Be Yourself? Which self?

“Just be yourself.” I’ve been given that suggestion hundreds of times, and it was particularly unwelcome coming from my waitress who I suspected had indulged in a few too many free shots at the bar.

In a way, it was my own fault. I’d broken one of my cardinal rules and shared a piece of personal information with this complete stranger. Once she knew I was apprehensive about meeting my fellow diners, she proceeded to offer a steady stream of unwanted advice until they arrived. This morning I’m still miffed that my oblivious husband tipped her 20%.

But bad restaurant experiences aside, that is a horrible piece of advice. Pretty much anything you do or say is yourself. Some sides of you are more likeable, or more fully developed, or more integrated into the whole you, but if it is coming out of your mouth without an intent to lie, it is you.

The problem is that we are all complex creatures. I have a squeamish side that gets nauseous at little things. I also have a this-is-an-emergency side that steps in and deals with the grossest of injuries if need be. I’m not faking either one. I’m not a simple person, and neither are you.

So when people tell me to be myself, my answer is “which self?” I’ve got at least dozen different genuine responses in my head to anything you have to say. Some may lead to a budding friendship, others to hostility. Over time you might get to know most of those sides of me, but which one do I let you see first?

This dilemma of defining the real me has recently spilled over into my writing, or more accurately into the marketing of my books. I love my book titles and my book covers. They are the real me. However, I’ve been told by those I respect that neither titles nor covers are helping me sell books.

After quite a bit of reflection, I’ve decided that being effective is also the real me. I’m practical and I like to achieve my goals. My goal is to find more readers. So, the real me is renaming my books and has sought out a professional to provide covers that will be a lot more like the one shown here. (It is for someone elses book about an appearance changer.)

What will those new names be? I’m having a lot of fun deciding on them. What will the new covers really look like? I can’t wait to find out. I’ll be sharing some of both here over the next few months, and if all goes according to plan a new crime novel about a gay genius who can change his appearance will be released in early January 2019.

The real me can’t wait.

 

I love to be loved

I’m on a difficult quest right now. I’ve produced something amazing, I think, and I’m not sure what to do about it. The product is six novels. Their cost has been most of my free time for six years. The answer to my quest lies in why I wrote these books to begin with. So, I’m forcing myself to take a deep dive into my real motivations, no self-delusions allowed.

Why do I write?

Yeah, I’ve establish that I write for fun and to learn things, both of which have been terrific, by the way. I write for the less admirable reason of keeping myself sane, or at least having an outlet to explore the darker things in my head. I think that one is going fairly well, too. I do write hoping to make a little money, and that one hasn’t worked out as well as expected.

The hardest one to admit? I write to be cool. To be admired. To be praised. For the little bump of status it sometimes gives me even while thinking I’m above such things and don’t care what others think of me. Because of course I do care, as we all do. What varies is how much we care, and how much we let it control our actions.

Much of each of my main characters is me, and I suppose that is typical. Zane, the hero of y1, is an A student who is used to commendations and who struggles when others deem him average or worse. I had a start in life much like Zane’s, leaving high school as editor of my school paper, an almost solid A student with a cup full of debate and speech medals.

Zane struggles to make A’s in his work place just as I did in mine. This exchange between Zane and his new boss came from my heart.

“Zane, this is just perfect. Just the way I hoped you would grab onto this project.”

Zane thought about how very good it felt to have someone be proud of him. He was getting an “A” again. He was Brainy Zany. Goddammit, he had missed that guy.

This raises the question of whether writing novels has really done much to make me feel valued.

Well, it seems to have impressed family and friends, but one would hope that would be the case. I’ve also had some great reviews from total strangers and I admit their praise has made me glow inside.

Writing is not a great way to get nothing but praise, however. The first review from someone who hates your book is crushing, and inevitable if you are getting a lot of real reviews from strangers. For every acquaintance at a party who was impressed by the idea of my novels, I’ve met two bookstore owners or other authors with better pedigrees who turned their noses up at me.

The highs are high, but the lows are plentiful. If I really was doing this for love and admiration I would be far better served adopting a puppy.

Yet, we all crave what we crave and I apparently want to be appreciated and admired as a writer. So be it. Guess I have to keep at it, learning and improving, until what I write is worthy of the all the praise I hope for.

