Around the Corner

I’m sitting in front of my glowing wood stove grateful for this gloomy, rainy day. Sunny would have been fine too but on days like this, I feel license to do inside things. If it were more beautiful outside I’d berate myself for not going for a walk or at least pretend to clean my messy garden. But there’s a chill and keeping an eye on the log situation becomes an important task. Not that it’s really very cold – but there’s my excuse for sitting here on a Saturday afternoon.

Ruminating is valuable and lately I feel pressed to do more of it and to pay closer attention to what’s going on both in and around me. Besides, tomorrow’s my birthday and certainly a significant reason for reflection, as if I need one. Mind you, I don’t bemoan any additional years on my downward, post-50 slope. As far as I know, it’s better than the alternative. I love life and am very curious about what the future might hold – even as I reflect on the past.

This year is full of personal landmarks. Twenty years in the same job, twenty years since I bought my house, and twenty years since my mother died (when she was only 6 years older than I am now). And this May, Molly graduates from college. All of this feels momentous, rich and significant. For these twenty years I’ve maintained this sometimes challenging balancing act of stability through some significant insanity. And here we are, pretty rock-steady, my kiddo and me, both wondering about what the future holds.

As I listen to Molly ponder her next steps, I wonder the same. Sometimes I’ve felt paralyzed by the challenge but lately, I’m inspired and feel almost giddy with a sense of possibility. All I need to do is just carry on to the next corner to see what’s there, right?

And plan the party.

The Challenges and Pleasures of Paying Attention

10:00 AM Thawing! Yes, the end of winter is in sight. And sounds! Can you hear the birds’ new songs?

I have tried to avoid chiming in on winter complaints and not just because whining about the snow and cold has become such tedious conversation but because, I have been trying to embrace winter, to seize even the snowiest, most frigid day rather than hurry the passage of time. Is this a challenge for you? It is for me, no matter the season.

Today is Sunday and I already anticipate Monday with a falling heart. Back to work. Although I enjoy my job, I bemoan the end of time to myself – whole blissful days to make choices based more on desire than need, time to be at home. Similarly, by Wednesday, I think, “almost there – another weekend!” And thus goes the days, the weeks, the months… you get the idea.

This is not how I want my life to pass. I like my work, full of creativity, interactions with people who I feel kin spirit with, focusing mostly around books, books, books! Still, I can’t resist looking forward. I look forward to time to myself, I look forward to warm days, to spending time with those I love, to sitting on the porch, getting my hands dirty in the garden – yes, like all of us here in the Northeast: I look forward to Spring!

Yet I love to be really in the present, to live in the moment, relishing the time I have, keenly aware, we cannot know how much we get.

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I am looking out at the old Oak tree twisting, craggy branches almost touching the house. My window covered in clear plastic sheeting holds back the winds but allows the light to shimmer through onto the grey wall beside the writing desk I rescued from the street on a summer’s night many years ago.

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Sweet, isn’t it? Sometimes the radiator under the window bangs with the promise of a warmth that is never delivered. Luckily, this room is little more than a closet in size so I’m easily warmed by an electric heater and blankets around my shoulders and knees. Tetley sleeps on the futon folded beside me. Why would I hurry this moment?

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Hunger distracts me. I begin to think about eating, and that becomes what I might cook and that may lead to what I need to buy. And there I am, drawn away from the ‘now’ by my growling stomach.

2:00 PM I’m back to this spot again after doing laundry, drinking coffee and eating a clementine. Consciously, I focus on bringing myself back from distractions back to this NOW. The light’s changed a little since I left the room, clouds are greying the day. It’s warm  today – almost 40 – a veritable heat wave! My friend and I have plans to walk. A demand I admit feels mostly tedious to me: exercise! I wonder what time we will do this or even if we really will push ourselves to leave our cozy homes to tromp besides the melting snow banks lining the streets, blocking the sidewalks. See? Again, I am away from ‘now’ wondering about the future.

Why is being present so difficult? As long as I’m not in the dentist chair or enduring some other misery, it feels good. It gives me joy to pay attention to the moment’s light, sound, taste, breath. Breathing is the anchor in meditation – to focus, pay attention to each breath – I try to remember this throughout my day.

