But what have you done lately?

The above headline is one of the industry jokes shared among the inmates of the profession of advertising when I was in the biz. It wasn’t really very funny and it basically addressed the fact that regardless of how many CLIO awards you’d won or whatever glowing peer recognition you’d tallied up for being brilliant, you were really only as good as your last ad campaign. The rest of it—regardless of how good your TV and print ads looked in your portfolio—was irrelevant compared to what you had done lately. Maybe a lot of professions are like that. I’ve been away from the business for several years now but I was reminded of this attitude the other day when I visited my mother at her house.

I walked in on her in the middle of the day and found her elbow-deep in clipped out magazine recipes and open cookbooks at the dining room table. When I asked her what she was doing, she sighed and said: “Still trying to find my signature dish.”

I sat down with a thump and laughed until I cried. We both did.

My mother will celebrate her ninetieth birthday in a few weeks.

What's YOUR signature dish?

What’s YOUR signature dish?

So it’s officially true. You never stop looking for that one thing that sets you apart, that one gift that will have people remembering you and immortalizing you. My mother was a gifted painter in her day and she was gorgeous to boot: thick auburn hair, ivory skin, hazel eyes, willowy slim. Like many people who’ve lived a long time, she’s done a lot in her life: raised kids, been adored by a special man, (thankfully for us kids it was our father), and travelled the world.

Seeing her at the dining room table looking for the dish that might be the lynchpin of her reputation as a cook was great to see because it reminded me that while I and the rest of my family are in awe (and fear) of her advancing age, that’s not how she sees things.

She sees that she’s not done yet and that reputations can still be made.

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it's "too cheesy" can it really be what I'm known for?

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it’s “too cheesy” can it really be what I’m known for?

I love that about her. In no small part since it helped me to see the world in more cheerful colors, because I’m also still searching for my “signature dish.” I don’t think my mother’s intention was so much in search of a legacy  after she’s gone but to fulfill a reputation right now. She’s looking for the thing her family will think of her today, beyond all her other accomplishments in life.

What about you? Are you still looking for your “signature dish?” The thing that sets you apart and that people will think of when they think of you? Would love to hear!

The Merits of Losing

There’s this building on Peachtree Road in the neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta. It’s a very old apartment building called the Al Hambra. I lived there in the mid-eighties. The Al Hambra was all hardwood floors and Mediterranean-styled rounded doorways. My apartment had a stone balcony that faced Peachtree Road and I could sit out there with my friends, drink beer and watch the Peachtree Road Race every year, or just sit out and drink beer.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I've set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I’ve set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I’d wrap up in a comforter and sit out there and watch the night life happen right in front of me and I always felt perfectly safe. The sounds of sirens and horns honking were background noise to my life  for the three years I lived there.

Because the Al Hambra is located in Buckhead near Garden Hills, I could walk to the neighborhood restaurants, mom ‘n pop grocers, pubs and outdoor cafes. The city’s first Fellini’s Pizza opened up next door to the Al Hambra and although in the beginning it was tattered and dark and bare bones, it was also exotic and earthy and quickly became popular. I liked meeting friends there to sit outside, eat pizza (and drink beer) because you could feel the hum of the busiest street in the city as it flew by. Living at the Al Hambra made me feel alive. It  made me feel like something exciting was about to happen.

I loved the Al Hambra. And I loved living there. But more interesting, I think, is the story of how I lost it. And how losing it became a major turning point in my life. In fact it became the final event in a series of four events that happened over a six-week period that changed my  life for good.

The first event that happened was when I lost my job as Creative Director at the ad agency that had the Hardee’s Hamburger account. It was the only account we had and when we lost it, we closed the doors. Like most out-of-work writers, I just turned my hand to freelancing with no real financial hardship.

A week later, the second event happened when I saw the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Seeing that movie was significant because it lit a fire under me that helped push me over the line right when things needed to happen. That movie illustrated to me that I was young and free and there were adventures in the world to be had if I would just tap into the courage needed to find them.

The third thing that happened was that a good friend of mine introduced me to a man who was visiting him from Auckland, New Zealand. We hit it off and as I didn’t have a job to worry about, I made plans to come “down there” and visit him. I bought a round-trip ticket to Auckland for a month’s visit. I began to view my coming visit to the South Pacific as the Big Adventure I was looking for.

My parents weren’t thrilled.

Auckland is a long way away, even for a visit. It was in fact the furthest point on the globe, except for Adelaide, Australia, from where they lived in Jacksonville, Florida. In those days—before computers, before cellphones, before LOTR—most people I talked to didn’t even know where NZ was on the map.