(Read more about why I write at The Number One Reason I Write Books, My Eye-opening Second Reason for WritingI write because it’s cheaper than therapy, Nothing cool about modest ambitions and Remember My Name.)

 

 

 

The Number One Reason I Write Books

I write books. Why?

It is a reasonable question. I recently started participating in writer’s groups again and much about them has got me thinking.  A women well into her second novel told me of an acquaintance who has made it to the New York Times Best Seller list. Wow. Something to be in awe of, of course. My critique group-mate is also in awe of the woman’s process. To paraphrase, she read the top ten fiction books at the time, analyzed what they had in common, and wrote the perfect hybrid book, designed to succeed. And it did.

All I could think was “what a miserable way to write a book.” That brought me round to the essential question of this post. If I’m not writing to make a best seller list, what am I doing? I tried to be brutally, unflatteringly honest and I came up with seven reasons I choose to spend most of my free time on my laptop creating books. Some of them are pretty stupid.

This post is about the first answer that popped into my mind. It may not be my biggest reason, but it may be the one that keeps me writing novel after novel.

I have fun doing it. In fact, I have more fun making up a story than I have doing anything else. Yes, even that (although it is close.)

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t particularly enjoy rewriting, or proofreading, or formatting or all the other chores that take 80% of my writing time. I do enjoy research, but not that much. I hate marketing. I don’t do much outlining. But I love, absolutely love, making up stories and putting them down on paper.

I’ve told myself tales in my head for as long as I can remember, but committing the story to typed words moves it from an ephemeral daydream to a real thing. It can become more complex, be improved, and be reread and enjoyed. Seeing the words in front of me makes it better, and allows me to tell far longer tales.

The best part of it? It is finding out what happens. I always have an ending in mind, but I never know how my characters are going to get there, and they continually surprise me. They morph into better or worse or more complex people than I intended, they develop points of view I never considered, and they come up with ingenious solutions I swear I would never think of. (Or is that impossible?)

For me, that first draft is like watching a movie or reading a book except it is in a setting I picked, filled with characters I resonate with, and about things I like. Once I’ve got a story going, I can’t wait to get back to writing to figure out what will happen. Other forms of entertainment seem boring by comparison. I like my own stories better.

There you have it. Goofy but real. I write for my own entertainment.

Are there other reasons? There must be. I keep doing the other 80 per cent of the process over and over as well, no matter how much drudgery it is. Why? Perhaps the reason lies in the other six reasons that occurred to me. Those will be the subject of another post.

(Read more about why I write at My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing , I write because it’s cheaper than therapy, Nothing cool about modest ambitions, I love to be loved and Remember My Name.)

A better word than joy?

I knew from the beginning that my second novel would be centered around the theme of joy. My first novel was all about our connection to others; I wanted this one to celebrate the authenticity of being oneself.

Because I’m the kind of person who gets carried away with an idea, I decided to center the action around the place on the globe that was exactly opposite of Nigeria, where my my first novel took place. Turns out that location is just south of the equator, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This fact might have discouraged someone else, I but I was determined to introduce this symbolism of opposites into my already half-developed plot. So I delved deeper and discovered the island nation of Kiribati, and began to write a novel that encompassed a swath of the sea.

Just as “peace” seemed an inadequate word to describe x0, “joy” barely touched the surface of my overarching theme for y1. What I wanted was a word that meant

the sheer exhilaration that can only be found when a person is true to who they are.

We do need a word for that.

The book was orange in my head. Orange for sunsets over the Pacific and orange for crazy-strong exuberance and for all that glows. This had to be a book about the fire within.

I already knew that later in the series I would write a book that was blue, and it would be about the virtues that tug us in the other direction. I’m still struggling to find a single word that encapsulates the theme of my blue book, but I know that it is about something important, too.

(For more thoughts on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than peace?,  A better word than hope? and A better word than courage?)

Why would anyone call a collection of books 46. Ascending?

I spent most of my free time over the past six years writing a collection of six novels. I’d never written a book before and, now that I’m finishing the last one, I’m starting to puzzle through what possessed me to do such a thing.

It seemed like fun? I’d always wanted to write fiction? Why the hell not?

Part of the answer lies in something I wrote today to put at the end of the sixth book to explain to any curious reader who had stuck with me exactly why I called this collection of books 46. Ascending.

Here is how I explained it.

