When a fake is nearly as good as the real deal

When I look at a situation that needs changing, I first try to imagine how the flawed situation would look in a perfect world. That at least gives me a target to shoot for. I then either rearrange things that can be rearranged to head in that direction, or I camouflage the situation such that it at least looks closer to the ideal. I’m not sure how well this works on a small scale but I find it pretty effective for big-picture scenarios. And maybe that’s because the details don’t matter quite as much.

For example, when I was younger by a couple of decades, I used to imagine myself a published author. In addition to stealing hours from the night while the baby slept or from my lunch hour on my job in order to write, or to read craft books and structure endless query letters and so forth, I had this habit—usually indulged while I was driving when nothing more constructive could be accomplished—of imagining myself as a successful author being interviewed by Oprah on her show.

Feel it, baby! You're almost there!

Feel it, baby! You’re almost there!

Just the feeling of stepping into that role—smiling benignly when asked by the Big O about where I got my story ideas or did I feel guilty receiving eight-figure advances when there were still starving people in (fill in the blank)?—helped me feel more confident in my dream of becoming an author. And trust me, as with a lot of things, feeling the part goes a long way to being the part.

There’s a lot to be said for feelings following behavior. I once dated an actor who was wonderfully good—brilliant, in fact, in the way he could transform himself from an impoverished, not particularly witty thirty-year old living in Atlanta, Georgia to a smoldering powerhouse in the character of Silva Vaccaro from Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. It wasn’t just my fondness for him that made me think his portrayal was one of the most mesmerizing performances on stage I’d ever seen. He was that good. Which was why when he scraped the makeup off it was so perplexing to have him resort to a whiny, depressed artiste—nothing like the characters he brought to life on stage.

Oh, fie! Where is yon lip gloss...?

Oh, fie! How canst thou smile if yon lip gloss is gone mayhaps forever?

When “Robin” complained to me about some amorphous tragedy he was in the midst of (it was never anything specific like needing rent money or having an annoying boil on his nose or something), I would say: “You’re an actor. Just pretend you’re happy! If you smile—like you do on stage—you’ll eventually end up feeling that way!” (BTW: This tact totally didn’t work with him. OTOH, I imagine my Pollyanna advice was at least as irritating to him as his whining was to me.)

19088982I’m not saying I believe that we can necessarily control how we feel or what we think. I get that unwanted thoughts and emotions squeeze into our minds during our daily round derailing our best intentions, our plans, our goals. But I think creating a pretend-world is a lovely exercise in make-believe that can, for at least a little bit, supplant reality when you really need reality to be blotted out. Or if you just need a level playing field to get your mood up, your confidence running, your mojo topped off—and I think once you’ve done that—and even gotten in the habit of doing it quite a bit—you’ll end up feeling a little better.

Anybody else subscribe to the fake it ‘til you make it line of thinking? Does it work for you? Got another idea?

 

A Change of Philosophies

When I was young, I had two fairly insipid philosophies that I lived by.

Home is where your clothes are,” and “Being afraid of something is not a reason not to do it.”

Now they sound idiotic to me at this age but I understand my point of view at the time. I traveled around a good bit so after living out of a suitcase for awhile, I’d inevitably bask in the pleasure of having all my clothes around me. (If I was somewhere long enough to have them sent to me.) Clothes are really so much more personal than furniture for defining who you are, for comforting you and for providing familiarity.

Especially when you’re young, your clothes announce to the world how you hope to be seen: sexy or too-casual-to-care or Marian-the-librarian or what have you. Your wardrobe contains your special party clothes (the ultimate costumes for projecting how you wish to appear to others) as well as seasonal clothes. Like Christmas ornaments, when you pull a sweater out of storage after not seeing it for a year, you not only feel like it’s somewhat new again, but it has a few memories attached to it, too.

I think it interesting that I saw my clothes—something so innately portable—as the thing that attached me to a place or  made me feel at home. Because I’m not nor have I ever been much of a clotheshorse or fashionista. I certainly never invested any real money in clothing and when I finally got to a certain age (and financial level) one of the first things I told myself was that I’d never buy clothes out of season again. (So smart and frugal, but such an exercise in delayed gratification.)

The second philosophy—and the one I hope my own son never thinks of let alone follows—was no doubt created because I’d made up my mind to do something and didn’t want a little thing like better judgment or second-thoughts to derail me. (Come to think of it, this also goes along with the idea of being my own worst enemy but that is another post.)

I did things in my youth that took me waaaaaay outside my comfort zone and I did them because I knew I’d be glad somewhere down the line that I did (and I was right BTW). I likely also did them because I knew someone else had done them first (so I wasn’t totally crazy), but I knew that without that little push from myself, (the philosophy chanted like a mantra at particularly scary moments) I wouldn’t open the doors that I needed to open.

My Dad used to say when you’re on your deathbed, it won’t be the things you did in your life that you’ll regret but the ones you didn’t do. I have to say I took that way of thinking to its limits most of my life. I tend to be a tad shy (and lazy) and I’m definitely more comfortable wrapped up in an afghan in front of a gas fire with a cup of tea than I am reaching out to people or accepting invitations or pulling on my boots and going out into the chilly night.

I think a lot of the promises we make to ourselves when we’re young have to do with the idea of freedom or staying true to ourselves, even if we don’t consciously put it into exact words like that. I also think, at the end of the day, that it’s fear, generally, that keeps us from fulfilling those promises. I was always determined that I wouldn’t let being afraid—even justifiably so—get the best of me.

