Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do!

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A watershed defines a ridge of land separating waters that then flow into two different bodies. My watershed year was 2011. My shift would take much longer than I hoped, but I’m right in the heart of that new flow—into the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Mediterranean Sea.

c Rafael Puerto

c Rafael Puerto, Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France

Five years ago I had been living in Nice, France, for 12 years and was in my 10th year working at the wonderful International School of Monaco. I was living a dream. I had a job I loved, the perfect little ground-floor apartment and garden for me and my cats in the Quartier des Poètes in Nice. My quality of life had never been better—a motorbike commute along the Mediterranean, aperitifs on the beach at sunset, picnics by mountain rivers, sea kayaking & hiking in the summer, snowshoeing & cross country skiing in the winter, a farmer’s market just 15 minutes walk away. “Why give all that up?” is a legitimate question I am constantly asked. It is indeed one thing to move away when things aren’t going well, but why when things are appear so comfortable?

I had no reason to change any of this except a growing gnawing in my gut; it was time to take on the next big adventure and that meant a move. Early on in my adult life I learned to listen to this inner voice. This time the inner voice coincided with me doing my first online writers course at the beginning of 2011; I recognized this call to writing for children was not something I could ignore. After spending the majority of my adult life in non English-speaking countries, for the sake of trying to break into publishing, I now wanted access to Anglophone libraries, critique groups, author events, school visits etc. My inner compass pointed westward, to a nation I had never before considered as a place to live despite having had many great American friends and colleagues over the decades!

So what did I do? I set out to make this happen. First, I talked it over with trusted friends who had known me for many, many years, and I was shocked at their strong support of me leaving everything behind me in France to pursue a dream across the pond. I absorbed their encouragement and ignored a smattering of other naysayers. In the summer of 2011, on the advice of Emma Walton Hamilton whose course had got me going in kid lit, I planned to attend the 40th SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles, and at the same time I would visit several places on the west and east coasts to see if I really felt this was a culture in which I could thrive. The conference and trip surpassed all expectations. In LA I made many friends whom I consider among my dearest today. I returned to Nice ready to apply for jobs and move the next summer. How naive can one be? 😀

After several employment applications, I clinched a phone interview, which I aced. As I was visiting the US the following month to be part of the Nevada SCBWI mentor program, I was invited to visit the campus and attend five in-person interviews. It all went swimmingly and I returned to Europe to hand in my notice, negotiate my apartment sale with my lovely neighbor, and check my cats were micro-chipped and immunized for the move. As in any good story, you can’t make it too easy for the protagonist, so the stakes were raised when in mid July I realized I was homeless & jobless; the US school had suddenly gone radio silent.

Obviously, I knew nothing was in the bag until I had signed a contract so I did have a plan B, which shunted unwillingly into action. I drove my ten bags/boxes to my Dad’s just north of St Tropez for storage, leaving me with one medium sized travel bag and a small backpack. And the next thing I had to do remains one of the hardest things I have done in my life, I had three weeks to find new homes for my two cats, Fudgie and Marmite. I found them good homes—loving homes, but my heart still hurts at having to abandon them. I spent a couple of months back in the UK establishing a little home base there and attending my best friend’s wedding before heading to New York to spend a sabbatical year writing and applying for more jobs.


As the job rejections poured in, I skirted with an idea I had been mulling over since January 2011 when I had quizzed Emma Walton Hamilton on how much she was getting out of doing her Creative Writing MFA at Stony Brook. Plan C launched when I mailed my application off. I have no regrets about investing time and money on my MFA. I encountered several gifted writers and had the incredible good fortune of having as my thesis supervisor, a NY Times bestselling author whom I greatly admired. My writing craft grew enormously under the rigorous and encouraging editing of Patty McCormick. As for staying in the US, I really only had one year, the first year of my MFA to relax. As soon as year two kicked off, I was back applying for jobs with an OPT (Optional Practical Training) one year extension of my F1 student visa. The job had to be related to my degree and I had to find a school willing to take me for just one year. I had half a dozen great interviews, but the visa situation proved a constant stumbling block.