Attention. “Pay attention” teachers tell their students. As if that is easy for any of us. And yet, for me it’s one of the most beautiful things to observe in others. To watch someone really, really, paying attention gives me an almost peculiar pleasure. I first realized this at my desk in Second Grade when one of my classmates stood on a chair next to the gigantic windows of Saint Gabriel’s Elementary school, watering the plants lined up along the sill. I can’t remember who, whether a boy or a girl, only the palpable, dreamy pleasure I felt as I watched them do this task with care and concentration. I remember shivers starting from the back of my head and spreading over my shoulders to my spine.

Apparently, this is a thing  called Autonomous Sensory Meridian response. There are even YouTube videos created to trigger these tingles, mostly of whispering women with Eastern European accents touching their hair. They don’t work for me. The whispering thing is weird. Now if you wanted to come sweep my floor or dust my house, I’d probably get tingly watching you. (and boy does my house need cleaning) Sounds kinky, doesn’t it? It’s really pretty benign almost primitive, the pleasure compared in the Wikipedia description to being like that of primates grooming each other. ASMR effect is “…related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention.” I didn’t realize until describing this to some friends, that not everyone experiences this. Do you or do you think it’s weird?

Woefully, I can’t remember the last time I felt these tingles because I rarely observe anyone paying complete, devoted “altruistic” attention to anything. We have become such chronic multi-taskers. Even driving doesn’t get our full attention. If we’re not talking on a telephone, or worse – texting, chances are we’re listening to music or the news. I’ve become acutely aware of how distracting the radio is and must turn it off when the weather makes driving dicey or maneuvering through a crowded parking lot.

4:00 PM  The earlier grey has lifted and the sky is blue. I did the laundry and walked around the neighborhood with my dear friend. We talked and walked and turned our faces to the much-missed sun and now I’m back in my spot by the window, trying to look neither back nor forward. But I think about dinner and the evening. I’ll likely end up in my usual spot at the end of the couch with a book. My phone will be beside me in case my daughter calls or texts me. Now that Downton Abby is over, I may not bother to turn the television on. Good. More time to make my way through the tower of books waiting to be read. I’ll do that until my eyelids droop impossibly.

Tomorrow morning will come and this day, (a good one) will be in the past. But now, now the sun is on the other side of the house from my East facing window. Instead of dancing light, there are encroaching shadows on the gray walls. Sunday afternoon is becoming evening and despite all my efforts, I think about Monday and what needs to be done at work.

But stop!  I again reel my monkey-mind in by paying attention to the shifting light of this late winter day, the squirrel scampering through the branches now gently swaying with a warmer wind than we’re used to. Doing this, paying attention to the light, my breath, even to my back – achey from sitting in this damn chair too long today – all feels good. And now, that is enough.

Where’d My Mojo Go?

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Where’s it gone? Where’s my fire? Waiting around for a lightning bolt of inspiration is not the answer, so this morning I sit rubbing my mental sticks together hoping for at least a spark, maybe enough to ignite a long-burning flame. I know what it takes – I’ve done it. For years I had disciplined practices for yoga, for writing, meditation. Had. I have no idea what happened. It’s been awhile and have no excuses, no good reason.

I churned out a complete manuscript while Molly was still living at home. I made her breakfast, her lunch and took her to school each morning just after 7. I did all this and still managed to write – as if in a trance, for an hour. I did that. I marvel now. Now, I go to work at 8 – giving me almost another hour and my daughter’s away at college so time is all mine. Plus, I have my own little room to write in. There’s no reason I couldn’t get in a few yoga stretches and a page or two.

Instead, I sleep a little later and when I do get up, I dawdle away my precious daybreak reading other people’s blogs or worse, scrolling through Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Really. I admit this shamefully. Instead of doing what I know makes me feel centered and purposeful and healthy – writing, yoga, meditating – I aimlessly fritter away my time with mental junk food.

