. And I'm not proud of it, but I was insanely jealous.
I wasted no time in signing up for the class and immediately started imagining all of the wonderful, and probably unlikely, possibilities. Getting a publisher, accepting a book advance, autographing my first copy, reading entries at book stores across the country, accepting an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and last, but certainly not least, taking over the world.
First things first, though, I had to take this class that Julie had raved about.
Day 329's thing I've never done before was to take Hollis Gillespie's class about pitching a book idea. I also started really imagining that I could be an author.
I arrived at the class, which was in the Castleberry Hill part of Atlanta. Between this class, and glassblowing the day before, I'd covered a lot of ground in Atlanta. I'd also dropped some serious cash, all in the name of the blog.
I walked through the glass door, clutching an old English notebook from my Alma mater UGA, and looked around at several people already sitting at the square table in the center of the room.
I deducted that with the possible exception of one very attractive woman, I was likely the youngest person in the class, a reality that both intimidated me and made me feel confident all at the same time. I recognized Hollis by her dark rimmed glasses and cool sense of style, before she ever said a word. She instructed me to have a seat wherever, so I did, and was welcomed by my classmates with friendly smiles. I don't know why I thought there might be some competitiveness within the class, but if there was any, I didn't feel it. In fact, my nerves were instantly calmed by the general and unspoken feeling of support I was getting in the room. Like we all had taken this ballsy, dramatic first step and now we were going on a journey together.
After inviting us numerous times to partake in the snacks that she brought us Hollis began the class at 11am with a general introduction to the class. She gives presentations a lot like I do, with a fair share of anecdotes and personal tales of her own experiences, which were both humorous and informative.
One of the first things Hollis did, presumably to boast her success rate with the class, was to talk about one of her most recent student's successes in landing an agent. I was delighted to see that Julie was the student she was talking about and she'd pulled up Julie vs. Vegetables on her LCD projector. Throughout the class, Hollis would reference all of the things that Julie did really right with her blog and the letter to potential agents, but within the first 10 minutes, I was already beaming with pride, as if I had something to do with Julie's success.
After the general overview, Hollis said we were going to go around the table and explain what our book was about, and how much of it we'd already written. She started with the gentleman seated to her left, and since I was sitting directly to her right, I knew this meant that I'd probably go last. I was quite pleased about that, prepared to quietly judge all of the other ideas while preparing to pitch my own.
The first man's novel was a war/crime/spy novel. Naturally, my eyes glazed over and I was completely bored. Not because the guy's idea wasn't good, but because that genre is simply not my cup of tea. Hollis stayed with this guy and his book for what felt like an eternity. Luckily she threw a lot of information out that had nothing to do with this guy's idea specifically (thank God), so I remained engaged in the class. This man hadn't yet written anything; all of his ideas existed in his head. Hollis said that was perhaps his biggest hurdle: he needed to get whatever was in his head out on the page and see what was really there.
Next to the war/crime/spy guy was a woman who claimed she grew up in the same Bronx neighborhood as several celebrities, none of which I can recall right now. Her book was about how growing up in the projects had shaped her life and theirs. She was concerned about upsetting someone with her real-life accounts. Hollis said she once called her brother-in-law a nasty name in one of her books and it caused some family tension for a while, but that it's all a part of being a writer and telling it like it is. I thought about all of the times I've glossed over situations in my life for my blog and wondered if writing the book version meant that I'd have to be brutally honest, even if it meant hurting some feelings.
The next person to talk was the super attractive young woman who had, I learned, in the last few years, been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer; she was wearing a wig and talked about her unimaginable experiences in treatment, and about finding out she'd never be able to have children. I think she had enough stories and information for five books. Hollis said her book needed focus to do well. Did she want the book to be a self-help book for people receiving treatment? Or did she want to talk about her spiritual journey battling a life-threatening disease? Or a funny tell-all about how much cancer sucks? She had written a lot, and had been featured on several cancer websites; her biggest obstacle was narrowing down her ideas, an exercise that would no doubt be difficult.
