Me, My Past Self, and I
Have you read THE FUTURE OF US? My sixteen-year-old son got it for Christmas and finished it in a matter of hours, at which point I started reading it myself. The book has one of those brilliant why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? premises: a teenaged boy and girl in 1996 accidentally log onto Facebook, which hasn’t even been invented yet, and find themselves reading about (and seeing photos of!) their future selves. The more they read, the more they adapt their behavior in their current lives to change what’s going to happen to them in the future.
Future Self versus Past/Present Self is a theme I’ve playfully visited in my own work, writing as my lighter alter-ego Wendy Markham (versus the dark side—the suspense novels I write under my own name, Wendy Corsi Staub).
In MIKE, MIKE and ME, we flash back and forth between the 1980s, where our young, single heroine is dating two guys named Mike, and the present, where she’s married to one Mike—and about to have a close encounter with the long-lost other Mike—but we don’t know which (from her past) is which.
In my time travel-themed THE BEST GIFT, a pregnant woman goes to bed on Christmas Eve, then wakes up on Christmas Day a few years in the future—in her empty house, no sign of her husband or the child they’d have had by now.
Reading THE FUTURE OF US has left me thinking a lot about the girl I used to be—and how she’d have reacted back then if she could glimpse the adult she was to become.
My Past Self, a small town girl from a very large, close-knit, functional (as opposed to dys) family, decided when she was just in third grade that she wanted to grow up to become an author. (Read more about that pivotal moment on my October 29, 2010 blog entry here.)
Past Self told everyone she knew—including her trusty pink Holly Hobbie diary, on September 14, 1973—about her Big Dream for Future Self. Or perhaps Big Plan is more appropriate than BigDream, because Past Self was–like Present and I imagine Future Selves–an ambitious, overly energetic, type A control freak.
Past Self’s spelling left something to be desired, and her favorite authors at that point had been born at least a hundred years before she was, but hey, her heart–and ambitions–were in the right place.
Interesting to note that this trio of early literary idols–Louisa May Alcott, Kate Douglas Wiggin, and Laura Ingalls Wilder—wrote under three names, as did a fourth idol, Mary Higgins Clark, who would soon be discovered by Past Self—or would that be Future Past Self?–in Junior High circa 1976.
Naturally, I intended to become a triple-name author just like my idols, so when I later sold my own first novel just a few months after my wedding, I opted for Wendy Corsi Staub–my first name, my maiden name, and my husband’s last name.
Past Self was shocked and disappointed, but utterly undaunted, when those SASEs boomeranged with the manuscripts inside, accompanied by form rejection slips.
By senior year of high school, Past Self had refined the Big Plan: she was going to move to Manhattan right after college because everyone knew that was where all the coolest authors lived. (By this time, Past Self’s literary idols included witty, provocative late twentieth century urbanites Judy Blume, Mary Rodgers, Norma Klein, and pre-Sweet-Valley Francine Pascal, whose books were invariably set in New York City or its suburbs and had Past Self longing to exchange small town life for city life).
Past Self had such a case of tunnel vision that it never occurred to her to have a Backup Plan in case the Big Plan didn’t work out. There was only one plan, ever. Not even a thought to other things that might be fulfilling, or to the twists and turns that tend to pop up in life’s pathway.
Here she is among featured seniors in the 1982 high school yearbook:
I’ll allow you a moment or two to gape in mute horror at the unflattering hair-do (courtesy of a rough night spent sleeping on pink sponge rollers) and equally unflattering but favorite-outfit-that-year preppy cardigan (gray with navy ribbon trim imprinted with tiny whales), plaid skirt (also shades of navy and gray), knee socks, and white-soled docksiders.
Finished grimacing? Okay, now check out the last line of the biographical piece. See? Only one plan. Ever. So confident was Past Self in her choice to become an author that she hadn’t wavered in the decade since third grade; nor would she waver between senior year and the moment–exactly another decade later–when, now living in New York, she submitted a partial manuscript entitled SUMMER LIGHTNING to an editor acquiring young adult paranormals.
SUMMER LIGHTNING became Past Self’s first published book. Published by Harpercollins in 1993, it went on to win an RWA Rita Award for Best Young Adult Novel the following summer. The Big Plan had become reality, but an even Bigger, Non-Plan was about to change everything.