As it happened, my folks were right to be worried. And that’s because two weeks before I was to board the jet to LAX that would take me to Auckland, I got a letter from the management company of the Al Hambra telling me to vacate the premises. They were turning the building into condos. If I—and everyone else—would clear out within thirty days, we’d get our deposits back no questions asked.

This was the fourth and most crucial event. With no job and now no apartment to come back to in ATL, there was no reason not to stretch my visit as long as I wanted to stay. With my stuff safely in storage, my plants donated to friends, a hunky new love-interest with a really cool English accent waiting for me, I was able to turn away from all the security, comfort, and familiarity of my life in Atlanta—in the States for that matter—and prepare to embrace the unknown and experience the thrill of discovering the larger world that was out there.

My parents nearly went nuts.

But it was one of the very best things I’ve ever done.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my living room window in Parnell.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my balcony in Parnell.

If I hadn’t lost my apartment at the Al Hambra, I wouldn’t have taken that last step—to find a job down there, which I did, or to spend the next two years living abroad and traveling the world solo—Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, Tahiti, Fiji, London, St-Tropez. The experience changed me fundamentally—as travel always does. The things I saw, the people I met, helped make me the person I am today.

My grand adventure came together in a series of coincidences combined with lucky kismet over a six-week period. But I was ready for it. I was looking for it.

I didn’t make it happen. But I knew to let it happen when it came.

I’ve recently moved away from Atlanta—my home for more than thirty years—but when I used to drive down Peachtree Road—to take my son to some piano competition or football practice, or to meet my husband for lunch (not the same fellow I should add)—and pass by the Al Hambra, I always felt a rush of gratitude when I saw it.

I felt gratitude for the joy I had living there, once upon a time when I was a single girl in Buckhead, unfettered and alive.

But also for the thrill I once had leaving there, too.

The 6 Road Blocks to Happiness

I debated titling this post “The 6 Barriers to Success” or “The 6 Reasons why your book won’t sell,” but bottom line, these barriers work across all goals, all genres, all endpoints. Whether you’re a writer or just a person trying to be happy in this life, fill in the blank where I’ve put “happiness” and you’re good to go.

  1. Availability. Here’s the example I always think of: I am constantly monitoring my weight and would no sooner buy grocery store cupcakes to have on hand in my kitchen than I would spoon sugar directly into my mouth. And yet, when there’s a party at work or when my local Whole Foods is giving away free samples of just about anything, I line up at the trough as if the calories don’t count. (This is also true with just about every job I ever said “yes” to.) The idea behind this barrier is that we often settle for what’s convenient or available instead of holding off for what we really  want.
  2. Momentum. Self-explanatory, really. If you’ve been doing the same thing forever—regardless of how happy or successful it makes you—the sheer fact that you’re familiar with it can keep you doing it ad nauseum or until you die. Whichever comes first. This goes for your book marketing efforts, or your job, your hobby. If whatever you’re doing is not so good, it’s time for self-examination. Which brings us to…
  3. Ignorance. If you’re unhappy or unsatisfied, maybe you don’t know how to change that fact. If you don’t know how, you could get off your butt and learn what you need to know to change your life. (This kind of overlaps with Momentum.) Ignorance is only bliss if you’re blissful. If you’re dissatisfied, you need to wise up and figure things out.
  4. Group decisions. As an ex-advertising agency copywriter I can tell you for a fact that committees spoil everything good. They take the magic out of a great line, they stomp the crap out of any subtlety, and they put you on the fast track to mediocre. Whether you’re trying to please a client (and honestly, what do they know?) or just a half dozen people-with-opinions, your end result will always and absolutely be the lowest common denominator.
  5. Comfort Zone. This is my particular sticking point and I bet it is for a lot of people. While you might not know it from the way I rabbit on in this blog, fact is, I’m a little shy around people-in-the-flesh. Not unlike a lot of writers, the idea of a bookstore signing is weighed and equated by me with the same relish as anticipating a root canal with no Novocain. I’m not exactly the Unabomber, but I like my comfort zone. And that’s no place to be if you want to be  successful. It’s always going to be easier to stay home, to not make that phone call, to stay in the corner instead of approaching people, to watch TV instead of knocking out word count. I used to have a line that went off in my head when I would collapse on the couch instead of at my desk: “Stress-relieving is not goal-achieving.” I think we give too much weight to our so-called stress-relieving activities. Nothing relieves stress like success.
  6. Passivity. It takes a lot of energy to be obstreperous and practically none to go along with the crowd. Somewhere in the middle is probably where we all need to shoot, but once you see how easy life gets when you just agree to most things, you may be tempted to make it a habit. Or, more likely, you won’t have any say in it becoming a habit. It just will. It takes energy and focus to examine what feels right to you and then stand up for it. It also pays off (or so I’m reliably told) in forward movement toward your goal, whatever that is.

