A person who was going to write a book

For many years, I was a person who was going to write a book. Friends introduced me this way: She’s going to write a book one day. I said this to myself, in quiet moments of contemplation, or in grand rallying moments when what you want out of life gets scrunched up against your nose. I am going to write a book. Once, back in 2006, I wrote an essay for Slate about shutting down my blog to write a book. Guess what? I didn’t write that book at all. I think I wrote two pages, and then flipped on a marathon of “The Hills.” But people are so polite, and forgiving, and forgetful that they rarely asked me about it. Months passed, and friends didn’t care that I had publicly announced a book I never wrote, and so I cranked up the blog again, kind of like when a couple announces they’re divorcing and everyone gasps and then four months later you see them out to dinner. Oh, OK. Never mind?

In these years — decades, really — friends of mine wrote books. Successful books. Modestly selling but beautiful books. Books they’d rather forget, but books nonetheless. A book is nothing to shrug off, I would tell them. A book is a sacred fucking thing. And every time a friend of mine wrote a book it was a notch in the ever-growing column that told me book writing was possible. It was being done by people like me, on this planet, in this very moment. I didn’t need expensive high-tech equipment, or classes at MIT, or a signed waiver from George Saunders. I could start NOW.

Eventually, I did. And unlike the many times before, I didn’t stop. I kept going till I reached the end, which was longer and harder than I anticipated. I did it anyway.

On the morning I finished my book, I woke up at 4:30am, and I made coffee, and I sat down at the table in my pajamas, and I read from page one. Three hundred pages of a story. I read the book like it was something I had picked up in the airport, stopping into Hudson’s News on a layover from Miami. And you know what? It was pretty good. I liked it. It was funny in places, and very sad in places, and I teared up several times. I was also sleep-deprived, and had been subsisting for days on golden Oreos and cheese enchiladas, so it’s possible I was clinically insane. But actually, I felt sharp. A clarity that comes in the final moments of a game.

I sent my book in at 1pm, and while balloons failed to drop from the ceiling, I became someone different in that moment. I became someone who had written a book. I waited many years to say that about myself. Whatever happens next is out of my hands.

(The book, “Blackout,” comes out in June 2015 from Grand Central.)

Your scheduled programming will resume shortly

Greetings, and welcome to SarahHepola.com. If you’ve come to this site, you are probably curious about me, or the phenomenon of public crying, and so we thank you.  I’ve been on hiatus for a while now, but emails to central command suggest people have questions, which I will attempt to answer.

What is a Sarah Hepola?

A Sarah Hepola is a short, curious creature who stands approximately 5’2” in the wild (5’6” in urban environments, where she insists on wearing wedge heels). She has been known to write stories about things that happened to her.

What can I do about this?

Nothing. People have tried.

Where has she been?

I’ve been working on a book, called “Blackout,” which will be published by Grand Central in June 2015. The process of writing a book (as you may know from Charlie Kaufman movies) is a tortured, exciting journey, full of lonely hours, despair, and cheese enchiladas. I made the decision to unlatch myself from the distraction machines of the Internet during this time, but I recently turned in a draft to my editor, which presented me with a small window of opportunity for blog posting and obsessive scrap-booking. I should be officially done writing the book by the end of summer, which means these next weeks are critical. Creatively speaking, this is the moment in the movie where the stoner guy turns to you in the VW bus and says, “Dude, let’s make this the BEST SUMMER EVER.” Much work to be done, amigos.

That’s nice, but umm, how I get my story published on Salon?

You can email me a full draft of your personal essay, pasted in the body of the email, at shepola@salon.com. Do not use my personal email, because it will make me cranky.

Anything else?

Last week, Julie and I saw the Richard Linklater film “Boyhood,” which knocked us both out. I have never seen a film like it, and the story will stay with me for some time. There is so much else to discuss, but it will have to wait. It’s mid-July, and you know what that means. Dudes, we gotta make this the BEST SUMMER EVER.

Three years.

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.

Come again?

“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.

Romance in the 21st century

Like every bitter single woman, I have an online dating profile. Sometimes, the men folk look at the pictures on that profile — here I am, smiling sweetly into the camera; here I am, laughing at someone’s joke — and they send messages. Almost invariably, the messages are dumb. They say things like, “Hey, what’s up?” Only it’s more like, “hey what up.” Like, no one could be bothered with a comma, or a possessive. Like a question mark was just too heavy to lift.

The other day, I got an email from a gentleman. It was very nice. It read, “Someone needs to say this: You are stunning.” Now, I’m not sure anyone needed to say that. And I’m not sure he meant it. But I can assure you that the girlish hole in my soul — the one that wants to pour the world’s compliments over my face like champagne in a rap video — found that email delightful.

I clicked over to his profile: 29. Cute. (Very cute.) In his ABOUT ME section, he said something about how his parents were still together. They had true love. The kind of sparks-flying, best-friend chemistry that he wanted in a partner, and he would not settle for anything less. And then: His profile said he was a passionate conservative.

