An Obituary for My ModestyPosted: March 12, 2017
If we are friends in real life and/or on any social media, you probably know by now that I’ve written a novel. You know this because I’ve talked and/or posted about it a lot. (Sorry – contractual obligation of the job.)
What you may or may not know is that the main character in my book is obsessed with obituaries. She reads the obits from eight different newspapers every day, culling through each one looking for the illuminating details of a life well lived. For Riley, this is a way to live vicariously through other people because she isn’t exactly setting the world on fire herself. And for me, the writer, the obituary page is the perfect place to find potential victims— it is a murder mystery after all.
So I end up spending a lot of time thinking about obituaries. I read books about obituaries, I subscribe to obituary websites, I cruise obituary message boards (yes, they exist!), and of course, I read the obituaries from multiple sources. If it sounds morbid to you, you’re reading the wrong obits. A well-written obituary is about life in all its fullness. And perhaps most importantly, what can be learned from that life.
However, I have noticed an unusual side effect from all of this obituary-thought. When it comes time to say goodbye to something in my life – even if it’s just a thing or something conceptual – I start thinking in obit terms. For example, my favorite white Moto leggings that recently came out of the dryer covered in a mysterious blue ink – they are dead to me now. Do these once beloved pants not deserve a final farewell? Or what about the blue and green melamine plates that I’ve had since my children were little. I recently had to euthanize them (read: chuck them in the trash because I’m pretty sure they were giving off toxic fumes), but I mourned their passing because in their non-toxic heyday they were a part of the fabric of our lives.
Be honest with me: Have you ever taken a moment of reflection upon saying goodbye to something that isn’t, strictly speaking, alive? Of course you have! You’re not made of stone! A cherished stuffed polar bear that got lost in your last move? Your new Betsey Johnson heels that the puppy chewed up? Your favorite ratty old Tri Delta Triple Play T-shirt that your spouse cut up and now uses to clean the windows on his car? Or even something less tangible like your teenage metabolism. I don’t know a soul over the age of 35 who doesn’t mourn the passing of that.
I guess it sounds a little weird and maybe it’s just because I have obituaries on the brain, but as I prepare to say goodbye to a part of myself that I must let go, I’ve decided to give it a proper send off. I’m talking about my modesty. (And no, not that kind of modesty – that kind died during childbirth. I mean seriously, there were 14 people in the room.) I’m talking about my Midwestern, aw-shucks, bragging-is-verboten sensibility that one must stomp out in the month leading up to one’s debut book launch.
This may seem kind of specific, but my writer friends out there will understand. And so will my salespeople friends. And so will anyone who has ever had try to market anything. Self-promotion can feel super douchey, but it is a necessary evil. And to be fair, it really isn’t so much “evil” as it is “business,” which to an artist can seem like the same thing— but that’s a subject for another post.
Jill Orr’s sense of modesty, dead at 43.
Jill Orr’s sense of modesty grew organically out of her midwestern roots, fueled by her mother’s inability to accept praise and her father’s habit of taking at least partial credit for “all the good stuff.” Being a terribly average child, Jill’s sense of modesty was infrequently tested. One notable exception occurred when she won an elementary school contest to guess the weight of a giant pumpkin. The prize was the great pumpkin itself, and all modesty flew out the window as she proudly displayed the spoils of her superior guesswork on her front porch. The universe, in the form of teenage vandals who came by two nights later and smashed the pumpkin to smithereens, taught Jill’s modesty the importance of staying firmly in place.
In her teenage years, Jill’s modesty was influenced by the typical adolescent features of social anxiety, acne, and a habit of taking herself far too seriously. This toxic combination brought her modesty to the edge of self-doubt, but a wealth of good friends, some mild academic success, and good old fashioned aging, pulled it back where it belonged— that sweet spot between timidity and arrogance.
Eventually Jill settled in mid-Missouri where modesty is prized almost above all else, and it is here where she honed phrases like, “It’s not that big of a deal,” and started telling people the sales price of clothing they complimented her on, “It was only like $14.99 on sale!” There was one unfortunate moment in 1997, when while at a party Jill was talking about this particular sensibility and meant to say the word “self-deprecating” but what she actually said was “self-defecating.” It took her years to attempt the phrase in public again.
In the years that followed, Jill’s modesty found a perfect home alongside her husband Jimmy, who has never accepted a compliment without immediately discounting it. Some of his favorite refrains are, “If Jill ever sobers up, she’ll probably leave me!” – a two pronged denigration – and, when talking about his golf game, “I’d have to improve to get to terrible.”
Jill’s sense of modesty was alive and well until it encountered an opposing force that proved too much: promotion of her debut novel. It is incumbent upon all authors, particularly first time authors with no celebrity, to “get the word out” about their upcoming books. This can take the form of, among other things, too-frequent Facebook posts, notifying people of personal appearances, alerts that your novel is now available for pre-order, and asking for reviews on Goodreads. It also involves showcasing only the good, never the bad, which flies in the face of everything modesty stands for.
In the end, Jill’s sense of modesty succumbed to self-promotion one month before her novel’s release. It is survived by loquacity, excitability, neuroticism, and militant optimism –which incidentally, Jill’s author friends say, are exactly what it takes to survive your first book launch.