Holding a Fork Is Hard When You’re 2

I visited one of my best friends this weekend and she has a two-year-old. It was fascinating to watch the kid try to eat some sausages on his plate using a real fork. He was very determined to do it himself, but the experience or the motor coordination or whatever it is that someone needs to actually use a fork wasn’t quite there yet.

He tried everything. He put the fork tines-down into the sausage and tried to pull it apart that way. He put the fork sideways to the sausage and then used his fingers on the tines to push down from both sides. He was determined.

But he just wasn’t there yet. Finally his mother rescued him with ten seconds of effort with a fork and knife, making it look so so easy to cut up that sausage.

I tell you this story because it’s an important reminder that we don’t all come into this world fully-formed and capable of doing anything we want or anything anyone else can do. Often we have to try and fail and try some more and fail some more and keep trying even when someone else makes it look incredibly easy.

Writing is one of those tasks that works that way. There are so many moving parts to writing a good book that it’s almost impossible to list them all out. You think you have the list and then someone mentions another aspect of a good book and you have to add it on to the end of the list. And just knowing what’s required doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it.

When I first started this writing journey I figured I’d have it nailed down in five years. Most people I saw talk about their timelines took ten to fifteen years to get that first publishing contract, but of course I’d done really well in other aspects of my life so why wouldn’t I do really well in writing, too?

Well…

Eight years in and I’m finally willing to admit that it will probably take me a couple more years to really get to where I want to be to make this work. (I’m currently where I was in my first post-college job, net, but I expect more from myself these days than that.)

But every time I start to feel frustrated I’m just going to think about a little boy with a fork trying to figure out how to eat a sausage and remind myself that most skills in life require dedication and time to master. The key is to keep trying until you get there.

Ah, Life

I think one of the biggest challenges to this whole writing journey has been managing my ego. It’s one of the awful little side effects of having gone to really great schools (Stanford and Wharton). You’re puttering along in your life doing your thing and suddenly one of your classmates is appointed CEO of Yahoo! or wins a SAG award, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe for their incredible acting. (Both went to Stanford at the same time I did.)

Or another classmate casually mentions that they sold their firm with $10 billion in assets under management and are now taking a sabbatical to travel the world. (A Wharton classmate. And, ironically, that description may be too generic for you to even identify a specific individual.)

Now, I know in my heart of hearts that their paths are not ones that would interest me. I don’t look at them and say “that could’ve been me”. (Although I do think it would be fun to act. That’s one of those paths not taken for me.)

I know I’m not playing the same game they are. But when your peers have net worths in the hundreds of millions it can make it really, really hard to take pride in your own efforts. Especially when you know that you could be much more financially successful doing something other than what you’re doing.

A couple months ago a classmate at Wharton reached out and asked if I’d submit a class note about my writing. I almost said no.

One, because what I’m doing probably makes me the poster child for how not to use your Wharton degree. (You make your millions first, then you take up skydiving and writing novels. You don’t walk away from a good career without having paid off all your student loans to do those things, which is what I did.)

And, two, because as much as I’ve accomplished with my writing, I don’t view it as a success. Most of those class notes are people who’ve done something worth bragging about and for some reason I don’t feel what I’ve done is something to brag about.

Which is somewhat absurd. I have written ten novels and who knows how many non-fiction titles. And I’ve made a profit on them, which is actually saying something.

There was recently a thread on one of the writing forums where people were saying you should never expect to make $5,000 a month from writing. By that standard I’m a raging success.

(I think it’s a horrible mindset those people have when there are authors out there making $100,000 a month, but that’s another post altogether.)

But the problem is, I don’t apply the normal person in the normal world standard to my efforts. I don’t apply the “average writer” standard. Fuck average.

I apply the Stanford/Wharton standard. I look to my “peers” to judge my worth.

(And then I quickly look away, because holy shit.)

But that’s the thing. The people who’ve made it are in the news or in the class notes. No one writes in and says, “Since we all graduated I lost my job, declared bankruptcy, got divorced, and spent three months in a clinic for substance abuse issues. But now I’m living in a halfway house and getting by day-by-day.” Or, “Well, I got married, put all my dreams on hold, quit my six-figure job to raise kids I’m not sure I even like, and am now self-medicating with wine and Facebook while my husband spends inordinate amounts of time with his secretary.”

I have to remind myself that there are probably just as many people like that in my peer group as the superstars. Not that it helps. Because ego. I still think I should do well at whatever I do. Well being top 2%.

So, anyway. I submitted the note. With a good dose of humor included. And now it will forever sit there next to my classmate’s note about his very successful venture. Really, I think that combination pretty much says it all.