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Why is it so hard for me to get back into that magic zone? I know I’ll be happier, so why don’t I just do it? I have piles of books to inspire and guide me. In the dark moments before falling asleep at night and rising in the morning, I sometimes mentally write a post, start an essay, another book – and poof! – by the time I get back here to this chair, it’s gone. I know the trick about scribbling notes. Trust me, I have plenty of scribbles. But I’ve still got to put my ass in the seat and lay down the words, take my spot on the mat and stretch out my achy hips. And I’ll feel better.

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It takes regularly sitting, breathing, focus, writing, breathing. Writing becomes like a meditation only my fingers move. And don’t, don’t move away from this screen, this lovely clear, empty, distraction free space. No emails, no news – that’s the end. That’s what sucks away the morning, leaving me no richer, providing no sustenance.

It’s discipline – practice. Life feels much better when I have a practice in place. I carry the focus, the story, the posture with me throughout the day — a rich, quiet center that feels like the true me. I move through the day carrying whatever story I’m telling, with a sense of my body moving, standing tall, stretching, breathing, being in the world — not just within the parameters of my working hours, ringing sales at the cash register or staring at computer screens to answer emails — but a rich interior life I get to carry with me. The life that doesn’t pay my mortgage but sustains me just as much.

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That’s what I want back – that sense of who I really am in the world. That’s why I write, stretch, sit, breathe – a way of being that gives me joy. It has to do with seeing more than what is apparent – that which is only visible if you pay attention both inwardly and out. When I have a practice in place, I feel an incredible awareness of time and space with every breath. How delicious breathing becomes!

I know this — so why have I slipped? Why is it so hard for me to get back in the groove? Now it’s colder and darker in the mornings – even more of a challenge to crawl out from between the sheets. But that’s just another excuse. I have no good answer for losing myself like this.

I feel like I’ve come clean here, confessing to you – and it feels good. Having spent many years reaping the benefits of the AlAnon rooms, I know the power of ‘admitting’ and I suspect, I’m not alone. Any one else with ‘mojo’ problems out there?

Vertigo: Slow Down You Move Too Fast

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My default speed out in the world is FAST. Customers marvel at how quickly I answer their emails and process quotes and orders. Out on the book floor, I’m zippy at the cash register and wrap gifts in a flash. If I perceive a customer is not inclined or able to trot after me, I offer to retrieve what they need while they wait. I walk at a clipped pace through the store and sometimes lose customers who have tried to follow me. I’ll apologize saying I’m a New Yorker and still walk like one.

When things get busy, I may get annoyed by colleagues who don’t seem to know how to move more quickly and cut their conversations short. As if they are tourists from Boise and lumbering down 42nd Street, I want them to step up the pace. But the fact is, some of them are our best salespeople, engaging customers, taking their time as if that person is the only one. They do not rush through their transactions, they make contact.

When I get home after work, I try to slow down. I attempt to recover myself. Not my high functioning, efficient employee, A-type personality, self — rather, the self I aspire to become all the time. I get better practice on the weekends – taking my time, doing my best to pay attention to each moment, to the world around and within me.

Last week, a bout of vertigo required I shift gears. In the wee hours of the morning I turned in bed and felt something in my head become unhinged, a weird little shifting in my ears. The world began to spin from my pillow. By morning this sensation had passed enough so I was able to get up and go to work but I’ve yet to completely shake a slight vertigo. I have had to slow down. Rather than barreling on at my usual breakneck speed, I’ve been moving more consciously, carefully stepping through the day, lest I start the spinning again. I feel as if I’m carefully balancing something inside of me.

And I am: life. I am balancing my life. And what’s the rush? Where do I hope to get to? I am here now and if you are here with me too, for whatever our transaction or pleasure, I will try and be completely present. I have to because otherwise I may spiral off. Don’t worry, I will still answer my emails efficiently, I’ll just walk a little slower through the book stacks. Along the way, I may recommend my favorite reads and learn what yours are. I will remember, as I keep my head steady and avoid jerky movements, that our time together, like the end of the day, will come fast enough without me rushing towards it.

