How THE LOTTERY Came to Be

posted on: March 9, 2015
To tell the story of how The Lottery came to be means going back a few years to the winter of 2008.  It was a bitter winter, the cold especially harsh after almost a decade of global warming instigated mildness. Snowfall blanketed the Midwest for months.  Thermal underwear under layers of clothes did not prevent me from huddling in a house set at a fuel-saving 58 degrees.  I had the sense of the economy crashing. Definitely my own economy was crashing.  I had supported myself and my kids as a psychotherapist, my booming practice over the years whittled away first by the HMOs, then complicated insurance programs which meant that most therapists worked in big clinics and those clinics meant doing paperwork for free, our hourly rate whittled to way less than an auto worker’s. More dishearteningly, the forms required focusing on minute data of symptoms that interfered with the relationship, trust, and the therapy itself.My writing, an additional passion, always seemed to tease me with sufficient pleasure through its process and people’s positive responses, but insufficient monetary compensation – usually none, or working for $2.37 an hour. (Yes, I figured it out.) I had done two complete book tours including hundreds of TV, radio, and print interviews. I had been nominated for a Pulitzer and National Book Award. A Lifetime movie was based on one of my books. Gratifying fan letters told me how my book had changed their lives and bettered their community. But no visible means of support. Regardless, I knew I’d write.I don’t write for money.

I’m going to write no matter what.  I write because I have to. It’s part of who I am. How I breathe.

The landscape was bleak that winter.  A herd of deer foraged through the snow to eat the last of my hostas and nibble what brittle pine needles they could reach. Tangled branches of the surrounding oak and aspen forest seemed naked and resentful, their lush curtains of green now absent.

There were two books that fought inside me for a chance to be born. Fraternal twins of opposite natures.  One was a novel, The Christmas Cookie Club, which I had wanted to write for almost a decade, interrupted by my book on the Crips, the LA gang.  But novels are almost impossible to sell. A biography of my brother, who had floated the idea to me years previously, an exciting tale of redemption and the power of art, seemed the more economically viable twin.  A non-fiction work could be sold on a proposal.  Five months of work instead of a few years. A safer gamble of time and passion.

Yet, the novel struggled to be born.

A fawn, born late in the fall, way too late to survive such a harsh winter tiptoed across my forlorn yard blinking through frozen eyelashes.

I remembered my grandmother’s stories of the Depression, how she dug up her lawn and planted a garden, canned the harvest, and fed her family each winter.I made a plan: I would spend one week a month working on the novel, the rest of the time on the proposal for my brother’s biography.  If something hadn’t broken by 2009, I would turn over my garden, build a fence to keep out the rabbits, fox, deer, and ground hogs.  Raise chickens. Shoot a deer. Things were so serious in economically-stressed Michigan there were new courses at the Rec and Ed Center on how to butcher animals.  I’d buy a freezer. I already knew how to can and preserve. After all, people had done that for all millennia. That’s plan B.So I travelled to my brother’s mountaintop in New Mexico and spent a week interviewing him.  His story was more intriguing than I had known.But even then, my characters for The Christmas Cookie Club took on voices and lives of their own, threatening to spill out from their one week a month cage.By November my brother and I had an appointment with Peter Miller, a literary and film agent with a reputation for being a deal maker.  He insisted on seeing a five-year plan for my writing and I confessed to a number of unsold novels, and the started Christmas Cookie Club.  The Friday after Thanksgiving, dressed in New York City cool we met Peter who informed my brother he’d have to hype his celebrity outside his field.

My brother couldn’t imagine anything he’d hate more.

Peter turned to me and said The Christmas Cookie Club was a very viable possibility. How much did I have completed and could he see it?  I told him that it would take another six months. As it was only half way done, a first draft of about 40,000 words. He shrugged. “Too bad.”

I figured, what the hell, edited up the pages I had and sent it to him. He told me I had the start of an iconic novel about Christmas and friendships and it would sell millions of copies. I could sell it in January and it could be out in time for the next Christmas.

By then you could see the signs in the stock market.  The economy was crashing and Bush was desperately trying to rescue something.  Anything. Wall Street, the banks and the mortgage companies had spun out of control and caught us all in their vortex. One last chance before plan B was activated.

From Thanksgiving on, I wrote every day, 60 hours a week.  There were no weekends.  On Christmas morning, which is also my birthday, I wrote the acknowledgements, so grateful for my life and so full of the possibilities for my novel tears of joy, fear and exhilaration flooded my cheeks.   On New Years Day, I started the final rewrites.  I sent it to Peter on January 12.

By January 23,  three editors were bidding for the book. The auction was stomach clenching, thrilling, unbelievable. I was in a dream, but with a pounding heart, so I knew it was real. Or maybe not. Maybe it would all vanish as quickly as it occurred. Like a tornado leaving the rubbish of disappointment.  But Peter’s voice, pitched with excitement and anxiety as he juggled the politics, literary protocol, the hopes and then ire of the editors, made it real.

A few days later a three-book deal was sealed, and the contracts were flooding in from foreign publishers.  One daughter said, “This is the phone call you’ve waited for… for twenty years.  Do you realize how weird your life is?”
My son said, “I always knew this was going to happen, Mom.  It was just a question of time.” And then said. “Your life is a roller coaster.”  He paused, “My life is nice and calm. The kids and I are watching Willy Wonka and cuddling.”  I still don’t know if he was relieved or jealous. Or if I was relieved or jealous.
My other daughter said, “This might be one of those be careful what you wish for situations. Your life has just changed.”
I laughed as I tied the drawstring on my garbage bag and placed it in the garage to be driven up the gravel road to the dumpster. Exactly what I had done a decade before after being on the Oprah show and receiving similar forecasts. For decades I had shuffled my writing between my children and my patients.  But I kept going.

