March 23, 2010
Holly Nicole Hoxter: You Couldn't Pay Me to be 21 Again
Holly Nicole Hoxter's debut novel, THE SNOWBALL EFFECT, comes out today. I've had my copy for a long time, so I'm excited to finally talk about it! But while this is a day of celebration, Holly's here to talk about some less than fun times. (Keep reading - there is a happy ending.)
When Liviania asked me to write about what I was like at 21, I got excited at the prospect of sharing stories about my younger, carefree days. But then I started to REMEMBER 21. I'll divulge this upfront: It was a bad year.
A week after my birthday, I was fired from my job for insubordination. It would have been the perfect time to finish writing my novel, but then my grandmother died a few days after Christmas and I spent the next two months depressed and crying.
In March I found a job. It paid well and I felt like such a grownup. Unfortunately the job was 60 miles away in Rockville. On a good day, with no traffic and a blatant disregard for the posted speed limit, the drive took an hour. On a normal day it was more like 1.5 to 2 hours--each way.
Before long, my depression and the stress from the new job really killed my immune system. I was sick for an entire month. Some mornings I could barely lift my arms to shampoo my hair. I stopped going to the gym. I lived on convenient food--McDonald’s breakfast, Triscuits and cheese, BK Whoppers, and endless cans of Coke. I gained thirty pounds. Soon I was depressed, stressed out, lazy, and overweight.
That summer, at my parents’ urging, I bought a house. It needed extensive renovations so I spent my weekdays trekking to Rockville and my weekends tearing down walls and making trips to Home Depot with my dad. After a month, I thought I’d go insane if I didn’t take a break from the monotony. On Monday morning, I drove three hours to Ocean City and spent the day with my friend Scott, a volunteer firefighter who lived a block from the ocean. I admired and envied Scott because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. As I drove home that night, I looked at the gorgeous sunset over the Chesapeake Bay, and I felt optimistic that things would get better.
But they didn't. Every morning when I drove toward Rockville, I felt like I was betraying everything I'd ever believed in. I could feel my dreams shriveling up and dying. Every morning I parked next to the same car with a bumper stick that said, "Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life." I read that quote by Omar Khayyman every single morning and thought, I am not happy for this moment. I am not happy for ANY of my moments. I hated feeling that way. I wanted to feel hopeful again but I didn’t know how. I couldn't call in sick every day and go to the beach. I had a mortgage. I was a grownup.
But secretly I felt like a failure. I’d always dreamed I would be a literary prodigy and travel the world. I couldn’t figure out how I’d ended up with such a mediocre life.
I beat myself up for gaining so much weight, for buying a house I could barely afford, for getting stuck with a job that ate up all my time, for never writing. During my long commute, I would call a friend or my mother to distract myself from the isolation of the empty car. When no one answered, I would cry instead. 120 miles a day, five days a week. That’s a lot of crying.
My 22nd year was more of the same. But at 23, I decided this was no way to live. I gave myself permission to behave badly, and to fail. If I woke up and didn't feel like going to work, I didn’t go. I made no special effort to arrive on time. Once I took a two hour lunch break instead of thirty minutes. Sometimes I ignored my work and wrote query letters instead. It felt SO GOOD to not care anymore. So I decided to quit.
I had two months' worth of mortgage payments in the bank, no new job lined up, and blind faith that it would all work out. And if it didn't, so what? Even if I lost the house, ruined my credit score, and moved back in with my parents, it would be better than Rockville. At least I would have time to write. I already felt like a failure, so the prospect of financial ruin didn’t frighten me.
But after two weeks of blissful unemployment, I found a job in my neighborhood, where I earned about half of my Rockville salary. I still wasn’t exactly living the dream, and I knew that after I depleted my savings account, my salary wouldn't cover my bills. But I liked the low-stress environment and the location. I didn't want to find a "better" job.
So I knew that my writing would have to save me. Sadly, word on the street was that the novel I’d worked on for five years was "too quiet" to attract a publisher. I literally couldn't afford to spend five years writing something new. So that summer, I frantically wrote the novel which would become THE SNOWBALL EFFECT. In less than a year, I wrote it, edited it, got an agent, and found a publisher. I’d finally gotten where I’d always wanted to be.
21 was a year of wasted time but if I could go back and do it all again I wouldn’t change a thing. It was the rock-bottom desperation and fear of failure that motivated me to finally GO AFTER my dreams instead of trudging along and waiting to see if they would come true. In a way, I think that I needed to experience the soul-sucking joylessness of a mediocre life. If I hadn’t been so miserable and terrified, I’d probably still be slugging through Draft 27 of that first unpublished novel.
When I think about that Omar Khayyman bumper sticker now, it makes me smile. I am happy for this moment. And now I can appreciate all of those other moments, too.