Well, damn. I can date a lot of types in this world. I could even date a conservative (maybe). But passionate conservative? Our romance was over before it began. I wrote him a note, telling him that his email made my day, and explaining that a passionate liberal such as myself would be a poor match for him, but I wished him all the best.

He wrote back : “Shoot, I was just hoping we could exchange dirty pics. ;)”

I did not respond. And that, friends, is love in the 21st century.

Now, I have written a different story about online dating, which has nothing to do with this gentleman. I studied the dating profiles of Dallas women, and I found cleavage, glitter, and the American way.

I have been CoolSculptedTM

So much life is happening over here at Sarahhepola.com, but before all that, let’s catch up on what we missed. One day, I went into a private room at Southwestern Medical Center and was latched onto a bizarre suction machine that purports to freeze your fat. Do you want to guess how this turned out? That’s right: I’m 20 pounds lighter, 50 degrees colder, and finally happy.

Needless turbulence.

The flight was from Denver to Aspen, where I was headed for a literary thing. The flying time was 25 minutes. The captain told us it would be bumpy the whole way. That’s when you know it will be bad — when the captain feels the need to warn you.

I used to be an anxious flier, but I have grown calmer with middle age. I figure: I can do anything for 25 minutes. I can cling to an armrest. I can stare out a window really, really hard. I figure: If my time is up, there’s nothing I can do about it.

So the captain was right about one thing. It was a choppy ascent, followed by dips in the clouds that separate you from your stomach for a spell. I try to keep my mind off it. I stare at the tips of the mountains, still veiny with snow in early June.

I went skiing once with my college boyfriend in Colorado. Wasn’t really my deal. I hated going so fast, the velocity required. I scooched down an entire slope on my ass, tired of picking myself up only to fall over again. The second day, I was sore in places I never knew I had muscles. When my boyfriend hit the slopes, I stayed in the warm wooded lodge drinking red wine and reading a book I had fallen in love with. That night, I cuddled with him by the fire and told him I might like to write a book one day. I was 20 years old. I thought these things were easy and inevitable like that.

“You can do anything you want,” he told me. And then he said, “Well, maybe not physical.”

It was meant to be funny, but it was a little bit mean, maybe because I understood it to be true. And it’s surprising how quickly I accepted it, this tossed-off joke, as my lot in life: I can do anything I want. (Maybe not physical.) And for years I was happier that way, curled up in the wooded lodge of my early 20s with my nurturing glass of Cabernet. It was not until I went to South America at 26, and began hiking, and swallowing fears, and letting my fingernails tear as I climbed up mossy rock, that I realized he had not been exactly right. I had strong legs and a willing heart. I just hated to ski.

The small and shuddering plane circles the Aspen mountaintops for a long time. A flash of lightning in my window. Never a good sign. Ninety minutes into our 25-minute flight, the captain comes on and tells us we missed our landing. The tail winds are too strong for our [something-something]. Point is: We’re being re-routed back to Denver. The place we came from. Ninety minutes of needless turbulence, I think to myself, as we stagger back into the clouds, which knock us about in an uncertain way. I guess flights are like this sometimes.

The thing is, you cannot do anything you want. For instance, you cannot fly to Aspen during a storm on a rickety plane.  But if you stay patient, and don’t freak out, you can get where you want to go eventually. Much later than you hoped. (Six hours later, to be exact, on a rickety plane that will land in chilly sunshine.) But you get there, nonetheless.

I love the 90s, but they sorta hated me

I have written a review of the amazing new Richard Linklater movie, “Before Midnight,” part of a trilogy which has become the story of my generation. Things mentioned in that piece: Doc Martens, smoking in the courtyard during college, and talking about philosophy, some of which can be directly witnessed in this picture from 1993 (photo by Bryan Christian). Please note some things I did not mention in the article: Super-Dallas dangly earrings, baseball cap flipped up (why???), and dude in the background, toking.


Search me.

I was about an hour outside of Dallas when I saw the flashing lights in my rear view mirror. The police car was an SUV, and the lights swooped like a party van. I felt weirdly humble in that moment. Surely all that fuss is not for me.

Turns out, it was.

“You were going 83 in a 65,” the cop said after we pulled onto the shoulder of the road. “Is there a reason you’re speeding right now?”

I had been on the road for 11 hours. I was so tired. I missed my cat. My back hurt. Sometimes, when I’m singing a song, my foot presses harder on the accelerator pedal. “Not a good one,” I said. I handed him my license and registration. He had a mustache. Pink cheeks and jowly. The buttons of his shirt strained as he bent over. If this sounds like a cop stereotype, I’m sorry. It’s actually an accurate description.

“Where you coming from?” he asked.

“Alpine, Texas,” I said. I’d spent the last four days having a great visit with Julie and her family. That morning, I’d hugged her goodbye at 7:30am, hit the road, and about 60 miles later, veered onto the wrong interstate. This is an easy mistake to make. At least, that’s what I told myself as I wound through dusty farm roads, trying to get back on track. The screw-up lost me valuable time. A nine-hour trip became a 10-hour trip. After lunch, I had to stop in Abilene for two hours to do some work at a Huddle House. I wanted so badly to be home.

