Tracee Garner has something to say. The best-selling and award-winning author wants to share her love for words with the world, and she’s well on her way to achieving her goal.
Garner, 28, is a romance novelist, public speaker, teacher, student and advocate extraordinaire. And, she has spinal muscular atrophy.
She received a diagnosis of SMA at age 2, and she’s used a power wheelchair since elementary school. Her disability has only fueled her quest for success.
|Tracee Lydia Garner|
"Since I became a published author, I have become more outgoing, upbeat, and I always have something to talk about. My confidence definitely has increased because I have found something that I am good at," she said.
A resident of Sterling, Va., Garner has had two books published — Come What May in 2003 and The One Who Holds My Heart in 2004 — and her award-winning story "Family Affairs" appears in a BET (Black Entertainment Television) anthology titled All That & Then Some.
The BET anthology and Garner’s two novels have each sold an estimated 35,000 copies. She also has been published in various Internet publications and literary magazines.
"I’ve always loved to write because it has been my way of describing my feelings of isolation and what my life has been like living with a disability," she explained.
After receiving an F in one of her classes at a community college and having been rejected by a man because of her disability, Garner entered "Family Affairs" in a BET writing contest in 2000. Out of 300 entrants Garner was selected as one of four finalists.
"I was sad and depressed," she said. "This was like my saving grace, and I really thought that I was going to win."
Despite her confidence in her writing abilities, Garner kept her entry in the contest a secret from family and friends.
"I felt great, and I felt validated because I knew that I could write. But I didn’t tell anyone, especially my parents, because I wanted to see how it played out. I didn’t want to tell everyone and then not have anything to show for it," Garner said.
In January 2001, Garner received the news for which she’d been praying: "Family Affairs" had won the grand-prize award, giving Garner a book advance, a book contract and a trip to New York to accept the award.
"At that time, academics was not for me, but I knew school was important," Garner said. "After I won the BET writing contest, I started making better grades. I found my niche with writing."
With her parents’ guidance and support, Garner chose to enter the field of contemporary romance novels because she wanted to write stories with complicated characters and "fluffed-up" happy endings.
"I think romance novels should be upbeat because people face many obstacles in real life," Garner said. "Romance novels should be uplifting and fantastical, and they should provide an escape. There are enough sad things in the world, so if people can escape for a while, then I know that I did a good job of writing."
She focuses much of her writing on romantic suspense, giving her characters several hurdles they must ultimately surmount.
"In the end, my characters always grow and overcome whatever obstacles they’ve faced," she said. "They also forgive and move on. The hero and heroine always survive."
Can readers find Garner in some of her characters?
"The heroine has some of my traits, but I mostly take a lot of my stories and characters from the headlines. I take vignettes from the news, and I expand the stories and the characters," she said.
Garner’s experiences as an African-American woman with a disability often influence her characters’ lives.
As for the characters’ development, they tend to "speak" to Garner while she’s writing. "As I develop my characters, I am always thinking about their habits, gestures, mannerisms, etc."
Winning the writing contest opened more doors for Garner as she embarked on a public-speaking career. She’s facilitated workshops, conferences and other events with the likes of Martin Luther King III, former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, and former Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education Judy Heumann. She’s also been a guest on "On a Roll," the syndicated radio talk show that discusses disability issues.
In addition to her coursework as a communications major at Old Dominion University in Norfolk and her career, Garner teaches a romance-writing class at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale as part of the Continuing Education and Workforce Development program. Garner works closely with students as they attempt to complete 20 to 30 pages of their novels.
"I feel extremely validated because I am fostering a new level of romance writers," she said. "My students get a glimpse of what writing romance novels is all about, and they get a chance to see if it’s really for them."
On top of everything, Garner’s also an advocate for people with disabilities. Garner created a special page called "Able Data" on her Web site that provides information about living with a disability.
"I want to be visible because I think that people seeing me will help them recognize that anyone can be successful," she noted.
Garner has written articles she hopes will help others understand the challenges faced by people who have disabilities. She believes the information on the Web page can help people struggling with their diagnoses.
Garner participated in the National Youth Leadership Network, for which she has served as a resource consultant and guest speaker for the last eight years, and is a member of the Youth Leadership Conference.
"It’s important to give back," she said.
She’s also served as a member of the Youth Leadership Forum and the county disability services board.
Garner’s now also a licensed driver. She’s driving her own accessible van around the streets of Sterling and is enjoying a newfound sense of freedom.
In addition to gaining her freedom on the open road, Garner’s finishing her first mainstream novel, When I Look to the Sky, which deals with family and domestic violence issues.
"The novel transcends a span of 20 years, and it has been challenging because I am exploring all of the different characters instead of just focusing on two in a boy-meets-girl romance novel," Garner noted.
Garner admitted that, at times, she’s experienced feelings of depression over her physical condition. She also said that having a disability can complicate dating and social relationships. Nevertheless, Garner is the self-professed girl with the "can-do attitude."
"I’m optimistic about everything," she added. "I’ve learned that you can’t let people dictate what’s going to happen in your future."
Garner said that people have their perceptions of her, but that they shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
"I’ve faced a lot of rejection at book signings," she added. "I feel like people underestimate me when they first see me in my wheelchair."
Garner also has one important piece of advice for all people, not just those with disabilities: Never give up.
"It sounds so standard, but it’s the truth. You should always have something that you want to do, and it’s important to develop a network of support," she said.
"I want to do it all," Garner emphasized. "The ideas are endless, and there are so many more stories to come."
So, if you read a Tracee Garner novel, take her writing class, or listen to one of her speeches, listen up and take notice because she has something to say.