“Don’t Keep Your Dreams in a Box”

“Don’t Keep Your Dreams in a Box”

by Staci Backauskas

Bob Fosse once said, “Bring me dancers who have to dance, not dancers who want to dance.” Well, I don’t have to dance, but I do have to write. I just didn’t get around to accepting it until I was thirty-five. I’ve been writing since I was a kid – poetry, short stories, and non-fiction pieces for newsletters and an occasional magazine, but didn’t really believe I was good enough to get paid for it.

Growing up, my dream was to live in Manhattan and work in advertising. I wanted an office on Madison Avenue. I moved to New York City in 1989 and worked in the media departments of two well-known advertising agencies. But after four years, I felt overstressed and underpaid. Friends of mine convinced me to try sales. “You’ll make so much more money,” they promised. So I pursued several of the rep firms and was hired by one of the top two companies.

During the summer of 1996, I was on a sales call and stopped at my favorite bookstore, Coliseum Books on 57th and Seventh Avenue. As I stood browsing through the hundred of books on display, I said to myself, “I want to have a book on one of these tables.” I went back to the office and put an ad in The New York Press to start a writer’s group and the Writer’s Roundtable of Manhattan was born.

I also signed up for a class that forced me to come up with an outline and I started my spiritual fiction novel, The Fifth Goddess. I worked on it off and on for the next few months. My job was very stressful and often involved after work activities with clients. Many nights I’d get home from work by eight and want to do nothing but grab something to eat and vegetate in front of the television. It’s tough to be creative on demand. Then my mother called one night and told me about a writer’s conference being held in Maui.

Even though she wasn’t making a lot of money, she offered to pay for my conference registration if I’d go because she knew how much writing meant to me. Now that I think about it, she probably was more aware of it than I was. We both registered and decided to take advantage of the program where you could send a synopsis of your book to them and they would have it reviewed by legitimate agents and editors.

I forced myself to complete the forms by the deadline, allowing myself to observe the terror I felt. Several weeks later, I was on a sales call at an advertising agency and checked my voicemail. Between questions and crises was a message from a literary agent who’d read my synopsis and wanted to meet me while she was in town. I flew back to the office.

We hit it off immediately and she agreed to represent me, even though I had barely written a hundred pages. I had recently changed rep firms and wondered how I was going to write and prove myself to my new employer at the same time. When I returned from Maui, I applied for and was accepted into an advanced novel writing class. Knowing I had deadlines to turn material into the class was a great motivator for me.

By the spring of 1998, I had been in advertising for almost ten years and selling for five. I was miserable. I had silently threatened to quit plenty of times during my sales career. I hated having to put on a happy-bouncy-perky face for people I didn’t like. And I didn’t care for the lying that is inevitably involved in any sales job. I especially didn’t like the back stabbing-front grinning that was rampant. But I needed a plan.

One of the stations I represented held a sales contest and I received a check for several thousand dollars in April. I opened a money market account, earmarking that money for living expenses after I resigned. For the next six months, I added to it whenever I could, knocking the total up to almost ten thousand. I had wrestled with the thought of resigning for years, but one morning in October of last year, I woke up and knew it was the day.

After our sales meeting that morning, I tried to catch my boss, but she had appointments outside the office. At lunchtime her office was still empty. I was frustrated because I was anxious and wanted to resign before I changed my mind. Instead of panicking, I returned to my office and put to use a technique I learned in a prosperity class I had taken at the Unity Center.

I wrote a letter to the angel of everyone who was to be involved in my resignation. My boss, my director of sales, the president of the company, the human resources manager and my important clients. I thanked them for releasing me from my position with love, abundance and acceptance. Then I grabbed lunch and waited for my boss.

When I told her, she offered complete support. I was a vertebra in the backbone of her sales team, but she found it within herself to recognize the importance of this decision for me. I got the same reaction from everyone who’s angel I had written to. There was nobody telling me I was crazy. There was no one saying, “I can’t believe you’re walking away from six figures to write a book.” There was only encouragement. I worked in the city until November of 1998 and then found a place to live in an area of New Jersey that is near the beach but is also surrounded by horse farms. I knew I needed some time to decompress, so I gave myself permission to spend two weeks at home in Pittsburgh over the holidays, enjoying the company of family and friends like I’d not been able to before. I had no job to rush back to. No crisis to deal with. No angry client to appease.

