Be Brave and Keep Going

What profession besides writing can you think of that requires the kind of incredible bravery (or is it masochism?) that writers must muster every day of their writing lives? Okay, firemen, cops and fighter pilots. But besides them? I’m not even making the distinction between Indie and Trad writers for this one because one thing is true across the board for every writer and that is that it takes guts to write your heart out—reveal the depths of who you are and what you value—and then drag it up the flagpole and invite people to rate it. And while you’re hoisting your precious dearest baby up the flagpole, you can see out of the corner of your eye, a few people are already loading up their bows and cocking their guns. No matter how great you think it is or your editor has assured you it is, you know there are always going to be readers out there who won’t like it. And it doesn’t matter that it “wasn’t their cup of tea,” or that it wasn’t the genre they usually read, or that they admit your main character reminded them of their ex-husband in a nasty divorce—they’ll still come at you with both barrels loaded and one in the chamber.
And yet.
Knowing this—and there’s not a published writer out there who hasn’t felt the sting of a bad review—we still do it. We not only do it, we do it everyday, we do it like we can’t not do it, we do it like we’re being paid to do it.
Weird, huh?
What possible other passion could be so fraught with the possibility of humiliating rejection? I suppose actors might be one but since the days of slinging tomatoes and rotten fruit at the stage are over (at least, mostly) perhaps not. Even publishing a couple crappy reviews about a play or a gallery opening can’t compare with hundreds (or more) of average readers with an opinion. A newspaper reviewer may be negative but Average Joe who feels you wasted his $2.99 on your e-book can be personally hostile. We writers constantly work the online e-channels for marketing purposes (since that’s where our books live, on cyber shelves) and which makes them—and us—static targets for all kinds of  whack jobs who are easily distracted by a big-ass bullseye.
Who knew when you signed on to be disrespected by your family, belittled by your coworkers and pitied by any and everybody who knew you were writing a book that, on top of it all, you’d have to deal with hate mail from  Sri Lanka when you finally finished the damn thing? And then? You sat down and began the whole process all over again. In fact, you couldn’t stop yourself from sitting down and beginning it all over again. (Honestly, is there any other reason why we keep writing other than we can’t not?) Most of my writer friends accept the second-class citizenship status of a novelist in today’s world—especially a self-published one—and they accept the possibility of the public slings and arrows of annoyed, unhappy readers too. Their advice is: grow a thicker skin or stop reading your reviews. Of course, that means you have to stop reading the good ones, too, and while I don’t exactly live for the good ones, they definitely add a cherry on top of my day and I’d hate to create a hard and fast rule requiring me not to look at them. I think it makes more sense to read the reviews with an ear for learning something that might make your book better, or to detect if possibly the reader is a lunatic (all caps are often a give-away), but not to take it too seriously. The last thing you want to do is approach your keyboard for the next book afraid you’re about to write something someone won’t like. Trust me, that’s guaranteed. Let. It. Go. And of course, the absolute best advice I’ve heard about bad reviews however you process them emotionally: don’t respond. I don’t care if they misunderstood what you were doing in the book (you should have been clearer) or if they skipped over the bits that would’ve clarified the problem (you should’ve make it more interesting so they didn’t skip). Just let them have their say and hope to bury the review under fifty positive ones. It’s all you can do. Oh, yeah. And maybe have learned something. That’s always nice.

Living and Loving an Ordinary Life

About 20 years ago, a crisis occurred in a Texas suburb which captured the attention of the country—and then the world. A baby, named Jessica, fell down a well. Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free “Baby Jessica” from the eight-inch-wide well casing 22 feet below the ground..

The fame that came to the people involved in this drama was intense and, like so much in our over-stimulated American culture, fleeting. The young man who did, without thinking, what he thought he should do, was lauded as a “hero,” which, no one doubted that he was. He was told how super-extraordinary he was on talk shows, radio shows, he appeared on Good Morning America, was the focus of best selling books and a made-for-TV movie. When all the excitement died down and the cameras turned else where, when the next “hot” story eclipsed the Jessica story, this young man was faced with going back to living his ordinary life. But for him, there couldn’t be ordinary ever again. How, after you have tasted being a superstar, after you have had Presidents shake your hand, after you have been made to believe that you were so special? How could you go back to pumping gas and living in your hometown after that? He couldn’t. After ten years of trying, he killed himself. His sister said: “After being famous for a bit, he just couldn’t settle back down to living an ordinary life.”

What is this so-called Ordinary life? Do any of us really aspire to have one? Can you blame this poor guy for not being able to go back to life before all the fame and excitement? Remember, he was happy before he got famous. He was content.

A few Christmases ago, my son really wanted the guitar video game called Rock Band. This game allows players—who have never picked up a guitar in their lives—to  perform in virtual “bands” by providing the ability to play three different peripherals modeled after music instruments. These peripherals are used to simulate the playing of rock music by hitting scrolling notes on-screen. Can you imagine? During this period of his life, he didn’t know how to play these instruments, but he did produce music—and really, amazingly good music, with his friends, in the basement using an Xbox and a device that looks like an electric guitar. My husband, who had a real garage band as a teenager, was appalled. Today, my son, after five years of weekly guitar lessons and endless hours of practice, is a very good, real, guitar player. The playworld of being a guitarist instilled the pleasure and kudos of the accomplishment without the actual accomplishment. But the lie was felt. The kudos were undeserved. And that lie, as pleasurable as it was, was still a lie and eventually prompted my son to go for the real thing.

We are surrounded, engulfed by technology. It makes our lives so much better in so many ways, but it’s also helped to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama. Ordinary life is more subtle. It’s difficult for a developing chrysalis on the backyard oak tree to compete with the excitement of saving the world from invading aliens or making a Super Bowl touchdown. (The virtual experience derived from the most basic of video games.)

The real world, the natural world, doesn’t typically allow one the likelihood of being twelve years old and playing in a rock band (especially without all the hassle of years of music lessons.) Or to be pumping gas in Texas one day and speaking to Diane Sawyer the next on national TV.

While it’s possible that you or I might be able to handle the five minutes of fame better than poor Kevin Draper did, it’s also possible that this young man is, in himself, a cautionary tale. A tale that suggests that the further we get away from what’s real, the more we layer on the superlatives, the over-the-top praise, and add the extra, unnecessary gloss, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense.

Real life is dull. It’s housework, watering the garden, and staring off into space as you do it. It’s preparing a meal. And most pleasures in real life are small ones…a hot shower, a beautiful sunset, a bowl of soup, a good book. When did we all start looking to win the lottery? Or star in our own TV shows? When did the manic drama of what could be, take the place of what is?

I am sure that we should all strive to be the best we can be and to try to achieve great things. But, in the process of doing all the hard work required to achieve those great things, it might help to remember what perfection there lies in an ordinary life, lived with pleasure and enjoyment of our surroundings and each other.

Just a thought.