Know that your truth, especially if you’re writing a memoir like mine, can hurt people. My mother is struggling with reliving my story, I know my brothers are too. Be prepared to relive some of the pain in your story.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing George Johnson.
George Johnson grew up in Northside Richmond where he spent most of his time either on the basketball court or figuring out ways to make money without selling drugs. He became a basketball standout in Virginia, and made a name for himself when he led Eastern Mennonite University to the Elite Eight of the DIII NCAA Tournament. Since then, he has built several businesses in various sectors and enjoys being a serial entrepreneur almost as much as he enjoys being able to support many of his family members and friends. But nothing has been more challenging than the struggles he faced with some of those family members and the federal government standing behind them. Now George spends his time in Houston Texas where several of his businesses are headquartered. He has three children — two girls and one boy — and enjoys his hard-earned life of freedom.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I’m from the northside of Richmond, VA, which is your typical quote-unquote “hood”. You’re dealing with all the dynamics of poverty, street stuff, everybody abusing drugs in that environment. But I grew up with my older brother, who was a basketball star in the state of Virginia. So, I kind of followed in his footsteps, and as I evolved, basketball kept me disconnected from all the stuff going on in my neighborhood.
Even though I loved basketball, growing up I always had an entrepreneurial mindset and was always finding ways to make money. But selling drugs was never really something I had to do; it really didn’t make sense to me given the position I was in. I started seeing what it was doing to people around me, sending people to prison and those types of things, so I never got into that. But making money was still an issue, so I was always willing to try different things that were out of the “norm” for the people around me.
As time evolved and college was coming, I decided to leave my city and go to a prep school knowing that getting out of my environment and getting exposed to different things would help me. But that was really an alternative [in my community]; my mom and dad didn’t really get it, they thought something was wrong with me or that I was running away from my city. I kind of went against their will to go after a scholarship I got to go to a prep school…and from there I really evolved.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
When I first got into the mental health field, there was a family — three boys and their mother. The mother had AID, the middle brother had contracted AID from his mother, and the other two kids didn’t, but the mother did drugs and they were extremely poor. I met this family at a school that one of my companies was working with, and for some reason we took a liking to each other and I became like a part of the family.
The dynamics they were dealing with were so deep. The services I was providing this family were way beyond my usual scope of work for clients, but I just got so close to them and saw so closely all of the dynamics they were dealing with.
Working with them really built my passion for providing mental health services and expanding my mental health advocacy both in my book and with my companies across the states.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
My biggest challenge and journey was making sure I could articulate my emotions and feelings; really being able to get that out. I grew up not expressing myself, and waiting 33 years to now go into all of that and start sharing that was difficult. I never really learned the words to articulate certain things. For example, me saying I was “sad” wasn’t enough. I had to think about how to really take my readers there, to where I was at and what I was feeling.
My ghost writer helped me out a lot. We would switch back and forth between me writing stuff to him listening to me articulate my feelings and translating them on the page. He would hear my tone, see me visually, and take that and expand on it to help me express my story. I give a lot of credit to him.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s not that funny, but when I first created my cover, I spelt something wrong on it, so I had to restart on it. Imagine if the cover came out with a spelling error? It just taught me the importance of getting help and having a second set of eyes.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My first memoir, Double Crossed, is coming out on February 26th. I describe it as a Cain & Abel story of the struggles I had with my family and growing up in the inner city. But, to be frank,I’m not super religious. I don’t know the bible from front to back, but one story I always knew growing up was Cain & Abel, so when I began writing my book I used that story to frame what I experienced with my two older brothers (hence the “Double”) and they crazy stuff they had done to me.
There’s a lot of stuff in the book that I want people to understand and learn from. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t share a whole lot — there’s no one person in my life who knows everything that transpired or about what I went through. I always kept it to myself and felt like I had to deal with it myself, as a man. There’s stuff in the book that even my mother didn’t know that I had dealt with and handled. This book is me just putting everything on the table.
There’re many different dimensions to me; I’m an employer, I’m an uncle, I’m a son, I’m a father, I interact with so many different demographics — from black to white to Hispanic — and no one group of people in my life knew everything I was going through. So, this book is a really just a tell-all, and it’s really a testament to the fact that you never really know what somebody’s going through.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There was a fork in the road with my relationship with my mother, who I share with one of my brothers. My brother was sharing information about me with the federal government, and a lot of that information he was getting through conversations with my mother; who never meant to hurt me, she was just being a mom. And it was killing me; he was sharing my location, where my businesses were, everything. But my mother was just talking to him, being a genuine mother.
It was a really emotional conversation, but I had to give her an ultimatum of whether or not she could disconnect from me. I was at war with my brother, and by being a mother to him, she was betraying me.
The analogy that I thought of when explaining it all to her was the I Am Legend movie with Will Smith. Like the zombies and characters Will Smith was fighting against in the movie, I was in a situation with my brother where he became toxic, so I had to protect myself and “kill” him before he could “kill me”. It’s crazy using that analogy, because it’s a movie, but this was my real life.
I never want to keep a mother from being a mother to her other son, but I was at a fork in the road where anybody who was in relationships with people who were against me I had to cut ties with. So, we had to separate for a while, which was a crazy point in my journey.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
I want to expose and share the mental journeys that I went through, and how I went to get help for that. I didn’t let me having anxiety and being depressed knock me off my feet or spiral me into a whole different person, or start abusing drugs to cope with all these things. I got help. I know, generally speaking, people in my demographic and the dynamic of people I’m around often just start doing drugs and abusing substances.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
I don’t even know if I’m a “great author” yet — I’m still learning — but I’ll take a swing at this.
- One tip is to get help. People think that in order to be an author you have to actually write every word, but writing a book can also consist of sitting down, telling your story, recording it, then having someone help you get it into words. That helped me a lot.
- Take your time. Double Crossed took me a year and a half to create.
- Build out an outline first, and then go back and start diving, diving, diving into each piece.
- Use people who were around you during the time of your life you’re writing about to help you remember your story. There was stuff that I didn’t even realize happened that the people around me reminded me of or pointed out to me
- Know that your truth, especially if you’re writing a memoir like mine, can hurt people. My mother is struggling with reliving my story, I know my brothers are too. Be prepared to relive some of the pain in your story.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Just consistency; telling this story was something I was relentless with. Every day it was on my mind: “I’m going to tell this story, I’m going to get this out’.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I would probably have to go with film or music. My biggest inspiration is Nipsey Hussle — his mindset, his hustle. He was someone I looked up to and admired way before his demise. In one of his songs, “Stress”, he talks about handling your stress with dignity and pride — “keep your chest up and your head up” — and not bending your morals and principles because you’re in a stressful situation. That’s something I was big on.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It’s the same thing that I want to shine light on through my book and on my social media — the importance of seeking help for mental health, especially in my community. You don’t need to suffer alone or rely on drugs to resolve those issues. Me going to therapy, me asking people where they’re at mentally right now, those are not conversations we would have. So, these are the conversations I’m trying to have and the movement I’m trying to inspire.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!