At the beginning of 1999, I found myself floundering. I hadn’t realized how much of my identity was tied up in being a sales rep. The first question people ask you after you’re introduced is, “What do you do?” It was a process learning how to answer, “I’m a writer.” During that process, I opened a business making gift plaques and writing personalized short stories. I worked on a horse farm. I trained and became a certified teacher for The Princeton Review. And finally, toward the middle of February, when I could no longer deny that it was my destiny, I began to write.

When I started I had 240 pages written. The book ended up being 520. I wrote more than half of it in six weeks. The first part took me over two years. I met with my agent while she was in New York during the spring of 1999. Then I played the waiting game, trying to relax while New York editors decided my fate. I tried to remember that I did my job. I walked away from a career that was making me miserable, even though it paid a lot of money, because I needed to finish my book. Now all I had to do was be patient and I would be rewarded – right? But sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to – they do, however, work out the way they need to.

After several months of miscommunication and no results, I decided to let go of my relationship with my agent. Not because she was a bad person, but because she wasn’t the person I needed to represent me. I was then faced with deciding whether I wanted to search for another agent, find a small press on my own, or try to publish myself. I was angry and disappointed. My agent had let me down. Where was my huge advance? How was I going to pay the bills? I was still teaching for The Princeton Review, but that wasn’t enough to cover my monthly expenses. I wallowed for a couple of weeks and then got to work trying to find a smaller press to buy my book.

I sent out dozens of letters to publishers whose names I found in the Writer’s Market and got dozens of rejections. I did research on the Internet and discovered a co-operative publisher who charged the writer, but performed other services besides printing. My mother and several friends discouraged me from using them, claiming that the price they wanted for two-thousand copies was far more than what it would cost to do it myself.

I, on the other hand, was very interested in their services. I insisted didn’t want the responsibility of finding an artist to design the cover, gathering printer’s quotes, paying an editor and dealing with how to get the books to people who wanted them. These were all services this publisher would provide. But it was going to cost me close to $20,000. Not knowing where the money would come from, I said a prayer and affirmed that I was open to receiving whatever information I needed to get my book published.

In contacting references that the publisher had given me, I had a great conversation with a gentleman in Alabama whose first book had been published by a non-profit press. To raise money, this press offered advance, autographed copies for $100. I thought that was a brilliant idea and began making a list of all the friends, family, business associates and celebrities who might be willing to invest $100 in me.

I had over a hundred names! I quickly did the calculations in my head. Even at a 50% return I knew it would make a big dent in the costs. I drafted a letter from my heart, taking responsibility for seeing my agent as a mythical “white knight,” offering a signed copy of The Fifth Goddess for $100 and asking for their help. My hands shook as I dropped the letters into the mailbox.

But I still had to come up with the rest of the money. I got the lecture from my father on having a business plan. How much was it going to cost me for publicity, promotion, advertising, marketing? These were all things that the co-operative publisher wasn’t going to devote much time to – it was going to be up to me. Crunching the numbers made me ill. It was going to cost another $20,000 for six months of living expenses and promotion. Where was I going to come up with that kind of cash?

Responses to my letter began trickling in. At first, I received several checks from close friends and family. Over the next few weeks other checks arrived, including one from Kathy Najimy! I got a call from my former manager’s assistant explaining that she didn’t have the money to order a copy, but she offered her support and encouragement.

The human resources manager from my last job wrote a couple of months later and ordered a copy. But none of my former teammates, management, buyers or clients responded at all. I wasn’t expecting checks from everyone. But I thought I’d at least receive a phone call or e-mail of support from some of them. I was crushed.