  1. It is an I Ching hexagram.
  2. It is what I came up with when I decided that my six proposed books could be made into an I Ching hexagram. Those with a female protagonist would have two lines and those with a male protagonist a single line and book one would be at the bottom and book six at the top because I was pretty sure that was how you were supposed to do it. I thought it was a cool idea.
  3. The lines make Sheng, the I Ching hexagram number 46, as I discovered when I looked up the above cool idea.
  4. Sheng answered the question that bothered me most. The question was not “will my books make money?” or “will I sell a lot of books?” It wasn’t even “will these be good books?” or “will I enjoy writing them?” Those would all have been fine questions. But, this I Ching hexagram answered my question “should I do this or not?”
  5. Researching Sheng, I read that “it is a time of development and progress, the direction is correct” and “hexagram 46 shows a time where a steady progression will occur where the predicted outcome is positive  and “keep working on your plans and maintain confidence in their success.” Those all sure sounded good to me.
  6. My research on 46 Ascending also put this quote in front of me. It is always better to fail in doing something than to excel in doing nothing. – Chinese Proverb . It is undoubtedly a good quote for anyone contemplating anything.
  7. I learned that Sheng was also referred to as the Symbol of Rising and Advancing, Ascending, Ascension, Rising, Promotion, Advancement, Sprouting from the Earth, and Organic Growth. Who can argue with all that?
  8. Sheng’s details included “The emphasis is on upward motion, from obscurity to influence, with growth that is supported by adaptability and an absence of obstacles.” and “Make a sincere effort to apply resolute effort against the forces of inertia, bending around obstacles that arise, and good fortune will follow.
  9. In other words, everything I read about the I Ching hexagram told me loud and clear “write the damn books.” So I did.
  10. Was the universe talking to me? Was I talking to myself? Am I lucky I didn’t put the lines in the reverse order? Those are all great questions. But the one I started to consider was how well did the hexagram fit in with the books themselves.
  11. If you asked me what this collection of books was about, from the beginning I would have told you it was about how all humans have so much more potential than they realize. We can improve, we can rise, we can ascend. Climb the mountain. Move towards the light to the south. You know. Grow.
  12. So this collection of books is named after an I Ching hexagram that not only got me off my butt and writing, but just happened to perfectly describe what it was I was trying to say. Go figure. At the least, it seemed reasonable to name the collection of books after it.

What I don’t address at the end of my novel is the question “did writing the books make me happy?” It’s an important question, but it’s important to me, and not really to my readers. That makes it a more appropriate topic for my blog.

Well …

I can tell you that I wrote these books filled with a sense of energy and purpose unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. Many days, writing wasn’t just what I wanted to do, it was all I wanted to do. It was an addiction, an obsession, and a nepenthe against all the world’s ills. I let it consume me, and I enjoyed the ride.

I emerge at the other end, tireder, older, fifteen pounds heavier and with six years of my life mysteriously gone. But, I was lucky enough to have five people in this world who loved me throughout this process and I was lucky enough to have a way to make a living while I wrote that kept serious worries away. Neither is to be taken lightly and for both I count my blessings.

Everybody always tells you to pursue your passion in life. I don’t think that “everybody” has much of an idea of all that really entails. It changes you in ways you do and don’t like. It’s not always fun. It doesn’t always turn out well, certainly not in the Hollywood kind of way.

But once you’ve done it, you can’t imagine not having done it, if that makes any sense. Like not doing it wasn’t even an option, or at least it shouldn’t have been.

Is that happiness? I’m not sure, but I think it might be something even better.

 

Am I sure I’m Sherrie?

“Do you want to know what I’m thinking?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why?”

It was a trick questions, and I knew it, because we were in the middle of an argument. I guessed he was about to make the point that no, I really didn’t want to know because if I did then I wouldn’t be doing blah-de-blah.

But I was trying to diffuse the situation, for once. I’m not known as the diffuser in this relationship, but every once in awhile I have a good day. So I said ….

“I do want to know, because we are all always changing. If you don’t tell me what you’re thinking, I’ll be loving an outdated version of you, someone who used to exist. I want to love the you who is here now and I can’t do that if you won’t tell me what you’re thinking.”

Oh. We looked at each other and we both realized that, for no apparent reason, I had just spoken a fine truth. I had no idea where it came from. It did kind of diffuse the discussion, though, and we both went on about our day feeling less angry.

