In Search of an Ordinary Life

JESSICA MCCLUREAbout 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? Even though he was happy before he got famous? Could he really go back to pumping gas after he’d been interviewed by Diane Sawyer?

I think the onslaught of on-demand, 24-hour cable shows, reality shows, movies (and news), helps to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama.

Let’s face it, it’s pretty 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.)  While Mr. Draper (Kevin, not Don) is the extreme—he didn’t just watch high drama unfold, he was a participant in it—I think we all lean in the direction of wanting something bigger and more dramatic in our lives.30898733

Ordinary life is subtle. It’s the slow but resulting proficiency borne from years of tedious piano or guitar lessons. 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 fantasy of what could be, take the place of what is?

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 pile on the possibilities for superstardom that are really only achievable for a lucky, gifted few, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense. (Or as Mr. Incredible once said, “When everyone is special, then no one is.”)19316210

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.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

I think this is a great line for those of us obsessed with trying to control our creative products  as we steer our way through life. The perfect is the enemy of the good. How could trying for perfection end up creating imperfection? I think the line is really a warning against going to extremes. Obviously, perfection is pretty extreme. I mean, it’s perfection! Some would say perfection is so extreme as to be unobtainable. I’m not talking about formatting issues or typos in your epub doc (although surely one might strive for perfection in that case?) but I get it. Trying to make things perfect can keep you from moving on and doing other things as important or even more important.

It’s easy to see this principle in play when I’m in the process of obsessively tweaking or twiddling with a paragraph in a book I’m writing. If I believe that book sales lie not in social media prowess (as I do) but rather in having available a fat inventory of awesome books, then making  any paragraph “perfect” is a barrier to what I say I want: mega book sales. Because I don’t write literary PD-James-type fiction, a belabored but beautifully descriptive paragraph of a country lane that brings tears to your eyes is not going to get me where I want to go—writing my kind of books, women’s lit and thrillers, quickly. But I’m a writer so I can get sidetracked into the aforementioned paragraph tweaking until my afternoon is gone and the day’s word count not even touched.

Okay, so I believe that less is more in the writing  department but I definitely believe that more available books are more in the book sales department. By that I mean it makes more sense for me as a genre writer to knock out a great fast-paced book and move on to the next one than it does to try to get any book I’m writing “perfect,” which I don’t believe I can do anyway. Once you accept that basic tenet, it’s just a quick step to applying it to our trickiest project of all which is knowing when your book marketing efforts are taking up too much of your time because trust me that is one endeavor you will never get perfect no matter how many books you read about it or how many hours in your day you dedicate to it. As with writing, you need to know when to step away from the keyboard and let it go for the day.

Like anything in life, I think it comes down to asking yourself the question: what do I want out of all this? Do I want to write literature or tell a good story? Do I want to sell lots of books to average-Joe readers or do I want a write-up in the New York Review of Books that I can frame? Do I want 10,000 Twitter pals or ten emails from people who have read my book?

Personally, I don’t have to be JK Rowling famous. I just need enough readers who like my kind of books to allow me to make a living doing what I love.

Now that doesn’t seem too extreme, does it?

The One Thing You Need to Know to Have a Great Life

Like a lot of people, I get much of the philosophy by which I manage my life from popular movies. (Hey, those scriptwriters are wise people.) The problem with our culture today, as illustrated by that brilliant scene in “The Hurt Locker” where Jeremy Renner plays a character who has nerves of Titanium yet is literally stunned into inertia by the mind-numbing plethora of toothpaste choices at his local grocery story, is that we have too many options.

Gone are the days when you knew you only had your folks’ farm or the garment-sewing factory to look forward to. Nowadays it’s been drilled into us relentlessly since our very first Disney movie that we can do and be anything we want. Screw the Ford factory assembly line! You could be President! Or a famous director on Broadway. It could happen. Things have changed since our parents’ parents’ generation, oh they of the Few Options. Because so many more people are able to get  college degrees than a couple generations ago they have more options. With more doors to choose from, there is more consternation about choosing the right door. After all, writers create short stories about people who choose the wrong door and then their lives go totally to hell.

So, if I can get you to accept that we have more choices and more options than ever before then I can get down to the point I’d like to make which is, there are more wrong roads we can take now too—and not because someone (or poverty) pushed us down that road but because we chose it for ourselves.

Since having a great life is within our power—if we make a series of right choices—then there is a lot of pressure on us to make those right choices. Which brings me to one of my favorite philosophic movies of all time, City Slickers with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. While the premise of the movie was that Billy’s character had lost his oomph with life, his wife, his dull kids, and definitely his job, it was the line by Palance’s character, Curly Washburn, that lit up the screen for me in a way that would have me remember the moment ever after.

When Billy was whining about how he wasn’t fulfulled and maybe he didn’t have the job he really should have, Curly told him that the secret to life was “one thing.” He held up that big gnarly gloved finger in Billy’s face and I remember clutching for the next words out of his mouth that would tell me—and every lucky person who was watching this movie—what the one thing was that we should all heed. Imagine! In the ten seconds or so that the director milked the line for, I really did mirror the look on Billy’s face: this old grizzled cowboy who lived basically and in the present had the secret to a happy life and was going to tell me! Then all I had to do was plop it into a simple formula that related, somehow, to my own life, and finally, I would be on my way amid the tsunami of choices and wrong exits that pocked my life.