Oh, and for any Wharton classmates who find their way here, the skydiving comment was not in fact a joke. This is me doing a sit-fly over Taupo, New Zealand back in the day.

6- Me 2

The Dirty Little Secret of Self-Publishing

I’m sure there’s actually more than one, but the one I’m thinking about today is this:

How many copies you sell is meaningless.

It’s what so many people talk about and you see it used in advertising all the time, but at the end of the day no author is going to be able to do this full-time, even if they’re selling millions of copies, unless they’re actually making a profit on those sales.

Self-publishing is horribly myopic in this respect. Rarely do I see someone report “I made $X profit.” Instead it’s “I sold X copies” or “I’ve sold $X worth of books.”

And I get it. The gross numbers certainly look a lot better for everyone than the net number. It’s far more exciting to say “I sold a million copies” than “I sold a million copies but it cost me so much that I’m now in the hole $10,000…”

And in this business you gotta celebrate every little victory no matter what. (And perception matters, too. People want to read what other people read. They want to associate themselves with success.)

Anyway.

What prompted this thought is that I realized yesterday that my first-in-series fantasy novel sold it’s 2500th copy sometime in April. Which is a big milestone for me. I had no idea I’d sold that many copies of that title until I stopped and looked at my reports.

Woohoo! Right?

But.

Here’s the interesting thing about that title and that series: it’s my least profitable series. I actually consider it a failure.

It’s only one of three “series” (out of 26) I have that are in the red. And the only one that’s more than $50 in the red. (It’s the cost of those damned covers that I love so much…)

Interestingly, my most profitable series has sold only half as many copies but grossed more because it’s never been on sale and been significantly more profitable because it’s easier to advertise.

It’ll never get a Bookbub. (I can’t even apply for one because it’s under their page count threshold.) I don’t get fan mail for it . I barely get reviews on it.

And yet…

That’s where the money is. Not in the one that’s sold a lot of copies and had three Bookbubs. But in the little workhorse title that just chugs along day after day racking up sales rain or shine.

So if you want to do this full-time. If what matters to you is being able to work for yourself and from home, don’t focus on how many copies you’ve sold. Focus on profitability. Focus on making more in sales than you spend to get those sales. And on leveraging every sale the best way you can. (By writing in series, for example.)

Dying is a Tricky Business

Twenty-three years ago today my father passed away. In one respect, there was nothing surprising about it. He’d dialyzed for over twenty years and been hospitalized in each of the two years before that with heart issues. Not to mention the twenty-plus surgeries, the two failed transplants, the quarter of a lung he lost, the two spinal fusions, etc.

But when the time actually came, it was a complete surprise. I’d just seen him a week before during my spring break. And I’d flown back to Houston fully expecting to see him again at the end of the school year.

Looking back now, I can see how ill he was. But he was always ill. For eighteen years of my life he was dying. For eighteen years every hospitalization, every illness, had the potential to be the one that ended things.

And yet he carried on. And he didn’t just carry on, he thrived. He was President of Kiwanis, the team little league coach, competed in chili cookoffs and chess tournaments, attended pretty much every one of my volleyball and basketball games and every one of my brother’s baseball games, went back for his college degree, ran a successful if not thriving business.

He was a good father. And a good man.

But he was always dying. There was never a question about him making it to old age. It was just a question of whether he’d be thirty or forty or fifty when the end finally came.

And now I have a dear friend in a similar situation. Metastatic melanoma. Tumors in his brain, on his lung, on a kidney. The first line treatment failed. They took out two tumors, treated him, and found three more. They’ve run scans, removed the offenders, but are making no efforts right now to stop more tumors from growing.

He is very likely going to die from this. And like my father, he continues to live his life the best he can knowing that dreams of what he’ll do twenty years from now aren’t realistic. That he has to stay close to his doctors and his home. No worldwide trips, no wild adventures.

Like my father, illness has taken from this once vigorous man part of who he was. It’s damaged his body. He can’t do now what he once could.

But it hasn’t stolen his mind. He’s still passionate, still driven. Still has the same wants and needs he did before illness struck.

He’s dying.

But when? Who knows. Could be years still. Years of slow decline, fighting a battle he knows he’ll lose.

I want to say that space between diagnosis and death is like freefall, like you’re untethered and falling towards that inevitable end. But that’s not right at all.

I’ve been in freefall. And that space of time between knowing it’s going to happen and having it happen is nothing like freefall.

It’s more like that moment in a car accident between when it becomes inevitable and when you register the impact. That frozen point in time where everything seems to stop but you know it’s moving violently forward. Or maybe the moment right after impact when you’re in motion and things are breaking and shattering around you but the pain hasn’t yet registered.

That moment between can last months. Even years. A whole lifetime can be lived in that space between diagnosis and death.