The Waves and Just Being

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I’ve spent my 2 recent vacations this summer, in a torpor. Nary a dust bunny disappeared, weeds continued unhindered around the garden and I barely wrote a word here or anywhere. I simply read and watched the birds. Of course all the while beating myself up for being unproductive since there is so much that needs doing and I rarely have enough time in my usual day-to-day to do it all.

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R rescued me from this cloud of guilt by sweeping me off to the beach for a few days. What’s there to do but watch and sometimes venture into waves? We spent hours with our toes in the sand, barely speaking a word, only smiling at each other between reading, dozing, people watching and dreaming. Bliss.

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Although I brought my computer with a vague notion I might wake early and write, I did not. I barely checked my time-sucking phone for tweets and updates I really didn’t need or want. Staring at the sea and the parade of tattoo covered skin (is there anyone left on the planet who doesn’t have ink?) for hours on end was a bit like getting my mental hard-drive cleaned, the constant roar of waves washing away everything. I read and read and read, bathing in the breezes, the waves, the sun. I did something I haven’t done for years: I had a short and very sweet actual vacation.

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I recently heard a radio interview on On Being with Social Psychologist Ellen Langer about mindfulness. When you have time, listen for some refreshing insight and inspiration. Langer speaks, in this great NY (I think) accent, about cultivating mindfulness in daily life through the simple act of just noticing things. This clicked with me since I seem to have a hard time maintaining a meditation routine for very long. Crazy these requirements I set up for myself of what I think I should be doing to get from A to B in my life. Do you do this? Are we crazy?

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As I ready to return to work tomorrow, the sound of the waves still echo and that is enough.

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Summer Bliss as a Day Unfolds

I could spend all day watching the bird feeder, clapping greedy squirrels away as needed. The feeder hangs less than a foot from the window where I write. A flurry of Sparrows and Finches catch my eye and I notice the squirrels hanging just beyond the woodpile, waiting for me to back off. Red Wing Blackbirds, Blue Jays, large and small Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves Nuthatches and Chickadees have all flocked for their share of sunflower seeds. None of these birds are particularly extraordinary but I am mesmerized by the constant cheeping drama.

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Earlier I made my rounds of this quarter-of-an-acre, picking a handful of blueberries to toss over my granola with yogurt, collecting stalks of Lupine flower seeds ready to burst their pods. A sea of blue Lupines once graced the slope beside the drive but between drifting snows and torrential rains, they’ve gotten sparse and migrated downhill, threatening to disappear into the city drain at next rain. I’ll plant these harvested seeds in the autumn up at the top to start again.

A walk around the back of the house reminds me that there’s lots of weeding to do — and I’m talking weedwacking-weeding. Pokeberry and bittersweet have already claimed my abandoned vegetable garden. The bastard groundhog has trampled, (spitefully it seems) the leeks he has no interest in eating. Nor does he like asparagus so the far corner is now an explosion of lacy green foliage from the spears I left behind. Also within the useless fence is my horseradish, mint and rocquette Arugula growing like mad. I came up with what feels like a brilliant idea of clearing this beautifully sunny stretch of earth and planting a mini orchard come fall. We’ll plant a few cherry and apple trees and hope for the best. Can groundhogs climb trees?

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Besides, the bounty from our CSA already fills my fridge each week — I’m leaving the varmint battles to the pros and content myself with a tinier patch of garden — three tomato plants, some lettuce, arugula and some herbs. Zinnia and sunflowers are also fenced in away from bastard and seem to be fairing well – no beheadings yet.

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I’m always thrilled when my Gardenia blooms – twice this year — a delight in the winter and now again. If I could only breathe the perfume of this blossom all day, I’d be high. Really. These beauties are intoxicating and evoke the potent, magical summer I spent in Italy with my new baby Molly.

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I am back to work tomorrow, after a week off. I will miss this sweet unfolding of a day. Watching the birds, fussing in my garden, reading and dozing in the shade. Blissfully being outside where I can pay attention to nature and savor every minute of glorious summer days.

