Shifting Gears

The New York Society Library, affectionately known as ‘the writers library’ because of its impressive roster of accomplished author/members, has a wonderfully supportive assistant head librarian in Carolyn Waters, who makes us all feel appreciated and cherished with her Writing Life series of lectures. Bending over backwards to supply us with the tools we need to learn the skills and apply them to the craft, Carolyn amassed a revelatory group of speakers this year, including the one I heard this week. As is often the case, I found a surprise hidden in the recesses of the presentation.

The speaker, Sarah Pinneo, has a new book out (her second) called Julia’s Child, and her blog Blurb is a Verb! is an enormous success. Her talk at the library was about publicity and how to run your own campaign, whether you have a traditional publisher or go the Epublishing route. Ordinarily I have to grit my teeth to get through a talk on the nuts and bolts of self-promotion in the digital age. I go just to expose myself as often as possible in hopes I’ll be less overwhelmed when the time comes to face the task; but that strategy is about as successful as young boys exposing themselves to the horrors of war in literature or film. Going into battle is no less appalling for the vicarious familiarity, and I know the full-time job of promoting my own books will produce the same effect on me.

I couldn’t help looking at the naturally pink cheeked young woman describing the necessity for blogging, tweeting, befriending and linking-in with a vengeance, and thinking there would have been a time…a time I’d have embraced the challenge of self-marketing and promoting my writing with delight. But this is no longer that time for me. All my energy goes into relearning and practicing a skill I’d only just begun in my youth, and as much as I love technology, I shrivel at the thought of putting aside my writing to live entirely in the promotional world for as long as it would be necessary. I know how quickly my enthusiasm will wane. But that said, I always come away with something unexpected when I attend these lectures. This time it was a reminder that within the paradoxes of life the true discoveries of actuality lie. It was Sarah Pinneo’s unknowing reference to the topic of my last blog post, ‘For Whom We Write’ that triggered this unforeseen spark for me; her discussion about her personal discomfort with self-promotion and the irony of finding oneself forced to describe a target audience in order to procure the interest of agents, publishers, booksellers and even readers themselves.

She acknowledged the incongruity between knowing that authors must avoid writing to an audience in order to avoid falling into the yawning abyss of hypocrisy, only to learn that upon completing their work they must articulate the specific reader targeted in order to sell the book. I thought immediately about the many conversations my last post sparked and what a seduction the fame and money can be if writing is one’s only means of support at the start of a career. Can we still be true to our core beliefs about the art form? That brought my mind to similar paradoxes and the people who’ve struggled with them.

One of those was my son just after his graduation from college; he was agonizing over satisfying his first boss in a bank in New York. He’d been strongly chastised for making a decision on his own when he was “not being paid to think”, as his superior so eloquently put it. My son saw the disparity immediately between training he’d had from his earliest days to learn to be responsible and “think for yourself” and his boss’ reprimand. What was the difference in the situations that brought on such a paradox?

I thought again about the ironies inherent in all work and also in retirement, to say nothing of marriage and almost everything in life. What changes the dynamic from “write for yourself” to “write for a target”, or “think for yourself” to “you’re not paid to think”? Circumstance is the difference. My novel Mistaken Identities opens with a woman alone in an empty real estate office at the end of a work day, dreading the challenge of shifting gears from her professional to her personal life. Why? What’s really so different about the two worlds? Goals. The objectives are different even if the subjects seem the same. So what advice can one give to a confused practitioner needing guidance through the paradoxical maze? Learn to shift gears smoothly enough to go from the flat to the hill without grinding. Keep focused on where you want to go. And when the change in route and vehicle calls for double clutching do it without swear words or avoidance techniques like the ones I employ when faced with querying for an agent.

Unless I assume that every reader in the whole world will be interested in my book, an assumption too outrageous even for me to imagine, I too should be able to target the ones who probably would be my audience with some specificity. Just for starters, I could believe those devotees of the blood-and-guts war fiction genre would find my novel less than compelling. Or then again, maybe I’m wrong. They might find shifting gears a welcome change!

By Sidney S. Stark



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