I don't know how many times I used the phrase "full-time writer" in the first five years of my career, but not a day went by that I didn't whisper a silent prayer that God free me from my corporate shackles and find me a way to make a living solely from the written word. I dreaded every day that I went into work, but through some quirk of the system I was actually climbing the business ladder, moving laterally from my entry-level procurement job into an ascendant position in marketing. Callie and I had a young son and there were bills to be paid. As much as I wanted to be a full-time writer, there was no way I could quit.
Meanwhile, I put that job in jeopardy every single day. On that morning in Big Bear when I finally said "I am a writer" out loud, I inadvertently embarked on a career as a freelance writer. The term was coined in 1820 by Sir Walter Scott. In Ivanhoe, he depicted a "free-lance" as a knight without a home, loyal to none, but willing to work for all. In other words, a mercenary, the one line of work I once thought I wasn't cut out for.
My corporate cubicle became my writing office. I wrote letters to editors, pitching story ideas. Once I got over my fear of rejection, I simply used the corporate phone to call magazines in search of work. This was the way it was done in the days before email. I became a pest, relentlessly barraging faraway editors, willing to write a story big or small just to get a byline and a check in my determination to flee the corporate world once and for all.
In her seminal work, Grit, Angela Duckworth posits that talent is not enough to ensure success. Rather, determination, perseverance and a refusal to quit make the difference.
That was me. I wasn't a good writer, but I was learning to be better through a daily discipline of writing for hours at a time when I should have been doing corporate chores. Rejection became fuel. Every "no" drove me to prove people wrong. I didn't have a long-term plan — no Great American Novel. I just wanted out. Freelancing magazine articles was my portal into the publishing world and I attacked it as aggressively as I could. From Triathlon Today, I leveraged work with a magazine called Competitor, where I sometimes wrote three or four articles per issue. I think I got all the work because I was willing to write for almost nothing.
The average Competitor paycheck was $35 per story, though there was sometimes the added perk of travel. On one occasion, Callie and I flew to Hawaii for free so I could cover an event. We were given a free room at the Outrigger on Waikiki Beach, which made us feel a little glamorous, even though we had just $209 in spending money to last the whole week. I remember that figure to this day, because we fixated constantly about how to make it last. To say that we made ample use of the event management's free food and drink would be an understatement.
Other trips were less prestigious, like the time we drove to Lake Tahoe to cover a triathlon. We were given a room in a hotel with an A-frame roof, so that when standing up to use the restroom I had to lean back to avoid hitting my forehead on the ceiling. There was an empty wine cooler bottle under the bed. Calene was pregnant. Our oldest, still a toddler, was feverish and throwing up. The three of us sat on the queen-sized bed under the sloping roof, watching Bill Clinton accept the Democratic Party nomination for president on a small TV. It was miserable, but I never once doubted that it was worth it.
The travel gave us hope. I got to wear the press credential at events and mingle with other freelancers and writers working full-time for magazines and newspapers. On weekdays I worked in a cubicle. But on weekends I was an honest-to-goodness writer, hopefully getting closer and closer to busting out. Those getaways gave me the courage to pester a higher quality of editor. In that way, I moved from Competitor to Runner's World to Outside to GQ to Esquire to Sports Illustrated. No massive 5,000-word stories for me, but a byline was a byline. A year passed. Then two more. I still went to work in suit and tie, hunkering down in my cubicle, every day praying that I would somehow become a "full-time writer."
The thing about using a corporate cubicle to double as a writer's office is that everyone in the surrounding cubicles can hear what you're saying. Despite that, and knowing that I risked getting fired for the tremendous number of phone calls I was making to places like Emmaus, Pennsylvania (Runner's World) and Santa Fe, New Mexico (Outside) and New York City (everybody else), I never stopped making those calls.
Then one day, it was me who got the call. A very jaunty individual with a pronounced British accent phoned to say he had read a story of mine in Runner's World and was hoping I could accompany his team halfway around the world to Madagascar. There, they would compete in an extreme French competition known as the Raid Gauloises. Five-person teams, each having at least one woman, would race across hundreds of miles of wilderness using only human-powered locomotion — running, horseback riding, kayaking, and on. Not only that, the gentleman told me he had pre-sold the story to a magazine with me attached as the writer. I doubted that, because that's not how the magazine world works. But he was such an incredibly smooth salesman and he spun such a great tale of adventure that I had to think it might be true. Sure enough, when I called the magazine they said I had the gig.
The caller's name was Mark Burnett. In time, he would go on to fame as the producer of Survivor and The Voice. But at the time he was making a living selling t-shirts on Venice Beach. Incredibly, he promised to pay my airfare to Madagascar as well as all other expenses relating to the three week journey.
This was it. This was my chance to break out.
But I froze. By now Calene and I had two sons. She had left her job to be a stay-at-home mom, which was her dream as much as writing full-time was for me. Risking my career by taking three weeks to indulge my inner Peter Pan seemed not just selfish, but stupid.
So I said nothing. A week went by. Calene could tell something was wrong, but she waited. Finally, I broke down and told her about the phone call, the great salesman who promised me an amazing adventure, and my fears that our financial security was on the line if I agreed to fly to Madagascar.
My wife is strong, sexy, witty, and above all, forthright. Sometimes a man needs this kind of love to help him make a hard choice.
"You've been waiting four years for that phone call," she reminded me. "It's not going to come around again."
In fact, that call would come several times in my writing life, an invitation to take a leap of faith and do something that many would call foolish. It would lead me to drive through the night, fly around the world, and put me at great risk. But each of those gambles led me to a better place. God always has a plan.
So I flew to Madagascar. Those three weeks are a story unto themselves. Suffice to say that I returned home and got fired my first day back at work.
Ready or not, I was a full-time writer.