I think it’s safe to say that most people who dream of writing a book at some point fantasize about making it really big–like getting the call from Oprah, or being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR. They see themselves casually sitting down with a cup of coffee one morning and opening up the New York Times to find themselves on the bestseller list. “Oh look, honey! I made it up to #1 this week. Isn’t that nice?” I’ve always imagined sitting next to someone on a plane who just happens to be reading my book, and saying very casually, to their shock and surprise, “Would you like me to sign it for you?” Or I’m sitting in a restaurant when someone comes up and says, “Hey! Aren’t you…?” People are always pairing the word “author” with “famous,” but mostly in a gently teasing, ironic sort of way. “So you’re going to be a famous author now?” they’ll say, as if it’s a friendly joke. Though almost always meant in support, of course, the remark highlights a central question for writers. Is making it big the only indicator of success? If not, then what does success look like? Does filling up auditoriums with people who’ve paid to be there and being a household name really mean your book is that much better than the others?
Needless to say, there’s a whole world of writers out there who occupy that middle space between publishing a book and having their own display in Barnes and Noble. Since I’m one of them, I’d like to offer a few observations about what it looks like from here.
–You absolutely ADORE each and every person that shows up to your book signing because it’s quite possible, in fact, that NO ONE will come, besides your friends and family, of course, and whoever walks through the door has saved you from this most humbling scenario. It’s good to have your heart filled with love.
–You have the unique opportunity for one -on- one bonding with your readers, as opposed to the more renowned writers who have to deal with hundreds of people. An event with a half dozen in attendance becomes an intimate gathering, with true confessions, sharing of life stories, exchanges of email addresses and promises to stay in touch. Priceless.
— At events such as Friends of Library Fundraising Dinners, you get to eat barbecue and banana pudding with the Volunteer of the Year and see her presented with a corsage and a plaque with her name on it that will be on display in the foyer of the library forever.
— In a high school classroom, you get to talk to the shy student who comes up to you afterwards and tells you she has a story she wants to write, and asks you how you did it, and she seems excited about life and it gives you hope for the world.
— At book club meetings, you get to sit in living rooms and drink wine and eat awesome food and talk to people who believe in your characters as much as you do. There’s absolutely nothing like it.
–At a retirement home, you get to sit in a small circle with people of another generation and hear them, one at a time, tell you how your work reminds them of something in their life, and you are amazed because you don’t know how this happened.
— At a small, informal event, you can see the expression on every single face as you read your work. You can see that they are listening, and they get it, and they are connecting with your story, and you know that whatever happens from here–this is enough.
So what is this really? What is success when there is such richness to be had in being…well, not-so-famous?