 

A Pain in the Neck, Creativity and No Plans

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I am at the edge of an ocean of time: a week off from work with no plans! Yet, since joyfully levitating out of the store, I’ve already kayaked every day  (R was my Prince waiting with water-borne chariot on Friday) done Yoga on the beach, washed fresh oysters down with good beer while listening to live Jazz in the breezes off Norwalk Harbor. I’ve baked an apricot tart, concocted a potato salad with olives and shallots, and a lentil salad with red peppers, mango and the tiniest bits of kale so maybe Molly won’t notice. Plus R and I finally moved the messy piles of branches punctuating our lawn since the tree came down over a month ago. Fun, delicious and productive and my week has only just begun!

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I love not having to go to work. Of course these days to myself are precious because I work full time but a few friends have recently retired and are coping just fine with their new time-wealth. I would too, but retirement thoughts are with my lottery winning fantasies: firing up every time I buy a ticket while keenly aware of the lousy odds.

Even with a dream job like mine, pausing to restore some life balance is crucial. A stiff neck has plagued me for weeks. No amount of rubbing or heat or yoga has eased it. I began researching acupuncturists and massage therapists but on Saturday, floating on the glasslike Long Island Sound, paddling to nowhere, I felt my shoulder and neck begin to unlock. Ah!

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While gazing at the islands, I remembered a time when my neck was so bad, I could not even turn my head: Bosnia. For months I’d put in 10 hours, 7 days a week. Work was simultaneously compelling, frustrating and sad. I was part of a peacekeeping operation with no effective mandate; essentially we were sticking our skinny fingers in a big dike. As happens ‘on mission’ or ‘in the field’ in the lingo of that business, work was my life and down-time meant drinking too much with the same people I’d just spent all day with. I never unwound – thus my neck muscles became so tight, aptly, I could not look around.

I’m no longer in a war zone so why is this happening to me again? I’m surrounded by books, regularly meeting people with common interests and I’m not usually stuck behind a desk. Most days fly by. Still, as is true for everyone I speak with these days, there is a lot to do and less time to do it in.  Friends employed in education, medicine, business and of course, self-employed authors and artists, are all working harder than ever for results rarely what they once were and certainly not as easily achieved. And thus we are stressed. Aren’t you?

I know there’s a problem brewing when I wake up on a Sunday morning worrying about something that is job related: what school order is due? will I have enough books for an author event? I’m afraid I’m a “good girl” making me a great employee and it’s challenging to have ME be the most important boss, to be the ‘customer’ that matters most. It doesn’t matter how great or exciting the job is (I have had both) my subconscious is best fueled by creative, not task-driven juices. To get there, I need a daily routine, a time set aside to pay attention. Only when I do this can I sustain a rich interior self throughout the day, no matter what I do.

I want my first thought on waking to be about whatever I’m writing, not job issues.  In the past, I obsessed over my painting or sculpture but the form of art is irrelevant.  My stiff neck has alerted me to the importance of nurturing, sourcing and keeping alive and well, the sorcery of where art comes from. I need to look and really see the world around me while also digging down deep inside. There in that gazing within/without, lays the magic and the bliss. That’s what I’m after this week – to get back to that daily practice of being.

Yesterday, I was gabbing with my beloved and brilliant sister and she reminded me of Walter Mosley’s slim little book, This is the Year You Write Your Novel. He recounted how he always got up early to write before going to his bill-paying computer programming job, thus ensuring he gave his best to himself. The old, pay-yourself-first wisdom taken to another level. I credit Mosley’s book for inspiring me to diligently do the same, and I did, getting up every morning to write my memoir – yes, in a year.

I have no plans this week but hope to wake to no one’s story but my own.  I may also get a massage.

The BEA, and the Crapshoot of Event Audiences

Last week’s Book Expo America at the Javits Center in NYC was like a gathering of a huge clan.  I felt almost a familial recognition as I moved with the mobs traipsing through the convention center. These were my people – book people. For four days, publishers, distributors, and authors welcomed passionate booksellers, librarians and on Saturday, the public, to peruse new and upcoming books, schmooze, meet their favorite authors and score signed books and Advanced Reader Copies.

