I wrote a guest post for the Criminal Element blog about where my fascination with obituaries comes from and I thought it would be fun to share it HERE.
They’re also doing a sweepstakes for a free copy of my book, THE GOOD BYLINE!
R.I.P. (Read in Peace)
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.
I’ve been working on a piece for the Arts issue of the magazine I write for, and it got me thinking about an issue that all artists- and parents – have to deal with at some point: rejection. As a writer, I am rejected on a daily basis. Please do not mistake that for hyperbole. I literally receive rejection letters almost every single day for work that I have spent hours and days and months creating. I’m not going to lie, it kind of sucks. But art is a subjective business, and if you’re going to work in a creative field you have to realize that rejection is just part of the gig.
I did not, however, anticipate how much rejection was going to be involved in the parenting gig. Maybe because when you have a baby, rejection seems impossible. After all, your helpless little creature couldn’t possibly reject you because, for starters they can’t even talk, but more importantly they need you for fundamental things like food and shelter. As newborns grow into babies and then into toddlers, need is still a prime component of your relationship. They need you to change their diapers. They need you to get them dressed. They need you to give them your iPad. They need need need to the point that a little rejection would be a welcome change.
And then somewhere toward the end of elementary school, subtle changes set in. “No, mommy, you don’t have to volunteer for my field trip.” “You don’t need to walk me into school.” “You don’t have to hug and kiss me goodbye when you drop me off at Timmy’s house.” Okay, you think, my child is becoming independent. That’s a good thing, right? And during this phase they still need you, of course, because they can’t reach the top shelf in the pantry and that’s where you keep all the candy.
But then somewhere during the middle school years, their needs change again and begin to center around two things: transportation and money. These are not their only needs, but they are certainly the only needs they want to talk to you about. So that means that the other things you offer your children—your values, hopes, dreams, wisdom— are often rejected. And let me tell you, rejection from an 11 to 14 year-old who has not yet perfected the art of constructive criticism can be… severe.
No joke, my daughter asked me last week why my face was “like that.” She literally rejected my face. I wasn’t sure how to respond to this, as this is the only face I have, so I just gave her my most sympathetic look and said in a loving tone, “I don’t know, honey. We’re just going to have to get through this together.”
And I think that is the key to rejection— treating it with one measure of acceptance and two or three measures of perseverance. Because rejections will happen in every aspect of our social and professional lives whether we choose to become artists, or parents, or lawyers, or athletes, or anything other than a giant pile of cold hard cash. It kind of sucks, but there it is.
So I try not to let my kids subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) rejection bother me too much. I don’t let it stop me from parenting. I don’t let it dictate how and why I make decisions about their well-being, nor do I take it too personally. I also use my own stories of rejection to help them become comfortable with the idea that they, too, will one day face rejection, despite what all their “participation” ribbons have taught them. I tell them about all my writing rejections. I tell them how sometimes it makes me feel bad. I make jokes about this or that editor’s lack of vision. And in the end, I show them how I go back to work and try to improve. Because to quote every successful artist—and parent— ever, “Rejection doesn’t equal failure. The only way you fail for sure is if you stop trying.”
One of the most useful things I learned in Journalism School, I learned in the first fifteen minutes of my first class on the first day. The two Deans of the University of Missouri J-School stood at the bottom of the large lecture hall and tag-teamed a speech about the art and science of Journalism; the rigors and importance of its study. I remember shockingly little of what they said. I remember that one of the Deans was a lady with short red hair who wore a pantsuit. I remember I didn’t see her again until graduation. And I remember that she began her portion of the lecture with the simple truism, “Good writing reflects clear thinking.”
Over the years, I have referred back to this sentence more than any other piece of writing advice I received since. It has become my writing mantra. These words focus and tighten my work. They eliminate pages of unnecessary qualifiers and distracting tangents. They crystallize tedious, rambling diversions into concise, readable information. Good writing reflects clear thinking. I hear the Dean’s voice in my head; picture her in her beige pants suit pacing back and forth like some kind of smartly dressed caged tiger – full of pent-up insight and knowledge.
But this advice applies to more than just Journalism. As I write my first novel, this dictum serves as my talisman – sitting on my shoulder, strong and true in its own little pantsuit; a beacon of efficiency. It reminds me that good writing is more than just stringing words together in a pleasing way. The words have to say something. They can’t simply be page-candy, there only to decorate and sound pretty. Even the most beautifully written prose must earn its keep by informing, enlightening, or advancing the story.
Here is how this all works in action: I write something. I read it over. If I decide it sucks (which I almost always do on the first pass), I repeat my mantra. Good writing reflects clear thinking. I re-read what I wrote. More often than not, the problem is not with the words themselves. The problem is I didn’t know what I wanted to say. It wasn’t clear to me –so how could it possibly be clear on the page? The words never stood a chance. I focus. I ask myself what I am trying to say in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter. And if I am lucky enough to come up with an answer, the words follow – lining up like obedient soldiers doing their duty to ink and paper. The writing becomes strong, if not good, and we move on to the next battle.
Good writing reflects clear thinking. My arrogant 18 year-old self heard this and thought something banal like, “No duh.” But fortunately my sub-conscious knew better. It stored this little nugget in the depths of my brain until I was ready to understand that no amount of clever word play will make up for a writer’s ambivalence of purpose.
I pass this on with the hope that it helps other writers as much as it has helped me.