I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was seven and my father helped me with my math homework for the first – and last – time. “Stop crying!,” he screamed. “It’s just a number, it won’t kill you!”
“But I’m afraid of numbers!” I whimpered.
“Math’s a language, like English,” he said, “except we use numbers instead of letters.”
“So, why can’t we use letters?” I said, sobbing. “And, why do I have to divide four in half? Why not just leave the four alone?”
“You’re hopeless at math,” he said, burying his hands in his face, “and you couldn’t catch a football if your life depended on it. But you can spell, so maybe you could get a job as a writer. Either that or marry a Baptist minister.”
Despite those seemingly limitless options laid out before me, I vowed to stay as far away as I could from numbers, football and Baptist ministers. Instead, I went on to pursue my dream of making it as a writer in Hollywood.
During my illustrious career as a writer – which was punctuated by stints as a waitress, spin instructor, marketing executive, and event planner, I’ve had a few scripts that – almost – made it to the screen. The first went off the rails after the A-list celebrity who was funding it went bankrupt before it went into development. During pre-production of my second movie, the executive producer, who had been shepherding my project died suddenly and the film went into perpetual turn-around. An Oscar-winning independent production company optioned my third film. During the two years they had the option, we had numerous lunches at swanky hotels, in which we threw around A-list names for the cast, and then actually cast them! I was feeling pretty cool. Until the company went belly-up a week before we began production.
My fourth film, Exposed, which I wrote, directed and raised funds for, sold to Showtime, but not before my investor was indicted for securities’ fraud and sent to prison for twenty years. And there was the scathing review of Exposed in The Hollywood Reporter, which included the words, “writer/director Misti Barnes’ lack of thought … on this misbegotten project.” The film distribution company I signed with hasn’t sent me a penny during the ten years they’ve been selling the film, and they refused to return the master copy of my film when our contract ended. I won’t tell you the name of the company, but it sounds like “In-da-can” – yes, I’m still slightly bitter.
My writing career has been a seeming roller coaster of ups and downs and endless misfires. But I’ve also had some success and plenty of amazing opportunities. I’ve written and produced live events for studios, live theatre and TV, and I’ve worked alongside the most respected people in entertainment. I started a women’s film festival and had several of my plays produced and performed live. The problem was, no matter what I had accomplished, it was never “enough.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a fraud on the verge of being found out. Deep down I feared I was a hack. A “misbegotten,” “thoughtless” hack.
And then, several years ago, after the recession hit and I’d lost my job, my car and my home, I hit a spiritual and emotional bottom. I also had major writer’s block.
You see, I’d grown up in a home mired in addiction and general craziness – I know, shocking, based upon the Hallmark-ish scenario I painted earlier with my father – and I’d never truly dealt with it. I had read hundreds of self-help books and gone to therapy, but not much had changed. Alcoholism and addiction had deeply affected my life and I was kind of crazy. I don’t mean certifiably crazy; it’s not like I had buried bodies under my floorboards, I was just a little dramatic and slightly controlling. I was suffering from codependency of the worst kind, and I decided I needed help. Well, I didn’t really decide, a friend decided for me. She said, “You need help. There’s a twelve-step meeting on Manchester. Good luck and don’t ever call me again.”
I committed myself to getting spiritually and emotionally healthy, which took a few years. Eventually, I began to write again. This time, my writing had nothing to do with the “target audience” or what Hollywood was “buying.” I wrote because I wanted to heal. I started writing daily humorous meditations that I’d hoped would encourage others struggling with codependency and addiction. Inspired by the digital publishing revolution, I decided to self-publish my book, If You Leave Me, Can I Come with You?, because I didn’t want to wait two years for a publisher to pick it up. I figured maybe I’d sell a few hundred copies. What happened was beyond what I could have imagined. Within a month of putting my book up on Amazon and submitting a copy of it to Hazelden Publishing, the largest self-help/recovery publisher, I was offered a traditional publishing deal.
Today, when people stop me on the street and ask me how to go from being a self-published author to being a traditionally published author, I say, “Don’t you know who I am?! Stop bothering me!” Just kidding. I live in L.A. and the only thing I get asked is if I can spare some change for beer, a bag of pot or some tofu. However, in the event that I may be asked for my advice, here’s what I’d say: “Just write. Keep going. Especially when you hate every word on the page. Write to help someone else. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, just think about who needs to hear the story you want to tell.”
Perhaps your mission is to write about the power of love, redemption or forgiveness. Maybe it’s the importance of- egads!-mathematics. But if you have a decent mix of talent, quality and a little altruism, you’re going to reach someone who’ll want your work. And, if that doesn’t happen, you can always put pictures of puppies in your books. Note: I recently had dinner with a famous artist whose wife says that whenever he includes a dog in his paintings, it sells in minutes. The guy’s a visual madman, a genius whose paintings sell in the hundred thousand dollar range, but puppies are the clincher. Who knew?!
The truth is, there’s no formula for writing success or why things do or don’t sell. There are no longer any hard and fast rules about publishing, it’s constantly changing. The more value you bring to others – whether it be humor, entertainment, suspense, spirituality – the better your work will be, and ultimately, it will sell. Maybe you’ll write the book you’ve always dreamt of writing, self-publish it and sell fifteen copies. Perhaps you’ll find a “traditional,” publisher and sell tens of thousands. It doesn’t matter. Press on. Good writing isn’t simply about charting plotlines and character development, and achievement doesn’t come from visualizing your book on the best-seller list, or from knowing The Top Ten Book Cover Design Secrets. Ultimately, success comes from offering value to your readers.
Just write well and write often. Because, no matter what’s “hot” or what’s ranking on Amazon, one thing will remain: writers write because they have to, or as Anne Lamott so beautifully puts it, “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.”
Write because you love it, because you have something to say and because, dammit, if you don’t, who will? Or, write because you hate math, and if, like me you had simply embraced the language of numbers, today, instead of being cloistered in a ten-by-ten studio apartment with a laptop you’d be a physicist or an engineer living in some high-rise in New York City, squaring things by zero, or whatever the hell engineers do. Have a purpose, something to give others. Write your book because the story won’t be told if you don’t tell it. Or, as a friend of mind would say, “what else are you gonna do?”
At least, that’s how it worked for me. Not bad for a girl who’s horrible at throwing a football and can’t factor anything by four.