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It was my first time at #BEA and I went alone. Unsure what my stamina or crowd-tolerance might be, I wanted to be free to linger or leave. In fact, I wandered the exhibits for hours chatting with publishers, reveling in the pleasure of being a ‘customer’, diving into book displays, taking only what I absolutely couldn’t resist since my shelves are already sagging. I did not bring any bags with me (never mind a shopping cart like some) but when I spotted this tote slung over a few shoulders, I just had to have one.

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The long lines to meet authors did not tempt me. Having hosted author events for so many years, any thrill in a signature I ever might have had is gone. What I could not do is pass by an author alone behind their stack of books, or ignore someone’s call to me, ‘would you like an autographed book?’ — what could I say? No? Of course not. I chatted and gratefully accepted signed copies, increasing my weight-bearing workout as the day progressed. Somehow, I can’t help feeling responsible for the struggling author.

I did consider waiting for David Mitchell who was signing at 2:00 PM but instead happened by the delightful and entertaining “Women of Contemporary Fiction” panel featuring bestselling novelists Liane Moriarty, Amy Bloom, Randy Susan Meyers, Susan Jane Gilman, moderated by Elin Hilderbrand. Elin asked the hysterically funny, self-deprecating and whip-smart authors on the panel to share their career low-point. Amy Bloom began and the others followed with tales of poorly attended book signings — audiences composed only of the local homeless guy and their parents.

It struck me that these established authors value their events to the extent that a bad one might qualify as a career low-point. Conversely, huge crowds were not anyone’s measure of a high-point. Instead, their highs were more intimate like Susan Jane Gilman calling her inspiring high school English teacher (who happened to be Frank McCourt!) to tell him she was on the NYT’s Bestseller list. I suspect half the audience was in tears with Susan, still mourning this beloved man and writer. I was.

Of course a writer emerges from solitude with high hopes, excited to present their art to the world – so a poor showing can feel like a gut punch. Every author accumulates these ‘war stories’ like a rite of passage, but hearing them makes me squirm. As an event coordinator, empty chairs are at least partly my fault and I berate myself that I should have done a better job of beating-the-bushes, distributing more flyers, etc. Although there have been times, even recently, that I screamed an event from the rooftops and still only 3 people showed up. What to do?

Disappointments are rarer now that I am straight with authors in telling them friends and family are their best support so they better ask them to come. The public won’t just show up because you finished your book — unless you’re a ‘name’. Even then, celebrities, movie moguls and famous musicians live in the town where I work and rarely get a second glance, so even if you’re famous, don’t expect the line to be out the door. Everything is relative, of course. If your beloved Aunt lives in town and promised to bring all her friends, 15 filled chairs are just dandy. If you have your own radio show, or are a 1960’s folk icon and there are 20 people there, it feels like a dud.  Chances are you’ll be disappointed, maybe miffed, or like the 60’s icon, surly and irritated because his adoring crowd was only about that many. (Well sorrr-ry no one remembers or cares. Can you tell that he pissed me off?)

Us event-folks know what a crapshoot these things can be. We struggle with how many books to order because no one likes returns. While it’s tempting to ask a bookseller to take their name tag off and pretend to be a devoted fan, I’ve never done it. (they have work to do!) It’s the suburbs so we can’t drag people in off the street like in a city where you could cajole with some coffee. We feel badly when things go badly. But there are definitely things that can be done by both of us – and don’t underestimate the power of your dear Aunt Edith or better yet, your mother!

The key is team-work. Here’s the team: you and if you have one, certainly your publicist, the store’s event coordinator, your friends and family, your writers’ group, your neighbors… you get the idea. In the old days it helped to get a feature article in one of the local newspapers and it still doesn’t hurt so you might try and connect with a local book reviewer. You should do this. I can try but I’m also very busy trying to score thousands of dollars worth of corporate and school sales and besides, if I ask journalists to write up every author that came through, well, it’s like the story of the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ and they’re not going to listen to me. Better if you knock on that door.