So there you have it! Six roadblocks to happiness or success that you might not have even realized you were allowing to set up camp in your life. Do you agree? Can you think of any more?

What Are You Reading?

I love the emails I get from Amazon that, based on what I’ve bought in the past, suggest books I might like in the future. So far I haven’t clicked through to the check-out lane on any of them. Maybe it’s because of my background as an advertising copywriter, I know what it takes to write sales copy and I know when I’m being “sold.” Sometimes I get a mental image of the copywriter knocking out copy for the day before lunch: “Hey, Beth, we need some sexy copy for these five new thrillers.” “Great. Are they any good?” “Who knows? Just give us a couple of lines.”
Exactly.
Last summer, I had a conversation with my brother that set me on a literary journey that lasted—without a whole lot of time for housecleaning, eating, drinking or sleeping—a full five months. He clued me in to George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series. My ensuing summer was a bloody cornucopia of slaughter, haints and “shape-changers.”

Great rip-roaring tale to help guarantee you get nothing done until you finish the whole series. (Not unlike The Hunger Games in this way.)

During my extended time in Westeros, I would occasionally notice a book flit by on the New York Times Bestseller’s list—or in one of the above-mentioned Amazon emails—and mentally earmark it for when my time with Mr. Martin was done. But honestly, without an honest-to-God recommendation from someone you trust to know a good story, what good is a pretty cover and a snappy title? I’ve read plenty of cover blurb promises which the content within did NOT deliver. When I’d finished reading the “Game of Throne” series, a Facebook friend of mine was in the process of adoring “The Help.” It was nice that she actually talked about it while she was reading it. Mind you, I had heard of “The Help” before she mentioned it. Everyone in North America had heard of it. It had received an amazing publicity splash that was relentless that year. And yet? Somehow I got the idea that “The Help” was a self-help book along the lines of “The Secret.” Every time I saw the bright yellow book cover, I mentally tuned it out because I’d already decided

I was a one-woman word-of-mouth machine for this book!

I wasn’t interested in that kind of self-improvement.
When my friend gushed all over the place about it, I picked it up (or loaded it down, whatever) and loved it, and turned around and Amazon-gifted it to three other friends I knew would love it, too.
Recently, I’ve been reading Indie books to try to support the movement but it does take forever to find something good on the Internet. Not that authors aren’t doing a fairly good job of pushing their books in my face—at nearly every juncture on Facebook or Twitter—but like I said before, sales copy and I are intimately related. I know what bullshit looks like. I wrote it for years.
The size and shape of the literary world is changing out there, not just for writers but for readers, too. So how do you find the books you like to read? Do you count on word-of-mouth or is there a book review publication you depend on?

 

Because Avocadoes Need Plenty of Sunshine, That’s Why

Like many people from my generation I have a few personal heroes to whom I look to for inspiration. I know everyone is flawed and everyone screws up here and there and the hero I want to highlight in this post absolutely did, (for one, she ditched her only child in order to go off and have her amazing life) but, while I couldn’t do it myself, in a hard-to-describe-way that just made her dossier that much more fascinating to me.

Whenever I talk about Beryl Markham—and I do it not infrequently—I always mention the Avocado Farm. In some ways, this seemingly insignificant and certainly boring chapter in the famous aviatrix’s life engages and intrigues me more than any other.

First a little background: Beryl Markham was a British citizen born in 1902 and moved to Kenya as a toddler. Her childhood, depicted briefly in the film “Out of Africa” as the wild-child “Felicity” tearing up the countryside on the outskirts of Isak’s Dinesen’s farm was singular in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that she spent most of her time with the Nandi natives training to be a young male warrior. Her mother, horrified at what she considered primitive conditions in 1904 Kenya, fled back to England, but little Beryl wouldn’t budge. She was beautiful as all great heroines must be, strong-minded and smart. A natural with horses, she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya. Her lovers included Bror Blixen, Dinesen’s husband, Denys Finch-Hatton, Dinesen’s lover, and Prince Henry, brother of King George VI. She learned to fly with Tom Campbell Black (both Finch-Hatton and Black died in plane crashes) and was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight which she did in spite of prevailing Atlantic winds, fog and almost total darkness.