A day or two before the Rita Awards ceremony in Manhattan, a nauseated Past Self suspected, then confirmed, that she and her husband were—oops, surprise!—expecting their first child. Not part of the Big Plan–at this stage, anyway–but a welcome surprise nonetheless. Thoughts running through Past Self’s head during the acceptance speech in front of hundreds of people: Don’t Barf Don’t Barf Don’t Barf Don’t Barf… I know. Glamorous, right? Well, sometimes. Three days later, the newly minted award-winning author was flown First Class on the first of countless Book Tours (alas, not all of which would be First Class—or even footed by the publisher—but abysmal lows are a part of every career, and that’s another blog). When her head wasn’t in the toilet during the course of that milestone trip–which was most of the time–it was in the clouds, musing about motherhood and what this deviation might mean to the Big Plan.
Flash forward about seventeen years, two sons, and more than seventy-five published novels in various genres, some for kids, some for adults. Past Self has become Present Self.
These days, the words “New York Times Bestselling Author” goes above the nameWendy Corsi Staub on book covers, which are published again by Harpercollins in one of life’s gratifying, full-circle turns. And these days, two of the most precious people in my world don’t call me a bestseller and they don’t call me by three names; they just call me Mom.
Life has become a balancing act I never perceived back when I was dreaming and planning. Making dinner for a couple of perpetually starved teenaged boys–and, often, their assorted friends–is as fulfilling as jetting off on a book tour. I have everything I ever wanted, but more importantly: I have everything I ever needed, but didn’t know I wanted.
I shudder to think what might have happened if my Past Self had glimpsed Future Self during that Don’t Barf Don’t Barf Don’t Barf moment at the podium and thought, Huh? Have kids? No way!!–and then, like the hero and heroine of THE FUTURE OF US, set out to change the course of her future, courtesy of the one-track mind she had back then. And hey, it was the ’70s, and women’s lib was in full swing. I was all about the career, and the one I’d chosen was such a longshot that I didn’t think there’d be room for anything else. Guess what? There is.
Has it been an easy, straightforward path to get here, career-wise? No way. Have I ever considered giving it up? No way. The rewards may not always outnumber or outweigh the drawbacks, but they’re ultimately so fulfilling that whenever I find myself in a slump, focusing on past successes and future plans gets me through.
In another great Full Circle twist: in 2011, I was a finalist for Mystery Writers of America’s coveted “Mary Higgins Clark Award.” At the Edgar Awards last April, I got to chat at length with my triple-named idol herself, who said she’d loved my book. I gushed that I’d read WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN when I was in sixth grade, then devoured everything she published from that time on, knowing I wanted to write the same kinds of books one day.
What would Past Self have thought if she could have peered into the future and glimpsed this moment—a one-on-one chat with the Queen of Suspense?!
Seriously? I bet she’d have thought it was pretty cool—yet I doubt she’d have been surprised. In fact, she’d probably have expected nothing less. That’s how certain Past Self was about what she wanted to do with her life–and how sure she was that the Dream that became a Plan would be carried out.
By high school, especially, it was all the other stuff in Past Self’s world that was perpetually laced with uncertainty. The friendships, the romances, the appearance, the academics, the finances…
If, back in high school, Past Self could have lifted the veil for a moment, she’d probably have been much more concerned about the near future, and whether she’d get to go to the prom with the cute basketball player she liked.
Psst, Past Self—guess what? You will go to the prom with that cute basketball player; you’ll even be crowned Prom Prince and Princess. And then he will will disappear into the mists of time, only to resurface on your Facebook Friends list in 2012.
But I imagine Past Self would have been thrilled to know that she’d meet the love of her life at the Office Christmas Party in Manhattan in 1988 (see December 12, 2011 blog entry), get engaged almost exactly two years later, and marry him in 1991.
And she’d have been devastated to know that her beautiful, supportive young mom—the mom who told her third grade daughter that she could become anything she wanted to be if she set her mind to it—would die of breast cancer just a few weeks after her 63rd birthday.
Who wouldn’t want to tamper with the present in order to change that future?
So. Maybe the future is best left to the imagination, to dreaming and planning, or–just to dreaming. Maybe we don’t really want or need to know. Maybe all that matters is that in the end, that small town girl with a Big Plan did become a writer, and she also became a wife and mother who gave birth to a son—actually two sons—who also have Big Plans.
As soon as I finish writing this blog, I’m heading out the door to College Planning Night with my firstborn, the one who read The Future of Us on Christmas Day.
He also has Big Plans. He wants to become—guess what? A writer. He’s thinking Sports Journalist, but I’ve known from the time he was around four that his brain is wired like a novelist’s. Sometimes I wish—as, I’m sure, does he—that I could catch a glimpse of his Future Self. But then, all in good time…we will.
How about you? If you could catch a glimpse of yourself ten, twenty, thirty years from now…would you want to? And what would you hope/expect to see?
Wendy Corsi Staub
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