Kid’s author events are even tougher than adult ones – at least in this community where many schools pay for very big name authors to come to them. After school, they are scheduled to the hilt so competition for these budding over-achievers is tough — no matter how adorable your book is. See if you can set up school visits before the evening store event with pre-sales. Do your best to mesmerize the kids and create a spectacular buzz inspiring kids to come see you at the store later. That’s what New York Times Bestselling Children’s author Sarah Mylinowski recently did when she spent a marathon day with me, cheerfully trooping around to elementary schools, charming everyone she met. And at 7:00 PM at the store, her event was standing room only.

Here’s what your event will look like when the day comes. I will set you up in a visible spot far enough away from the grinding espresso machine and whirring blender. You’ll have a mic and a healthy stack of books and a few backlist titles if available. I’ll have Sharpies and a ballpoint in case you prefer that. Want a coffee or water? I’ll do a short and sweet introduction for you based on any information you sent me weaving in some great review soundbites. You’ll have your talk ready having thought about it carefully. (here’s what I suggest.) The team will have done the work so the chairs will be full. At least 15 of them.

Of course there are benefits to an in-store event beyond the event itself. Free publicity and in-store real estate for a week or more. Bookstores may Tweet and/or share it on their Facebook page. You should do the same. Did you write a book on gardening? Contact all the local gardening groups and ask them to join you at the store — what a great opportunity for them to also network with other gardeners not in their group. You get the idea. Tap into existing groups and present your an event as an opportunity for them to spread the word about what you all care about. This is still not any guarantee of a crowd though so try not to get delusional. Think of every event like your party — because it is! Invite your friends and let’s sell some books.

 

Book-love: A Chronic Condition

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It’s getting worse. Piles everywhere.  I may gaze with lust at pictures of gorgeous and clever bookshelves but in my house, books live in chaos. Paperbacks, hardcovers are not organized by subject, nor author, nor color (egads) or most recently acquired.  Advanced Readers Copies are piled in with purchased titles. Anywhere I sit in the house there is a book within grabbing distance. Teetering on the table beside my corner of the couch (next to the reading light, of course) is a stack of mostly memoirs. Sometimes I’ll pull a title off a shelf because I forgot I owned it and have yet to read it.  For that same reason, I also have multiples of the same title like Truth and Beauty that I own both in paperback and hardcover. (how have I not read this yet?) Thus grows another pile – as if by cluttering up a table with them increases the odds I’ll read them sooner.

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And when I’ve finished a book I’ve loved I still need to keep it around me at least a little longer, my new friend. I can’t simply shelve it – how inhospitable that would feel! Coincidentally, one recent ‘friend’ hanging around is by a friend: Nina Sankovitch‘s new memoir Signed, Sealed, Delivered was inspired by letters she found years ago in a rotting trunk in her backyard in NYC. Nina’s engaging voice and smart storytelling is a delight even if she’s not your buddy and of course after you’ve read it she will be your bud because – that’s what happens. And like her last book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, you’ll finish with an appetite to read the same books and letters she writes of so compellingly.  Another recent favorite is The Steady Running, Justin Go‘s beautifully wrought novel of love, adventure, obsession, told through time and across the globe. (I do want to discuss the ending with someone else who read it – let me know when you have.)

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Bed-side, of course I have more books. These are what I am reading now and what I intend to read next before sleeping. My stack includes collected essays providing me with inspiration as I find my own writerly way. Currently in that camp are Ann Patchett‘s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage and Dani Shapiro‘s Still Writing – both warm and encouraging writers who reach out across the pages to say it is possible, be brave.

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Not even my kitchen is a book-free zone. Of course, I love cookbooks. While the lesser-used ones have been relegated to a cupboard with some pots and pans, the shelf holding the tomes with my go-to recipes threatens to collapse. My favorite continues to be Super Natural Everyday by Heidi Swanson whose food blog, 101 Cookbooks I suggest you subscribe to.

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Even at work, where reading consists of stolen minutes while eating lunch, I keep a pile of appealing ARCs I’ve snagged under my desk. Peter Heller‘s The Painter is what’s on the menu these days, pages getting dappled with salad dressing daily.