Later, as I sat down to work on the novel I am so, so close to finishing, I read the scene I wrote last night before dinner. It was about Zane, the shape-shifting protagonist of y1, the novel that is the basis for this blog. Zane is in my nearly finished book as well, and in this most recent scene he has been forced to assume the appearance of and substitute himself for an older businessman named Warren. Here’s the scene.

Zane woke up Friday morning and he knew that it was show time. The real Warren would be safe somewhere at a location unknown to Zane. Jerry would be in nearby room listening to Zane’s every conversation, making sure Zane behaved…

Warren had a series of appointments that day, starting with the ones that were likely to be quick and easy. First up were the non-telepathic executives who oversaw Accounting, HR, and Legal. Each needed a few minutes of the big boss’s time to approve this and discuss that and be reassured that Warren’s unprecedented absence for the past two weeks had been necessary and that the issues had been resolved. His administrative aide needed time with him as well, and Zane guessed that she would be the toughest one to fool.

But really, what was she going to say. “Are you sure you’re Warren?”

He already knew how he would answer.

“Yes. Are you sure you’re Denise?”

But the conversation would probably never happen. People saw what they expected to see.

I’ve gotten a lot of good things from my obsession with writing novels. I’ve learned facts, met people, experienced a lot of personal satisfaction. But to the best of my knowledge, this is first time part of plot has worked to supply me with the perfect answer to a question.

Am I sure I’m Sherrie? If it’s the April 14, 2017 release you’re asking about, then yes, I’m sure.

(For more short excerpts from my upcoming novel, also see Worry about those you love and write about what you know, Point of View, The Amazing Things I Get to Do, and Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know.)

The real eulogy that I never gave

It was written eight years ago and it is the oldest file on my computer. I found it cleaning out a folder called “other writing” looking for any forgotten gems that I might want to roll into the book I’ve just started. It isn’t the oldest thing I’ve written of course, I’ve been doing this stuff since junior high. But most of that is all gone now. This isn’t.

I hear my own voice, from the year my mother died. I’ve changed in the passing years, and I’m not sure I agree with all of this now. But I think it is a perspective worth sharing. It’s called “Teach your children.”

You teach your children every day.  Not by what you say but by how you live your life. It is so easy to find yourself teaching them that life is drudgery, that marriage sucks, that work is to be avoided, and that you never get a fair deal.

I will never get to deliver the eulogy for my parents which I would like.  But if I could – it would go something like this.

Dalai 9The most offensive and ridiculous thing my parents ever said to me was “don’t do as I do, do as I tell you.”  They thought it was terribly funny, which made it all the worse.  And they quoted it often.  You see, my parents basically liked to drink, gamble and have sex.  And overeat. They  avoided cigarettes and drugs, although my father smoked for awhile and tried pot in his youth.  I don’t think stopping either had much to do with self restraint – rather the first was more of an aesthetes choice and the second had more to do with what vices were readily available within their social circle.

And while my parents were busy enjoying life and telling us not to, they were also, in a way they never suspected, busy teaching me and my sister.

And what were we learning?

  1. If you want to have a good marriage, have all the sex you want but only have it with your partner. Nothing else will result in love after 40 plus years and having someone love you when you are 60 is about as good as it gets.
  2. If you are going to drink alcohol, only drink after five o’ clock except on holidays and special occasions. Only get drunk on weekends and not on all of them. This works a lot better if you can manage to be a happy, or at least not a belligerent, drunk.
  3. Gamble all you want, but never ever what you cannot afford to lose.
  4. Keep you weight to within 40 pounds of your ideal.  There are a lot of ways to die and frankly odds are yours will have nothing to do with your weight if you keep it somewhere under obese. Meanwhile, you will enjoy your life a lot more.

So today – I am slightly chubby and happily married for 26 plus years.  I drink less than my parents did, which is good, but I do drink only on nights and weekends. I hate most forms of gambling but play the stock market as hobby, but of course only with what we can afford to lose. I pretty much have a great life.

It is a shame I will never get to deliver this tribute, because it brings two things to mind which should be said.

  1. I hope my husband and I have taught our children as well.
  2. Thanks Mom and Dad. I am doing what you did, not what you said, and it’s working out just fine.