About a year after I moved back to Dallas, I went to see a psychic. I know this sounds crazy, so maybe it was. But the psychic sets up a booth every Saturday in the back corner of a cool vintage store near my house. Fifteen minutes for $15. I’d heard good things from friends: She’s the real deal. I doubted that, but the lost and desperate will climb any mountain, and 15 bucks was hardly an incline.
And so, one frustrated afternoon, I drove to the vintage store, rummaged through a few nifty dresses, and sat down across from the psychic. She was thin. Her long white hair was pulled back in a bun. She had huge, popping eyes and glasses that swallowed half her face. She reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates.
She took my hand and peered at my palm under a desk lamp. “You’re creative,” she said. “Oh, my. And you are impatient.”
My right leg was jostling (an old habit), and I stilled it and nodded. I’m never sure what psychics are reading — the energy of the universe, my body language, a script from the Internet — but her initial diagnosis didn’t impress me. Here I was, patronizing a quirky store that sold 50s prom dresses and Victorian coffins: Of course I was creative.
But as we continued, her observations grew more specific, and I felt my skepticism calve like a glacier. She told me my mother was a compassionate adventurer. She told me my father was quiet, he had learned to follow her lead. She told me I was lucky I’d changed my old habits, that I had narrowly missed smashing into a wall. She told me the man I was hung up on had the heart of a champion. And even if none of that was true, it all sounded right to me.
“You’re working on something big right now,” she said.
“I’m a writer,” I told her. You’re not supposed to tell a psychic what you do for a living, but the clock was ticking. I needed to get to the point.
“A book?” she asked, and I nodded. “You’re going to succeed.”
I know what you’re thinking: Of course she would say that. She tells people what they want to hear. She doesn’t intuit the future; she intuits a person’s needs.
And indeed, it was despair about that book — a memoir about drinking — that pushed me toward her that day. I had left New York, and my full-time gig, with total confidence that I could sell it within four months. That was my time line, and it seemed as simple as a finger snap. I was an online journalist; sometimes I wrote a piece in the morning, and it was published by dinner. Four months was like a lifetime to me.
By the way, I didn’t even have to write the book. I just had to write the proposal, a marketing document to sell someone on the idea of my book. So easy! No problem! I had a fancy big-time agent behind me. I didn’t see how I could fail.
But I was learning. I spent 12 months burrowing into rabbit holes and cowering there. I froze. I sputtered. A book can be written an infinite number of ways. You don’t realize this until you start trying them all.
So I needed to sell that book. Soon. I needed the assurance of a paid professional (apparently any would do) to convince me that I had not, in fact, ruined my life by stacking all my chips on this particular square. Hell yes, I wanted to hear that I was going to succeed.
“Three years,” she said, and the torpedo hit my stomach.
“It’ll take you three years,” she said, with the haunted eyes of Joyce Carol Oates, and I kept nodding, and smiling, but my stomach had burst in flames. Men leapt over the side and into the waters.
You see, I didn’t have three years. I didn’t have the money for three years. I didn’t have the energy for three years. And I sure as shit didn’t have the patience for three years.
Later, as I sat on the couch in Mary’s apartment, my legs propped on her coffee table in a slumping posture of defeat, she tried to raise my spirits. “Maybe she meant three months,” she said.
Yes: Maybe she meant three months.
Then again, maybe she did not. Because soon after, I was dropped by my big-time fancy agent. I was devastated, and no psychic or vintage dress could save me. And I thought this was the saddest part of my story, but actually — it was the turning point. Because I stopped working on the stupid marketing document, and I started working on the book. I quit torturing myself about the infinite number of ways the story could be written. I simply chose one, and walked through that door. Through a series of lucky circumstances, I found a different agent, the one anyone who loves me would have chosen for me, because she saw me the way they did.
And on June 13, 2013 — three years to the day after I quit drinking — I sat in the office of the publishing house that would eventually buy my book. There were three women from the publishing house sitting around me. There were three books on the shelf in the back, and each of them was a best seller. It was raining that day. We spoke intensely. At one point, I got so emotional that I cried. And afterwards, my agent and I emerged into the damp streets of Manhattan and looked at each other like: What just happened?
And it takes time to answer that question. (In my case, it took about nine days.) What just happened is that I had met the people who were going to buy my first book. And now I was going to have a year to write it, and it was going to be due in June 2014, exactly three years after I moved to Texas.
I told this story to a friend one night. “Three years,” I said. “Isn’t that spooky?”
He agreed it was strange. But he wasn’t persuaded. “Psychics are storytellers,” he said. “They sketch out enough of the picture so that you can shade it in with your own specifics. So that the story feels like your own.”
Maybe so. But I know that life works in mysterious ways. I know that I have one year to write a book, and I know that whatever happens: This story feels like mine.