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Last week’s great treat was attending a presentation of new books by Independent Publishers organized by B&N and the Association of American Publishers. It was intoxicating to listen to these publishers and bask in their obvious passion and love for the new titles they described so eloquently. How can I not love my job, this crazy business of books? As I harbor publishing hopes of my own, what an inspiring peek into the kitchen where the cooking gets done. These professionals with their smarts, passion are one of the major of a myriad of reasons I will not self-publish. I want some of that love! So yes, there were freebies. Yet, when it was time for a break and 100 plus of my fellow booksellers lined up to grab them, I went for a cup of tea. I hate lines and didn’t fancy shlepping books through the streets of Manhattan back to Connecticut. And as you can see from these photos, I have enough to read. I was very proud of my self-control.

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But then the last publisher took the mic.

Publisher Judith Gurewich, introduced 2 new titles her press, Other Press will be releasing: I’ll Be Right There by Kyung Sook Shin who also wrote Please Look after Mom and The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec. Her description of both of these books was so enthralling and passionate, I beat 100 booksellers out of the room and cornered Judith to tell her so. She insisted on giving me her last ARCs. I’ll be reading them.

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My book lust feels almost greedy, my cravings never sated. Am I being a hoarder, nervously anticipating that day when I can no longer main-line books before they’ve even hit the shelves? My question to myself and anyone else who’d care to answer, am I becoming a bit of a crazy person? Do I have a problem?

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The book I’m reading before I fall asleep each night is An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Even more book-mad than me, Nina Sankovitch knew I’d love this book and of course, she is right. A brilliant, aging woman in Beirut lives contentedly, alone with her books. Her apartment is crammed with them. Reading this beautiful portrait of this literature lover makes me feel a little less wacko. Or at least that I’m in good company.

P.S. I also own a NOOK. It’s somewhere… probably under a pile of books.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Have you noticed how much harder we work these days? Whether you’re grinding away at a company, school system, government, non-profit, retail, construction, I bet you’re working harder than ever. Regardless of reports from the financial experts about the economy being in recovery, we are all working our asses off.  The accepted mantra is still: “I’m lucky to have a job” code for: “shut-up, don’t complain”.

Authors are not immune. I know very few who can live solely off book sales. Even when the economy was booming, making a life in any of the arts was challenging whether an artist, musician, actor or writer. But publishing has been particularly crazy these last years. With self-publishing, e-books, and the internet – the playing field for writers has been completely transformed. (Journalist? What’s that?)

Mid-list authors (in other words, most authors) have always complained that publishers were not doing enough to promote their book – even when  times were flush and publishers were helping- at least more than now. In the late 90s, I hosted a few local author mingling events and they all bitched about a perceived lack of support from their publishers. But times have changed. These days most authors are footing the bill themselves when it comes to hawking their books and not blaming their publishers as much. They’ve witnessed the bloodletting, the shrinking and disappearances of publishing houses – it’s understood that the industry is tough, that the book world has turned into the wild-west so they better just saddle up and get on with it.

From my front row seat, I’ve vicariously experienced the journeys of many author friends as they’ve launched their books. From the thrilling first days when the book hits the shelves, watching sales (hopefully) skyrocket, holding events, getting reviewed. (who knew how hard that is!) For perhaps a year or so, (if you’re lucky) the excitement continues. Okay, I’m exaggerating – maybe not a year. Sadly, their baby may well be stacked in the remainders section by then.  The harsh news is that rarely does life change much when your book is published. Not from what I’ve seen. Think – buying a lottery ticket.

I’ve internalized all of this over the years, yet still plug away at my own book simply because I can’t help it. Of course I will work my ass off to make my book successful but I also know the odds. My expectations are tempered by years on the other side of the desk/counter. I won’t expect to buy a bigger house, or even to pay off my (used) car. I expect I’ll still be getting up at 5:30 in the morning to write before going off to my job.

Many years ago, author Robert Stone came to the store to promote Damascus Gate (great book) and a young man asked for some words of wisdom because he wanted to be a writer. “Don’t quit your day job!” Stone answered. I never forgot that. And I won’t. At least not until the movie rights sell. Or I win the lottery.

What about you? How’s work?