Last night, my sixteen year old son said he wanted to show me something.
“Okay,” I said – hoping that it wasn’t a gruesome scene from The Walking Dead. More dystopia I do not need.
He held his cell phone in front of me, with the picture reversed so that I was on the screen. I was surprised to see I didn’t look bad. “Is this what you wanted to show me? How to take a selfie?”
“No. Open your mouth. Wide.”
Stranger and stranger. But I did it. Mothers humor their children.
He must’ve triggered some app, because the next thing I knew, a rainbow was gushing from my mouth. It was silly, and kind of gross. “Done?” I asked.
He said, “Mom, this what you have to do if you want to sell books.”
“Yeah. You have to be funny on Twitter.”
“I’m funny on Twitter.”
“Not your kind of funny. Our kind of funny. You have to tweet stuff like this, and do it on YouTube, too.”
“I’ve done many things for marketing,” I told him. “But I draw the line at puking rainbows.”
I don’t like this turn in society: where writers are pushed into ridiculous banalities to draw attention to our work.
I’m entertaining because I’m passionate about my subject, and I also happened to be authentically personable. Authenticity is the key. I’ve done many free high school visits in at-risk schools, where the students were quite skeptical of me. But by the time I finished, they all applauded, and wanted to read my books. Some of them were inspired to write their own. I remember one young lady in particular, who approached me after a presentation. She said, “I like you. You not fake.”
No, I’m not.
One of my lowest moments was at a PTA showcase on Long Island, where performers had tables, and each of us was given about twenty minutes to present. I guess I should’ve questioned the word “performer,” but I naively believed that everyone would be “performing” something educational. Two of my books feature true stories about Long Island during the Revolutionary War. Pretty exciting stuff – especially for kids on Long Island. But could history compete with the snake handlers, jugglers, magicians and clowns who surrounded me? It seemed not, for most parents were passing me by on their bee-line to the boa constrictor guy, and the man dressed as Merlin.
What was happening here?
I couldn’t quite grasp the reasoning for booking an “entertainer” at a school. Why couldn’t parents just take their kids to see the Ringling Brothers? Or hire a magician for a party? Wasn’t school a place for enrichment and learning?
It got worse.
My twenty minutes were scheduled after some dog and pony show. Literally. The parents loved that performance. They gave it a standing ovation. I wondered what was going in America. I thought of moving to Europe.
It was my turn. I spoke, but no one listened. When they saw than I was sans animals or party tricks, many stood up in the bleachers and made their way out. The ones that stayed were in loud conversations. I was literally speaking to myself, yet unable to hear myself due to the din.
My friend and mentor, author Josephine Nobisso happened to walk in. When she saw what was happening, she started to yell. “Excuse me! Do you know how rude you’re being? This woman is an award-winning author, who has an amazing program your children will actually learn something from!”
Sweet, but now I had hostile eyes on me. I did the rest of my time, knowing that these people were listening only because they were chided, and they would be booking the dog and pony guy. Or the snake guy. Or the clowns. But not me, the author.
I never went to another showcase.
It’s hard not to resent the entire world, between requisite social media stunts and circus showcases.
Two things save me:
1. My writing.
2. Kids’ reactions to my writing.
These are the authentic things. These are the things that matter.
(I could bring my cats to visits, but they wouldn’t like it. I could put them in little revolutionary hats – but they really wouldn’t like that.)
Instead of resorting to feline slave-labor, I go my own way. Confidently – as Thoreau advised. I’m guided to the people and places who want and appreciate what I have to offer. Or many they’re guided to me. It could be that yin meets yang thing. (If I brought my cats it would be a skin meets fang thing.)
I find my audiences. For my books, and for my visits. There are wonderful parents who seek out quality presentations (they too must steer clear of showcases.) There are also amazing school principals, librarians and of course: teachers. (Who should totally wear capes because they are superheroes!)
Once I did a visit, and afterwards we had an author night at the school. Kids dragged their parents to my table, and demanded my books. One student declared from across the room, pointing at me: “There she is! The great lady!”
I’ll take that.
Here’s to great kids, who don’t need dogs and ponies to be entertained. They just need an enthusiastic, genuine presenter. Not a performer. Not a clown.
I do have clown insurance – but that’s another (ridiculous) story.
And though I engage in my share of marketing, I don’t see rainbow-vomiting in my future.
Bye for now.