Sprinkling salt in the wound, a former close friend and teammate wrote me a long letter, prompted by mine, filled with insults and derogatory remarks about my choices. She accused me of “masterfully disguising my need for self-sabotage” as my dream. (Side note: I didn’t write a letter to her angel because I figured we were friends and she would be supportive). After having a mini-nervous breakdown, I realized several things. First, that the letter was a reflection of every fear and insecurity I had. Today, I’m grateful she put them in black and white so that I could realize they weren’ t true.

Second, it lit a fire under my butt like nobody’s business. Third, it made me realize, on a level I’d not been able to previously access, that what other people think of me doesn’t matter. And last, I accepted that by living my dream, I was pushing a lot of buttons in people who were not living theirs.

I began working like a maniac, learning everything I could about the publishing business. I began to make lists of what I needed to accomplish, what I needed to learn and how I could use my marketing/advertising background to my advantage. In other words, I ended up doing exactly what I said I didn’t want to. Beware resistance. It’s generally an indicator that whatever you’re resisting needs to be done immediately. And as usual, I should’ve listened to my mother.

A few weeks onto this part of the path, I panicked. I was deep into the money fears. I thought I believed that as long as I did what I knew I needed to do, that God/dess would take care of the rest. But my ego was giving my spirit a run for its money. Worries about bills and creditors washed over me. I brushed up on my typing skills and registered at several temp agencies.

A week later, I found myself on assignment earning $10 an hour and wondering what the hell had happened to my life. I contemplated registering with an employment agency and getting a full time job. Did I really need to see this book published?

I was sharing my woes with a very close friend one day and in no uncertain terms he let me have it. “Why did you bother to quit? Are you going to just let the manuscript mold in a drawer?” But where am I going to get the money to pay for all of this, I argued. “You’ve got money in a 401K. Cash it out. You’re young enough. If it doesn’t work out the way you want it to, you can always go back to work and get another 401K.” I thought he was insane. And a minute later, I realized he was right. I owed this to myself. I was worthy of that kind of commitment.

I prayed and meditated about it and with no fear, I cashed in two of my three IRAs. And the rewards have surpassed all of my expectations! I am blessed with incredible people in my life who have made this possible. And I need to acknowledge, for myself, that they are all a reflection of me. I’ m always quick to take responsibility for whatever negativity I attract to me and I need to remember it works both ways.

I was asked to do my first public reading at the Goddess 2000 Arts Festival in New York City in September. (As an aside, the project is incredible and I would recommend checking out their website at www.goddess2000.org). I’ve had to put my ego on the back burner many times. But that’s OK, because my spirit knows much better than my ego does what’s best for me.

I heard a story once about a young man who was getting ready to graduate from high school. He had his eye set on a particular car that he wanted as a graduation present. For weeks, all he talked about was that car. Finally, graduation day came. His father called him into the study and gave him a box. The young man anxiously ripped off the wrapping paper. Inside was a bible.

“How could you?” he screamed at his father. “I got good grades. I obeyed you all the time. And this is what I get?” He put the bible back in the box and threw it on the desk. He went away to college, got good grades, graduated at the top of his class and went on to make his own fortune in business. Not once did he speak with his father.

One day he got a telegram telling him that his father was on his deathbed. He got on a plane and flew home. But he was too late. His father was gone. After the funeral, he sat in his father’s study. And he noticed that on the desk was his graduation present. He opened the box, removed the bible – and out fell the key to the car he’d wanted.

Sometimes the gift we say we want doesn’t come in the package we imagine it will. The real gift is being open to receiving the gift in whatever form it comes. There are now 3000 books in my living room. My website is up and running at www.fifthgoddess.com and I've started the fifthgoddess newsletter at www.onelist.com.

Now the real work begins. I know this book has an important message. And I plan to do everything I can to make sure it’s a success. And I have all of this because I was willing to go through the process – to have the courage that together, God/dess and I, could survive the transitions that were necessary to get me here. I’ll keep you posted.

Staci Backauskas P.O. Box 14, Atlantic Highlands, NJ 07716 (732) 291-4212 fifthgoddess@sprynet.com © Copyright 1999