“What were you doing in Alpine?” he asked.

“Visiting my friend,” I said. I had that dizzy sensation that comes with nervousness. I felt like I was lying, even though I was telling the truth. He went back to his SUV and when he returned, motioned me out of the car. I stepped along the shoulder to where he stood, the air breezy with passing cars. He and another jowly and mustachioed officer stood there, both holding flashlights, though it was not yet dark.

“Ma’am, do you mind if we search your vehicle?”

“Oh, no, sure. Go ahead.”

That’s how it happened. It was that fast, and that casual. It’s like he was saying, “Ma’am, can I get this fuzz off your shirt?” Or, “Ma’am, do you want to see a picture of my son?” And my response was so instinctual and blase. Of course you can search my vehicle. Why wouldn’t I let two cops search my vehicle? We’re all friends here, on this random shoulder off I-20. 

I watched as Cop #2 dug in my purse, and flopped open my wallet. He rifled through my glove compartment, picking through my CDs like a friend in the passenger seat trying to figure out our next jams. Cop #1 was in my trunk, where my bags were kept. His hands ran along my jacket, my tank tops folded and squished in a suitcase. He unscrewed a metal jar that contained handmade goat’s milk soap — a gift from Julie’s friend Amanda — and sniffed it. I know for a fact that it smelled delicious: Peppermint and rosemary.

But my heart was pounding. I felt (the only word that came to me) violated. Why had I allowed him to do this? What kind of journalist was I?

I was not afraid they would find drugs. I don’t do drugs. Even when I was a hopeless little lush, passing out in the back of taxi cabs, I did not do drugs. I’ve gotten stoned maybe four times. Maybe six. The last time, I forgot the word for “table,” and I thought: Never again. This is some bullshit. So I knew for a fact I did not have any drugs in my car. But my mind was rolodexing through the names of everyone I have ever given a ride to, who might have accidentally/purposefully-because-it-happens-in-movies left some drug-type residue thing in my car. What else might the cops find? There are a lot of illegal things in this universe. There are a lot of embarrassing things in the universe.

I watched Cop #2 dig his hand along the bucket on the side door and it occurred to me how easy it would be to plant something there. Do I sound paranoid? Next time your car is randomly searched, see if it doesn’t activate a little paranoia in you.

I crossed my arms. I sighed. I cringed. Finally, I couldn’t stay silent anymore. “I’m sorry, but is there a reason you’re searching my vehicle? Was I suspicious in some way?”

The first cop looked at me with irritation. I think, some days, he wishes he had a different job. “Ma’am, we’ve had a lot of problems with people bringing narcotics over the border. I search nearly every vehicle I stop.”

The absurdity of this plunked me on the nose: I search nearly every vehicle I stop. For what? For a spliff and an old roach? I’m not going to pretend to know the complexities of the narcotics trade and its significance to the uniformed men of Whatever County Off I-20, but surely they have something better to do with their time than this? I thought of all the fast food containers that man has to stick his nose in, all the confrontations on the side of the road. All the huffy drivers crossing their arms. Do each of them submit as easily as I did?

I took a deep breath. “I’m just nervous watching you go through my stuff,” I said.

He gave me a look, almost like: A-ha! You’re nervous! That means you’re guilty! But we locked eyes, his hands on my nightslip, and then he said, “Yes, I understand,” and zipped my suitcase back up.

Eventually, they were done. “I’m going to leave you with a verbal warning,” the cop said. I was relieved. But as I drove away, I felt rattled. Later Julie would warn me to never consent to a search. She is a smart lawyer whose experience has taught her it is not a good idea. I value her judgement. Of course, I would have almost certainly gotten a ticket. But I wouldn’t have left with the guilty feeling that someone walked over me.

Now, I’m too tired to think. Twelve hours on the road. Back still cranked. I’m wearing the nightslip the cop stuffed back in my suitcase. But my cat is curled up at my feet. And I got what I wanted: I’m home now.

Dress for the job you want to have.

I wrote a story about quinceanera dresses, the fancy gowns worn by Hispanic girls on their 15th birthday. It is a story about the cultural evolution of Dallas, and about the tricky tensions of gentrification, but also, it is about dresses.

I spent a lot of time staring at those quinceanera dresses. At first I was like, “Those dresses are pretty.” And then I was like, “I think I might try on one of those dresses.” And then I was like, “GIMME THOSE DRESSES NOW!!” This might be akin to the fever of a new bride, or a spoiled teen gearing up for her big party, or Beyonce at the Grammys, but I am not any of those things. I’m just a 38 year old reporter who likes to play dress-up in sparkly things.

I went to this store in Oak Cliff called LA Glitter. Those dresses are spectacular. I recommend every 38-year-old who ever dreamed of attending the Oscars stop in there. It’s like a movie set. And the owner and designer, Jose Cerda, let me try on this beautiful red dress, and he posed me on a step so that I looked like a dainty little cupcake.


If you’re wondering if that’s my bra, it is. Sorry, mom.