Or it can be over in a moment.

You never know.

Because dying is a tricky business.

 

Purging FB Friends

That sounds more extreme than it is. But I occasionally will go through my FB friends list and unfriend people.

I’m sure that seems harsh to those who notice it, but I’m also pretty sure that the people I’ve unfriended on there aren’t going to notice. And that’s because there’s a certain type of person who uses Facebook not as a place to form genuine connection with others but more like a social rolodex.

Now, maybe it’s my age. I grew up pre-Facebook. Hell, I didn’t have email access until college. And even then it was within your school unless you found the IP address and looked through the student directory of your friends’ schools.

But I digress.

So this weekend I was at a writing conference. I’d been there the year before. And as part of being there the year before I’d added some new Facebook friends. I’m always happy to do that for someone I’ve had a nice conversation with. Because I figure that’s a way to keep in touch with them and maybe take a good initial connection and broaden it into a friendship.

And throughout the last year I’d seen the posts these folks made. I knew about their ski trips and their new pets and their story publications. I had learned a little more about them.  I’d liked a post here or replied to a post there.

But I realized this weekend that that wasn’t a two-way street. That for the folks I just unfriended I was just part of their audience, not someone they were trying to form a genuine connection with. While I knew more about them, they barely remembered we’d met before.

Partially that’s Facebook’s fault. If you have 600 “friends” you’re not going to see all their posts. Facebook curates what it shows.

But it’s also on those people for forming one-way connections. You want to have 600 FB friends? Fine. But if you want those 600 people to genuinely feel like friends and not just voyeurs of your life, then make a point to visit the personal page of everyone in your friends list on a regular basis. Once a month see what they’ve posted and add a like or make a comment. Do something that shows it’s not all about you.

Now, I know that some are reading this and thinking, huh? Do people really care about these things? And I will admit that many don’t. That’s why when blogs were big you could have hundreds or thousands of blog followers and only ten people who actually read your posts. Because people followed your blog just so you’d follow theirs.

But for the type of person I am (Relator being one of my top five strengths on the Strengthsfinder test), this sort of thing actually matters. And I will shut down a one-way “friendship”. Because it’s not a friendship. It’s not a genuine connection. And those are what actually matter to me.

So, anyway. Just throwing it out there.

A Realization

I’ve been trying to figure out what hit me so hard about Courtney Milan’s post about her sexual harassment experience when she was a clerk. (http://www.courtneymilan.com/metoo/kozinski.html)

It wasn’t that the judge called her honey. Or that he showed her pornographic photos. I think any woman over the age of thirty who has ever worked outside the home isn’t surprised to learn that men at all levels have acted in ways that were inappropriate and uncomfortable. Maybe the names of some of the men have been surprising, but not the actions.

When #metoo was doing the rounds on Facebook I posted about it. If the criteria for saying #metoo was sexual harassment, then there’s no doubt that I qualified. By the time I was twenty I’d lost count of the number of inappropriate sexual comments men I didn’t even know had said to me. At work, on the street. Basically, anytime I was going to be out in public it was a possibility that some man would say something sexually suggestive.

And like most women I learned for my own sanity’s sake to draw distinctions between the awkwardly inappropriate and the truly creepy ones. It’s like the definition of pornography that came out of that Supreme Court case.  I can’t write you a precise definition (sorry guys that feel a need for one), but I can certainly tell you when that line has been crossed.

But I’ve been fortunate in my professional career to not be in a position like Courtney was. I once had a man I worked with who tried giving me unwanted shoulder massages. (I told him if he f’in touched me again, I’d take his hands off. He stopped. Until I was remotely nice to him a couple months later and he tried it again and I had to repeat my threat.)

And I did have a job where I reached the point of feeling physically ill every time I had to go into work because of one of my co-workers who I felt was stalking me. (I told my boss. She asked if it rose to the level of sexual harassment. I said probably not but please don’t schedule me with him anymore. She continued to do so. He was her brother, after all. A few weeks later I got into a screaming argument with her over wearing shorts to work and was fired…)

So reading that post didn’t bring up any of those kind of memories for me. Maybe a little of the “oh yeah, I know how that feels to be almost ill at the thought of interacting with someone and having to anyway…”

No. I realized today that what hit me so hard about her post was something that’s not even part of this #metoo movement.

It’s this idea of loyalty. This notion that if someone gives you a tremendous opportunity that you owe them your loyalty. That you will work as many hours as they need you to work without complaint and with a positive attitude. That you never go around them. That you never publicly disagree with them. (And for some, that you never disagree with them at all. Ever.) That you don’t try to move ahead of them. That you are below them and always will be, but that if you play it right you’ll be given lots of money and the opportunity to move up in their wake.