I had hit my lottery. It’s never too late to make your dreams come true.

Yet there I was with my garbage bag.  There I was planning to do my nails that night. There I was figuring out how to go through my house and declutter it, and planning to hit the gym and swim 50 or so laps.  All the usual tasks that are so much my life from day to day.

But my friends, my family still struggled. All around me were signs of the continued collapse: stores with fewer goods on shelves, and closed stores. More people – including entire families– with signs asking for help stood by the exit ramps.  Fear and confusion escalated. What happened? We were doing okay, weren’t we?  Our houses and our retirements increasing in value?

Then, foreclosures skyrocketed, the stock market jerked slowly upward and precipitously plummeted. As a nation we were suffering.

When I was with friends, we fantasized about winning the lottery.  Being graced with a huge stroke of luck would vanish all worries. What a glorious thing! All our worries would be gone! We could buy what we wanted!  We could take a vacation. Go on a cruise. Open a cupcake store. Winning the lottery, not even the big one but an extra $50,000, would solve the paying the bills problem, the house underwater problem, the kid’s college tuition problem, the health cost problem, the no pay check problem.

The lottery has become our chance for a way out.  We are a classed society.  And because of the myth that we’re not, we blame ourselves for our situation.  We watch the barrage of rich celebrities whose problems are solved in half hour segments and glamorized by the plethora of flashy, fancy, expensive consumer goods, convince us that maybe love doesn’t solve everything, but enough money does. In a materialistic society, our quest for goods is fuel for the economy; we’re judged and judge ourselves partly by money, by class, by how well we succeed at keeping up with the Joneses or the Kardashians.

I decided to write a sequel to the Christmas Cookie Club with the friendship group playing the lottery together and examine how being rich changed their lives, influenced their friendships, and escalated conflict between the old friends since only half decide to play.

The idea of being born under a lucky star persists. It’s what we think when our peer, our sibling suddenly jumps ahead: how’d she get so lucky?  Why not me? We try to make lady luck come to us by magic: don’t walk under a ladder, don’t break a mirror, cross your fingers, wear your lucky bracelet or blouse to get that job, use potion number nine.  Play the lottery with special numbers (your birthdates, the numbers you dream, the number pocket dialed on your cell phone) to win big.

More often we make our own luck by hard work, but the rewards of hard work are escalated by serendipity.

No question, having money makes things easier and diminishes worry.  It’s wonderful to easily pay your bills. It provides a safety net in a culture that is careless of its people. It allows you to manipulate the system, get the help—physical or psychological—that you need.

I’m writing this facing the ocean, escaping the dreary grey of a Michigan winter to the blue skies and warmth of a California beach.  Money makes this escape from the grey cold possible. There, in my city in Michigan, it is 35, cloudy and snowing. Here it is 70 and sunny.  The sea crashes against the sand. Dolphins play together in the sea.But who knows what tomorrow will bring.
The forecast is for 40 and sunny in Michigan, and 60 and rainy here. See, not so different. Nothing to count on.Money doesn’t guarantee much, except food and housing, more or less comfortable. If you’re smart, you provide yourself with your own safety net. And don’t change your life style, because money is always relative.
So I won my lottery and learned it made little difference except I didn’t have to worry about killing the deer who I watch each winter walk across my yard foraging for their food, stepping as though the cold snow hurts their toes. Though it must not. Evolution is better than that.In my years as a therapist, I’ve learned there’s another kind of luck. It’s part of what keeps me so fascinated witnessing the unique formation of each personality and the chance events that determine lives. I see the advantage of the traits with which we’re born, those talents, interests, as well as inabilities and disabilities with which we enter the world. Then the environment surrounds us.  The love or the abuse. The sensitivity or the disregard. The serendipity of a teacher who believes in us, or the teacher who dislikes and punishes us. The extra burden of being a minority, or an immigrant. The unfairness of life.Then there’s the impact of gender. For women, there is always the fear of sexualized violence. Living in a college town, every decade or so a serial rapist stalks us. We are afraid of parking structures, parks even in the daytime.  We guard our drinks, and are wary of meeting men, the sound of footsteps behind us.

As we approach adulthood, there’re the accidents that form our lives:
Talents discovered
Getting a job of your dreams
Graduating in the middle of a recession with no jobs
Being hit by a car riding your bike.
Meeting the perfect mentor who helps you advance in your chosen field.
Inheriting a disease, which fells you at the top of your game.
Making a new friend at the gym whom changes your life.

These are the accidental situations that craft our lives and shape our characters. I’m awed by the vast resilience of the human spirit and appreciate that we recover and thrive in spite of horrors: rape, seeing friends murdered, betrayal, a house fire that wipes out siblings, sadistic child abuse.  These are the twists of horrible luck that I’ve dealt with in my years as psychotherapist and in my own life as each of us turns over these events and figures out how to survive and thrive.

And there is the ultimate luck: the timing and way of our death. Do we have the time to satisfy our dreams? That is perhaps the most crucial question about our own lives.

Because it is as they say.  Your world is how you interpret it.  We all have enormous lucky events in our lives. The amazing fortune simply of life,  breath and a unique vision, is a once in a forever occurrence.

You’re alive.

You’ve already won the lottery.

One thought on “How THE LOTTERY Came to Be

  1. Lorraine Stalcup says:

    You are wonderful Ann

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