At the beginning of May 2015, facing my 74th rejection after an excellent in-person interview and visit at a terrific school in Amherst, I’d pretty much given up. I told my landlady I would be moving out of my room at the end of June and decided if I had to return to Europe I would spend my last couple of months traveling and discovering more of this wonderful nation. For the final time I perused the website for all the French/American schools in the USA as this would be my dream job, and discovered a last minute ad for a part-time, bilingual IB librarian. My 75th and final application and they offered me the job, just for a year, because I was such a good fit. I’d been applying for jobs all over the nation and the one I landed was up the road!

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. In December my Secondary Head dropped into the library for a chat, and to say the leadership had decided they were willing to sponsor my H1B work visa. The school sent the application in during the first five days of April along with the other 233,000 applicants for just 85,000 possible visas—a lottery.

I made it through the lottery selection. Huzzah! Now I needed to sit back and wait for USCIS to process and hopefully approve my application. But this story needs another plot twist, right? At the end of June USCIS sent a request for further evidence and I spent some weeks gathering letters and documents of support. Meanwhile, as in July 2012 and June 2015, I was once again homeless and not knowing if I would be remaining in the country or not I bought a car! And set out to explore and visit friends on a road trip.

On August 3rd I received my visa approval. It felt mighty, mighty fine to know I would be here in a terrific job for at least three more years! These successes never occur in a vacuum. It has taken a village of support to get me here and I am thankful to all across several nations who have encouraged me not to quit and/or written official letters of support along the way.


3 reasons to follow those dreams

1) It saves us from regret.

How often have you heard friends and family share the many regrets they have had in life? And it isn’t just from older folk. Do everything that you can to follow your dreams while you have the physical capacity to. I’d rather live with a few failures than a few regrets.

2) It keeps us positive.

People whose dreams have died often end up having a lot of negative energy within them. Choosing to go for our dreams helps us see the best in the moment and focus less on the negative. There is a beauty and optimism in being on this adventure.

My dream is to write stories that give courage, empathy and passion to young people. All our dreams should make life more beautiful if only in that fulfilled people are contagious.

3.) It allows us to inspire people.

Your dream may not be something that would shatter the world out of amazement. It may not be as groundbreaking as the work of someone who completed their PhD at 80 or rowed across the Atlantic solo. But the fact that you have the courage to go against the odds and take costly steps to make it reality is enough to inspire someone else to do the same thing. And proving one or two wrong in the process isn’t a bad thing. 😉

My dream contains a trifecta. Why dream big when you can dream bigger? I’ll let ya know when the other two components work out! Even against all odds, please don’t let go of your dream.


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18 Responses to Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do!

  1. Alexandra says:

    What a wonderful post filled with excitement, courage and encouragement for others! I pray all goes well and this next journey in life brings you more blessings and joy than you ever expected! 🙂

  2. I’m so grateful you followed your dream and persisted even in the face of apparent impossibility. And I’m grateful our paths have crossed along the way! I’m so happy for you, Joanna, as you enter this next phase of the journey. Here’s to you!

  3. Could not feel more grateful to know you, old house!

  4. I can’t believe it has been five years since you first arrived in the U.S. I remember your early dreams as we skyped and talked by phone. You were full of so much determination and passion that I always believed this day would become a reality for you. I never worried about you because I knew you’d find a way to make it happen! So enjoy the coming years. Now it’s time for your book to be loved by some agent. Here’s to your success!

    • Joanna says:

      Right! I arrived October 2012. And, yes, and agent and editor with whom I can take my work to the next level will be wonderful!

  5. Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    I do hope the other two parts of the trifecta work out! Please let me know if you’re ever in San Francisco!

  6. What a beautiful and inspiring post Joanna. Gosh has it been that long already since that meet. We have got to do something about that, huh? Like Pat I always knew you could make things happen, and your dreams are coming true. I know. I have faith in you… Hugs!

  7. Brava! You’re an inspiration, Joanna–brave, adventurous-open! You’ve followed your heart, and now your dreams are coming true! So glad you’ll be here for another few years!! Thanks for sharing your story, and your dreams!!

    Wishing you the best!!

  8. Joanna says:

    Thanks so much, Maria. Now to see the next two dreams fall into place and I am really hoping they won’t take another five years!

  9. Bridgette Pelzer says:

    More than an encouraging nugget for me. Joanna, so happy for you! Continue to press forward. Your story is moving me, as well as others in the right direction. Many thanks & Much success to you!

  10. Erik - TKRB says:

    That’s an awesome story! 😀

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