That whole concept pretty much came to a screeching halt the day I found out I was pregnant.

I swear I don’t think I was ever really very anxious about anything until I had a child. And then, a whole new world of things to worry about opened up to me. Forget traveling on a whim to Bahrain as a single woman with a backpack and no permanent address—try watching your sixteen year-old drive off alone in the family car for the first time.

It comes down to what you value most. I’m not saying I didn’t value my safety when I walked through Little India (in heels) alone and at dusk in Singapore in the late eighties. But the reassurance of “what are the chances?” doesn’t really give any comfort at all when it’s your own precious child whose taillights you’re watching go around the curve as he heads toward I-285.

These days, when I wave him off to wherever his road takes him (currently that’s back to his dorm room an hour and half away), I realize that my old mantras or “philosophies” were really just tools to help me go forward—to get my bite out of life without letting it pass me by (all too easily done).

Nowadays, I don’t worry about taking chances or staying open to surprises and opportunities. My current codes-to-live-by are all different variations, pretty much, of the same “please keep him safe” prayer. I know “safe” isn’t a great way to live if it’s your life. But from a mother’s point of view, it’s exactly spot-on.

Again, it comes down to what you value most. I know I’ve still got a lot to do in this life—but mostly, I don’t think it’s stuff that will require much bravery anymore. I figure I’ll deal with whatever’s coming with the tools I’ve already gathered and honed from a lifetime of living experiences.

As far as suggesting philosophies-to-live-by for my son and the world he lives in, I have to say that while I’m impressed that my own parent was brave enough to tell me I’d regret not doing things worse than doing them, I’m just not quite that unselfish –or brave—to pass the same philosophy along to my own child.

Not yet anyway.

 

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!

What Makes Historical Romance Work?

What happens when you combine a right-brain off-the-charts creative type with an inclination toward OCD? (No, I wishthis were a set-up for a joke.) While my husband and family wouldn’t be surprised, the results of a personality test I recently took (which inescapably established that I was indeed unemployable in any kind of corporate or structured setting) revealed that not only was I an intensely creative type but I had a heavy dose of the analytic compulsive personality. A creative who likes rules? So that’s weird. But I think, after essentially sloughing off the results of the test as if they were as irrelevant to my options for prospective work as a Cuisinart is to a bricklayer, I’ve assembled the Intel in a way that makes sense to me. (Which, by the way, is what the test predicted my type of personality would do.)

It is true I am creative, but I am also curious about the creative process. This is why I don’t just write, but wonder why I wrote what I did. My husband is a philosopher and he introduced me to the whole “an unexamined life is not worth living” idea. (I know that many of you learned about this in college, I live it with this man pretty much daily.) Okay, so my natural inclination combined with the company I keep has me questioning things I might normally just sit back and enjoy. (God forbid.) Because, see, if you want to re-create an amazing experience, first you have to understand it. You have to understand how it happened or how you happened to create it in the first place. My nascent left-brain tendencies don’t really accept the whole “it just wrote itself!” or “who cares why chocolate tastes good? Dig in!”

This is a lengthy introduction to my most recent self-question, which is: why do I like to read historical romances? Again, if you read this genre and do not care why you like them, that’s fine, of course. But if you discover the little nugget of why upon which the whole of your pleasure in the genre turns, then, possibly you will then be in a position to find a way to expand that pleasure by including other tints of the thing you (unconsciously) love or are drawn to in other plot lines within the genre. (If this next bit goes under the heading of “everybody knows that!” please remember that one person’s epiphany is another person’s “well, duh!”)

Okay, so I love historical romances. That’s easy enough to break down: I love history. I love romance. So far, not much to decipher.  When I examine it closer, though, I discover it’s not so much history, in itself, that I love, but the idea of what life was like during that time of history compared to my own life. It’s immensely interesting for me to imagine myself—with all the ups and downs in my typical day—trying to put dinner on the table for my family without the use of microwaves, Whole Foods or an SUV. I love the idea of having much the same goals and dreams: love, family, security, self-improvement only now plopped down in the 14th century. So the history thing I get. As I’ve written before, reading a story that takes place in a time other than the one in which I am living is time travel and I love time travel.

Okay, on to romance. Again, not too complicated. I loved falling in love when I was younger, I love reading about it now. The whole courtship thing is so exciting and, unless you’re Elizabeth Taylor, not something that gets repeated too many times in a lifetime.

The bolt from the blue, for me, on the whole historical romance genre—and an important reason why I love it so much—had to do with the kind of romance that’s typically portrayed. Unless it’s just my myopic worldview, relationships between men and women today tend to be very equal. We both work, we both take care of the children, we both share much of the same problems and concerns of career advancement, ego, worry about the world going to hell, etc. The differences between men and women back then were much more pronounced. The sexes were very different from each other. For one thing, the women were protected, the men did the protecting. If you had a woman behaving like a typical woman from today’s world—strong, resolute, decisive—she was considered (within the genre’s rules) to be headstrong (and therefore, much more worthy of the male lead’s love.)

God knows I’m not saying I long for less equality with men. I’m not saying I approve of the fact that women still make less money than do men for the same job. I’m saying, when it comes to fiction, it is quite pleasant to read stories in a time when the differences between men and women and their happy acceptance of each other’s gender roles actually augmented their attraction to each other.

Or am I over-thinking it?