Forget that you worked your ass off to be there. Forget that you bring skills and intelligence to the table that they need in order to succeed. Forget that there are a very limited number of people who can do what you do. None of that counts.

And to be fair here, I realized when I was thinking this through that my first job out of college was a situation where I gave everything I had but my mentor and my boss and my boss’s boss all acknowledged and rewarded that, and supported me enough to even suggest that it was time to move on to bigger challenges after I grew bored about two years in. That’s how it should be.

But so many of the bosses I worked for after that didn’t see it that way. They weren’t monsters. At the time I liked most of them. But looking back on it now I can see all those moments, all those ways in which they took and took and took and never gave back. The better ones gave raises and promotions, but the minute my path diverged from theirs they either actively sabotaged my taking that path or were so non-supportive that they may as well have sabotaged me.

And it’s so hard to try to explain to others. To try to explain why you’re not happy with an opportunity that others would kill for. Because you know even as you’re desperately unhappy that there are so many who’d say “Oh my God, do you know what I’d give to be earning that?” or “Do you know how many people wish they were you? How many people wanted this opportunity that you’ve been given?”

I think the isolation caused by that “you’re lucky to even be there” comments is what makes it so much harder for those who find themselves in a situation like that.

For me, Courtney’s story wasn’t just of a man who was sexually inappropriate. It was a story of getting an opportunity that thousands wish they could have, but only being able to have that opportunity by working for a man who called his clerks “slaves”. A man who expected them to be at his beck and call. A man who went so far as to tell his subordinates what they were allowed to read.

(I’ll tell you, reading fantasy novels is probably the only reason I lasted as long as I did in my corporate career. And I can think of at least one person I worked for who would’ve probably done the same thing the judge did if they’d ever noticed. There are reasons I use pen names for my writing and one of them is that kind of bullshit attitude that you can’t be a serious professional and enjoy something like fantasy or romance novels. Fuck that.)

That was what hit home for me in her story. I’m not downplaying the sexual aspects of it. Not in the slightest.

But the fact that she felt compelled to consult attorneys in order to share her personal experience? Or that she felt bound by an expectation of loyalty from her abuser (I would argue what she experienced was emotional abuse) and only broke her silence when he broke the loyalty code first? That what made it so hard for her to walk away was the prestige of that opportunity?

That’s what shook me. The realization that I, even though my bosses were never sexually inappropriate, had been there, too. Letting someone else control my life, letting them take whatever they needed without complaint.  And all the while with them expecting me to be grateful that they’d bothered to give me a chance…

Dead Squirrels and Empty Vodka Bottles

No, that’s not some snazzy metaphor for 2017. Or a summation of what my house looks like these days. (Although close on both counts. Haha. Just kidding. Sort of.)

The last six months or so I’ve been walking the pup around my neighborhood instead of taking her to the local sixty-acre dog park, because one day she just decided she didn’t like getting in the car anymore and would rather stay on leash and walk around here instead. (I think this has something to do with the number of rabbits that invaded our neighborhood this year. As you can imagine, there aren’t a ton of rabbits at a dog park. Although the day she found a recently killed one is one of my most vivid dog park memories…)

Anyway. Sometimes we go to the right, sometimes we go to the left. And I’ve started thinking of the right-hand walk as the dead squirrel and empty vodka bottle route. There’s a squirrel on the sidewalk about two blocks from here that’s been on the sidewalk for at least the last few weeks. Before that it was on the grass next to the sidewalk for weeks. I don’t know how it died. It must not have been run over, because at this point the skin on its chest is gone and you can see each and every rib on one side of its body and they’re all perfectly intact.

(Why I haven’t taken a picture, I don’t know. Probably for the same reason I didn’t take a picture of the tiny little snake eating a frog ten times its size when I was in Guatemala. It’s a cool thing to see and remember, but not so cool I want to ever look at it again.)

And then there are the vodka bottles we see on our walk. Those little baby ones that it would be easy for someone to swipe when no one’s looking as well as some larger ones that would fit well in someone’s hand. Fortunately, whoever the resident alcoholic is, they haven’t reached the liter-sized bottle stage yet. But whichever direction we go, the little vodka bottles litter every remotely wild space. Empty lot=vodka bottles. Dirt road=vodka bottles. Cluster of trees next to a stream=vodka bottles.

Some days I think I should pick it all up. Bring a bag and one of those little tools the convicts use to grab trash off the ground and erase all signs of the resident alcoholic (or experimental kids or both) and give the dead squirrel a final end.

But I don’t.

I could actually make some profound point right now out of all of this, but I’m not going to. I just thought I’d share. And, really, who doesn’t want to write a post with a title like that?