Why is it we love the simple and the streamlined? There’s an argument that nothing really important can be sorted out by a simple formula. True, complicated issues sometimes are solved by very simple answers, but I’m thinking rarely. Mostly, if the conundrum is a complex one, you can bet it’s not a simple matter of: eat more roughage and add ten minutes to your evening walk.

Like a lot of people, though, I’m a sucker for any self-help book that starts out: “The only THREE things you need to know to reduce debt (lose weight, make better grades).” And I should know better. I’m an advertising copywriter. I write this crap for a living!

Okay, so after much milking of the time between the promise and the delivery, Jack Palance finally coughed up the “one thing,” which was different for everyone.

Huh? Turns out, you had to go and find the $#@!! “one thing” that was YOUR “one thing.” Bloody hell! Yeah, Billy looked pretty disgusted, too.

But once the easy answer and free lunch was mourned and gotten over, the “one thing” concept did start to roll around in my brain parts a bit. And while it wasn’t as soon as I walked out of the movie theatre, it was within the year: I began to form in my mind the “one thing” that mattered to me and that would help me walk in the direction of making my life worthwhile.

And once you know it, it’s true: it turns out you really can spend your whole life’s journey working to achieve it. That’s something else I discovered: (I think it was in the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously”) the steps in the journey are even more important than the destination which, let’s face it, could just as easily be a nursing home (or worse) than that beautiful Craftsman-style home in the better neighborhood you have your eye on.

Step by step, day in day out.

So. What’s your “one thing?” Do you know it? Are you still figuring it out? Love to hear from you!

Are Amazon’s Five-Star Reviews the Road to Success?

I have a friend whose grown daughter teaches drama for preschoolers in DC.  I asked how she ended up doing that when all we’d ever heard about Casey for years was how she was going to be an actress. (She was gorgeous, sang, danced, went to Tisch at NYU, performed at Disney World every summer, and made it to off-off Broadway.) Her mother said Casey came to the point where she finally knew her big break probably wasn’t going to happen. (She was at the point where “ingénue” didn’t fit any more and she was now skating very close to the point where the go-be-a-wife-and-mother option was almost off the table, too.) So she bailed. Her mother said: “Casey never had that fire in her belly that you need to make it in a very competitive business. She didn’t have that stab-your-bestfriend, sleep-with-whomever, step-on-whomever, do-whatever you-need-to-do-to-make-it-happen mindset.” I think about Casey sometimes when I’m looking at some young, fresh faced actress (who isn’t related to someone famous.) I wonder how nice they are or did they have to kill someone to get their present measure of fame?

I bring this up because there is a thing that we authors believe (probably accurately) will help us in our quest to bestsellerdom (or at least a consistent fifty books sold a month). That is the Five-Star Amazon Review.

First, it’s amazing to me that we are still trying to directly control our sales numbers. We’re still trying to do the three-steps-to-amazing-book-sales thing because the alternative: writing the next awesome book while we’re waiting for success to happen doesn’t feel like it’s directly addressing the problem of low book sales. The key here is the word “direct.” Going back to the keyboard for another three months of labor isn’t directly affecting your book sales. It’s a slow, down-the-road kind of process. But we are a people who “want it NOW.” The idea that the best way to sell books is to write a great book in the first place and then turn around and write another one (all the while praying for one of them to “hit”) is just too passive to be believed, let alone lived.

We still want to believe we have direct control over obtaining book sales success. It’s just another demonstration of the fact that we can’t accept there’s not something we can do to ensure our success will happen. We’ve seen so many Disney movies, so we know how it all works out and if we have to help it along a little, like maybe lie or misrepresent the truth, well, since the happy ending is what we’re all aiming for, what does it matter?

When you’ve been fed a constant diet of “you can do it” and combine it with a national tendency not to put too many restraints on our desires or wants (witness our national obesity problem), you have a situation where cheating or lying can be justified in the process of achieving the Big Dream.

I know writing up a bunch of fake reviews for your pals to post on your books on Amazon isn’t treason or Sin with a capital “S,” but I do think it’s a little shameful. I know you can justify writing a glowing five-star review for yourself by thinking “if they would only give it a try I’m sure they’ll love it!” Plus, you know a lot of other writers are doing it, too, so it’s not unlike when you were in high school working your butt off to get A’s while the C students were cheating and pulling down the very same GPA. It wasn’t fair but climbing down into the hog pen with them wasn’t the solution then and it isn’t now.

I say, be passionate. Absolutely use that fire in your belly to write until the wee hours, push past exhaustion to make those deadlines, buck yourself up in the face of a few bad reviews, smile when your friends and family are condescending to you about being a writer—do what you can to keep your dream alive and keep your keyboard smoking. But have some self-restraint for pity’s sake. (And think about it: if you’re really asking your friends to do this, maybe there’s a reason why they don’t take you seriously as a “writer.”)

As Peter Bowerman, author of The Well-Fed Writer, said in an article in the November 2011 issue of the IBPA Independent:

“The currency of a five-star review is becoming devalued day by day…Focus on making your books as good as they can possibly be, in every way—better than they have to be, in fact (a part of the publishing process, over which, incidentally, you have 100% total control). Do that and the praise will be genuine and will come naturally. But, more important, your book will benefit from priceless word of mouth, which will build an enduring demand for the title. And that’s something the author of a mediocre book who’s resorted to fraudulent reviews can never hope to enjoy. For when real reviewers and real readers really read the real book, and speak the real truth, the jig’s up.”

Amen!

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.