How Did They Do It?
An Excerpt from Someday Is Today by Matthew Dicks
I was running on a treadmill at Bally Total Fitness in West Hartford, Connecticut, back in the spring of 2005 when my life was changed forever. I had just abandoned my third attempt to write a novel — a ridiculous story about a teenage savant and his pet ferret (no joke) — and was finally coming to terms with the reality that I would never become the novelist I had always wanted to be.
As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t write good fiction. I’ll write for magazines, I told myself. Try my hand at a memoir. Maybe write a book on teaching. Wait for the day when a newspaper editor might offer me a weekly column.
I was saddened by the thought that my dream was dead, but I was also ready to move on to something more fruitful and realistic. Forward motion. It made sense.
As I ran, I was listening to Stephen King narrate On Writing, his seminal tome on writing well. King was talking about the early days in his career, when he was writing stories for men’s magazines and getting paid tens and hundreds of dollars at a time.
King was also a teacher, much like myself, earning $6,400 per year. His wife was working for Dunkin’ Donuts. Between their two salaries and their two children, they were barely making ends meet. Living in a double-wide trailer. Unable to afford a phone. Unable to afford medication for their kids. Desperate times for two young parents, both of whom had dreams of publishing novels someday. King wrote:
The problem was the teaching. I liked my coworkers and loved the kids — even the Beavis and Butt-Head types in Living with English could be interesting — but by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer. I’d have a cigarette cough from too many packs of Pall Malls, thicker glasses, more dandruff, and in my desk drawer, six or seven unfinished manuscripts which I would take out and tinker with from time to time, usually when drunk. If asked what I did in my spare time, I’d tell people I was writing a book — what else does any self-respecting creative-writing teacher do with his or her spare time? And of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty. Probably plenty of them.
I slowed my pace as King read that passage aloud. By the time he had reached the end, I’d come to a complete stop. I couldn’t believe it. Stephen King was talking about me. Talking to me. Absent the alcohol and cigarettes, I was coming perilously close to despairing about my future as a writer, too.
Like King, I was giving up.
Around that time of despair, King tossed his unfinished manuscript of Carrie into the trash, finding the story to be full of unfillable holes. He gave up on the story. Decided to move on to something else. But King’s wife Tabitha removed the pages from the trash bin, read them, and told King to keep writing. She liked it. She saw potential where her husband had seen nothing but holes.
When he finally finished writing the book, it was the fourth novel he had completed. His previous three novels — Rage, The Long Walk, and The Running Man — would all eventually be published. But Carrie was the first. It represented his first big break.
King received a call from his wife one day while teaching at school, informing him that Doubleday had made an offer on Carrie : $2,500. Not a lot even by 1970s standards, but a publishing contract nonetheless. A much-needed break.
The paperback rights for Carrie would later sell to Signet for $400,000. A lot of money by any standard.
Listening to King talk about his journey, something shifted inside me. Standing on a treadmill in a Bally Total Fitness that no longer exists today, my life had changed in an instant. I suddenly saw a path to making my dreams come true. Someone not unlike me — a teacher with the dream of publishing a novel but despairing about his writing career — had found an unlikely path to success.
If Stephen King, formerly of a double-wide, telephone-free trailer, could do it, so could I. All I needed to do was keep writing. So I did. The path to my first novel was a circuitous one. It included two more false starts and nearly a year of writing Dungeons & Dragons adventures at the behest of my friend Shep, who perhaps recognized my need for an audience.
But almost exactly two years after that moment on the treadmill, in the spring of 2008, I received my life-changing phone call, also while teaching at school. It wasn’t my wife who was calling — she was teaching in a classroom two doors down the hallway — but my literary agent, telling me that Doubleday had made an offer on my first novel, Something Missing. More than $2,500, too. Enough to pay off our wedding debts and put a down payment on a house.
Stephen King and Matthew Dicks, both at school, both in the midst of teaching careers, when a phone call changed our lives. Both with offers from Doubleday.
Thank goodness Stephen King wrote On Writing. I found it just when I needed it.
Matthew Dicks is the author of Someday Is Today and nine other books. A bestselling novelist, nationally recognized storyteller, and award-winning elementary schoolteacher, he teaches storytelling and communications at universities, corporate workplaces, and community organizations. Dicks has won multiple Moth GrandSLAM story competitions and, together with his wife, created the organization Speak Up to help others share their stories. Visit him online at www.MatthewDicks.com.
Excerpted from the book from Someday Is Today: 22 Simple, Actionable Ways to Propel Your Creative Life. Copyright ©2022 by Matthew Dicks. Printed with permission from New World Library.