On top of all that, she wrote a book. An amazing book. “West with the Night.” To give you an idea of her ability as a writer—up to this point undiscovered—here is a comment on the book in 1942 from Earnest Hemingway—notoriously sparse with literary praise:

 “I knew (Markham) fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times making an okay pigpen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant…can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb… I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.”

So I hope I’ve set the stage for you to see what an astonishingly incredible person Markham was. A super nova in every sense of the word. Which is why the Avocado Farm stage always intrigues me to the point that I cannot let it go. I keep mulling it over and trying to make it fit into her biography—and maybe my own?

You see, after Beryl had done all these amazing things and was a mega-celebrity on all continents worth mentioning, she married Raoul Schumacher and moved to California where the pair ran an avocado ranch. Mary S. Lovell’s book “Straight On Till Morning” says that she and Raoul spent their days drinking and watching the avocados grow. After years of intense  international celebrity, of partying hard with the famous and the infamous and filling world headlines with her world-firsts accomplishments, she spent what we might consider today to be her peak years drinking herself to sleep every night and staring into space for nearly ten full years. She didn’t party or socialize. She didn’t do anything except fight with her third husband and drink.

And then.

In 1952 she left the avocados and the third husband and returned to Kenya. She started raising and training horses, and from 1958 to 1972 she was the most successful trainer in Kenya, winning all of the major racing prizes. Before she died in 1986 at the age of 84, West with the Night was republished and became an instant best-seller.  

So, okay. Back to the Avocado Farm. What was that? Do we all have a period in our lives where we’re growing avocados before we get back to being amazing? Or, as I suspect with my own biography, are our whole lives one big avocado farm with a few interrupting glimmers of awesomeness peeking through here and there?

Living Your Dream at the Worst Possible Time

Ten years ago I  wrote a book called “Quit Your Job, Move to Paris.” I wrote it after a young dewy-eyed college grad interviewed with me at the bank where I was working in the advertising department. (Dear God, I’m depressing myself just writing the words.) She’d recently graduated with a degree in advertising and wanted to know what she should do to, basically, get my job. I looked at her and asked: “Are you married?” She blushed prettily and shook her head. I said: “So no kids?” She reddened not so prettily and frowned at me. “Of course not,” she said. “Do you own your own home?” “I’m only 21,” she replied, as if speaking to a seriously mentally impaired individual. (Kind of like how my teenager speaks to me all the time but that’s another blog.) I said: “So, no ties, no mortgage, no private school tuition. My advice to you is…” She poised her little pen over her little steno pad.

Well, you can probably guess what I said (see above title of aforementioned book) and she did not appreciate being led on as she put it. In addition to being a new college graduate, she also happened to be the daughter of the bank’s vice president so I’m not sure why she even bothered to get my take on anything. She should’ve just gone to her Dad and said: “I want her job, please, Daddy.”

But see, I had a mortgage and a kid (plus two step-kids, but again, another time, another blog) and the idea of “living my passion” or waking up and smelling the croissants on the Rue de la Paix or spending a year writing a novel was about as possible as starring in a Broadway musical. She was young. She had her whole life ahead of her. Her choices hadn’t been made yet. From my perspective, I thought she should take advantage of her freedom while she had it, as if passion—for writing or travel or acting or anything—would dry up or run out like sand in an hourglass.

When I wrote the “Quit Your Job” book, I ended up researching various chapters on different life situations to suggest ways and ideas of how moving to Paris for a period of time might be possible: married with kids, single with kids, etc. During the course of my research, I discovered how it would be possible for me to go, too. The  information I came up with for my own situation was good and bad. The good news was: I learned I could go! I learned how I could make it happen! The bad news was: I chose not to. Yeah, I know. That part sucked. But it still helped to know I had a choice. I didn’t pack up the kid and the husband and shoot off to France in 2001 because when I sat down and thought about it, I realized I wanted other things more. Things that couldn’t happen if I took the Paris option at that time.

Funny thing about passion, though. If it’s real, it tends to stay with you. I don’t work in a corporate advertising department any more. I write full time. As for the Paris thing, well, my son is sifting through his college acceptances even as we speak which means, next year, he’s launched into his grand adventure. And guess what? Turns out, Paris is still there!

Seems that silly college girl was right about one thing: there really isn’t a time limit on passions after all.