Next to her was a woman who happened to be married to the possible author of the war/crime/spy book. I was fascinated that these two writers were married to each other, though I'm not sure why. I'd dated a writer before, but for some reason the two of them taking the class together was interesting to me. I wondered if they worked on their books together at their house, and if they proofread each other's work. If one of them got a book deal and the other didn't, would there be tension in the house?
Anyway, she had two ideas for two books, both of which I thought were hysterically funny. One was about going through menopause and all of the not-so-appealing things that happen to your body when you do. The other, was all about being a southern belle married to an Italian man, with an Italian mother. She told hilarious stories about her mother-in-law, and she had the class roaring with laughter. She confessed she had anxiety about an upcoming trip through the Italian countryside with her mother-in-law. Hollis thought, and the rest of the class agreed, that her book could be about the trip, peppered with other anecdotes about her wacky mother-in-law from over the years. I can't wait to read it.
There were a few more ideas, one about a first generation Indian growing up in American culture with old-school Indian parents, and a woman who wanted to write a non-fiction collection of short stories about starting a small businesses.
I was genuinely impressed by everyone in the class. Obviously some books sounded more interesting to me than others, but overall, there were a lot of promising pitches.
By the time she made it around to me, we were running extremely short on time. Obviously I wanted loads of feedback from Hollis and from the others, but she had already shared so while talking to the others, I wasn't expecting we'd have a lot of time to talk discuss Project 29 to 30. I wasn't too concerned; I'd already learned so much. Plus, I felt confident about how much I'd written compared to all of the others. I'd already jumped into the deep end of the writing pool, and most of them were just hanging out in the kiddie pool.
When it was my turn, I felt a lot like I did when I had tried out for my own show on the Oprah network. I looked around at everyone and smile, quickly spitting out, "My name is Stephanie and my book is based on my blog, Project 29 to 30, which is about my quest to do one new thing every single day of my 29th year."
Hollis' eyebrows raised and she laughed, "No way! Cool. I love it." My classmates smiled at me, and nodded approvingly.
I continued, dropping Julie's name for effect.
"Julie, your former student . . . well, she and I are friends. She and I actually started our blogs at around the same time, and she recommended this class."
Hollis pulled up Project 29 to 30 on her computer which was flashing on the screen in front of us. She scrolled down.
"So," she said, matter-of-factly, "What are some of the things you've done?"
I started rattling off a list of the entries that usually impress people: polar bear plunge, sky-diving, taking a trip with someone I didn't really know that well.
Hollis continued to give me positive feedback both with her words, and her body language, as I asked her questions about a title, how to arrange chapters, and how best to incorporate the blog into the pitch, if at all.
She shared her opinions on each point. I knew she was on board with my idea and I was relieved. I was elated.
"Publishers love 'project books,'" she said, "You set a goal. You achieve it. You write about it. It's relatable. It's good."
Plus, she said, a blog shows them that you already have an invested audience, and that's good for business, plain and simple.
I was thrilled. This could really happen.
We talked briefly about the length of the blog and I told her I was averaging 1000 words per entry, setting myself up to have 365,000 at the end of the year-long blog. Since an average book is between 70-80,000 words, editing was going to be my biggest challenge. She nodded, but said that's the easy part. I refrained from telling her that I managed to come up with 500 words about making spaghetti sauce from scratch. Clearly editing and conciseness are not my strong suits.
Our class' guest speaker had arrived by then, so I expected Hollis would soon wrap it up with me. I felt like I had a clear handle on how to proceed, and I had the confidence that a publisher would respond well to my idea.
And then she hit me with a question I wasn't expecting.
"Did you fall in love this year?," she asked me casually and directly; it was as if she was asking if I'd taken out the trash.
Her question completely caught me off guard. I was ready to tell her about seeing a psychic or rock-climbing. Falling in love? Wow.
I instantly felt tears welling up in my eyes, and I looked up at the ceiling, begging them not to fall as I considered her simple question. For several awkward seconds, I couldn't find the words to answer her; and then I looked at her and began slowly shaking my head while I squeaked out, "Yes. Yes, I did."
Suddenly, scenes of the two men who had come in and out of my life throughout this past year played in my head like a mellow dramatic montage in a bad Lifetime movie.
