On this night one year ago, I sat up in bed, unable to sleep. After all, I had big day ahead of me. I was sharing a project I had mostly kept to myself for half a decade.
It was actually six years earlier that I had my first conversation with an 80-year-old outdoorsman. I’d promised him that, if he was willing to be vulnerable, to speak nearly a century worth of memories into the phone, I, on the other end of the country, would document his story and, what’s more, make sure the world heard it.
After 18 months and hours of phone calls, some recorded but most hurriedly typed out by hand at my kitchen table, I got to work on writing the thing. That was a four-year effort in itself. First I wrote the book in first-person, with Sierra Phantom as the narrator. When that didn’t seem to flow, I rewrote it in third-person and later restructured the chapters, deleted massive sections that had taken me months to write, then added a few bits back in before deleting them again. A folder titled “older drafts” on my laptop stores nearly 20 different versions of the book, like food scraps that I just can’t bring myself to trash.
Now, as I sat up the night before launch day, all I could think about was how my writing wasn’t good enough for Sierra Phantom. The orphan. The World War II vet. The mountaineer. Someone better should have landed this gem of a tale. But it was too late now. It was time to hold up my end of the promise. It was time to let go.
So the next day, Dec. 1, “Without a Trace: The Life of Sierra Phantom,” went live on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com and Goodreads. I sat in the Loudoun Now newsroom and tried to put on mental blinders to focus on the work ahead of me—write an article, reply to a few emails, return a phone call—with no luck. Instead, my colleagues and I continually refreshed the Amazon’s list of top sellers to see how mine was faring. Within two hours of the book launching, it hit #1 on Amazon’s list of Hot New Releases. In the first day, people had bought 272 books. By the end of the month, I’d sold 400 books, and I’ve since sold more than 2,000. To be blunt, I thought I'd be lucky to sell 200 copies.
This isn’t a pat-yourself-on-the-back moment. Credit goes to Sierra Phantom, who led the kind of life people make movies about. And my support system, a network of friends, family, and work colleagues strewn across the country who would find a way to support me even if my works only collected dust on their nightstands.
I mention those sales numbers because they reflect what I’ve learned in the past year. We are each our own worst critic. If we let that criticism—that fear—squash the fruit of our gifts, we’re being quite selfish. We’re choosing safety and comfort over risk, sure, but also over giving of ourselves. We’re here to give something to the world, not to hide our light under a bushel (no!).
This year, more than any other time in my life, I’ve approached each invitation to overcome a big, fat fear of mine—including public speaking—with a yes, preceded by a gulp, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. And each time, it’s paid off.
Those first-day sales, those reviews lovingly posted on Amazon and Goodreads by friends new and old, caught the attention of a publisher. Morgan James Publishing, based in New York City, has picked up “Without a Trace.” The company will relaunch the book—with very few changes—in late spring/early summer of 2018. They expect it to be on the shelves of both mom-and-pop shops and big-box bookstores nationwide, possibly internationally, by this time next year.
And the best part? More people will get to know the Sierra Phantom that taught me that giving of yourself is scary. It’s risky. And its where true meaning lies.