Both had been the source of extremely strong feelings, a lot of laughs and so much fun; the time I spent with both provided a lot of adventure, and a great narrative to my story. But I'm not sure if I was in love with Mountain Man or FF.
I was in love with the story of Mountain Man. The innocent and special nature of our friendship that led to the amazing, romantic trip that we took together; despite the seemingly insurmountable geographic distance between us, and nearly everyone's belief that we could never work as a legit couple, I truly believed that we could and would be more than just a cool trip and an unforgettable story. With FF, I was in love with the opposite: he lived in the same town as me and seemed more realistic, more tangible; plus, our relationship was comfortable, practical, and drama-free. I liked that FF seemed to like me exactly the way that I was, and I fell in love with that for sure.
Neither relationship had turned out the way I wanted them to, and when they ended, there were varying levels of heartache, but I'm still not sure I could call it "love" in either case. Maybe it was their potential that I was in love with. Regardless, it had been months since I'd stopped thinking about them, and even longer since I'd shed any tears over them.
So why were there tears now? And why did I say "yes," when the real answer to Hollis' question was, "Nope. But I came really close?"
I think when I shook my head, "yes," I did so for fear that if I said "no," the whole room, that I was so far holding in the palm of my hand with my tales of adventure and excitement over the last year would've completely deflated. They were rooting for me, and I could feel it. I’ve got a great story, and it's funny and it's reflective; it's going to be a great book. As long as, of course, there's a love story.
I said "yes," because I was afraid that if I said, "no," then the 328 other things that I had already done wouldn't matter. And if that's true, I just wasn't ready to face it.
I used to joke with my mom that if I ever won a Nobel Peace Prize or became President, I'd better lock down a husband first, because all anyone ever wants to know about me is if I'm dating someone and if he's the "one" (whatever that means.) Where I come from, professional accomplishments pale in comparison to finding a suitable mate.
But it's not just other people putting that kind of pressure on me. I'm perhaps harder on myself about my failures in the relationship department than anyone else is. Love was supposed to come easy, and it was definitely supposed to arrive before I turned 30. With just six weeks to go until my birthday, I had to face reality that "falling in love," was probably not going to get crossed off the list. It was disappointing, but I had come to place of peace about it. I was not at peace with love, or my lack thereof, jeopardizing the possibility of my turning Project 29 to 30 into a book, however.
I don't know much about publishing, but I know enough to know that any book that makes it to a bookstore shelf has gone through numerous, and sometimes massive, edits; Hollis said that by the time it's all said and done, a final version of any novel is usually a 100 percent collaboration between the writer and the publisher. And as an author, I have every right to exercise creative liberties and stray away from the truth as it absolutely happened. I'm willing to do just that, but thinking that my story wouldn't be as interesting to other people or a publisher without a proper love story just bums me out.
And if it's true, then what does it mean for my life? Will all of my personal success and triumphs be considered less than if there isn't a man? Or romance?
I crave companionship and human touch and all of the things romantic love provides. And I've been fortunate to have experienced it with wonderful people who've been in my life for a time. I just haven't happened upon "the one." Not yet, anyway.
But make no mistake, my 29th year wasn't without love. There was lots of it. I know it sounds cheesy, but go ahead and cue the sappiness, because I'm serious. I fell in love with a lot this year: red nail polish and snow-skiing, my blog bff Olivia, Woot.com, Boston, New York, San Francisco. I fell in love with my friends, and my life. I fell in love with me. Crazy, unpredictable, high-maintenance, demanding me.
But while falling in love with myself makes for a great Whitney Houston song, that's not the kind of love other people want to read about. They want romance and a happy ending. I've had both this year, as well as a lot of other adventures, just not in the package I was expecting.
And to that I can only say, "Fine publisher. If you say I must fall in love by age 30 with a beautiful, bearded man who lives by the water and loves to travel and is smart and charming and perfect, then who am I to argue with that?"
I'll do whatever it takes to make my dream of being an author a reality, even if it means peppering the real version of my story with some saucier details. Thanks to Hollis and her class, I feel like I really have something on my hands. I'm a writer.
And Project 29 to 30 will be a book. Even if I have to publish it myself.