By the end of my book tour I will have visited Colby College and The Dalton School, where I attended college and high school, respectively. I will have spoken to students far younger than mysekf -- so young, in fact, that many weren't yet ambulatory when I left academia. And I will have shared my one piece of advice to writers:
Don't write about being a writer.
I don't mean non-fiction. What's this, after all? I mean novels or stories in which the main character is a writer. That's not my only advice. I've heard others say, and will now faithfully parrot, that one should write every day; read a lot; learn when you write and abide by that; learn what you write and abide by that; write for yourself, rather than an imagined audience; solicit criticism; find a community; find a mentor; and always show-don't-tell. But this nugget is unique to me:
Don't write about writers. It's boring.
Not to me! you may protest. I think writing is fascinating! Well, yes, so do I -- that's why the protagonists of my first six (unpublished) novels were writers. Unfortunately, even a casual reader can make a distinction that most writers refuse to entertain:
Stories are captivating. The mechanics of storytelling are not.
Writing fiction is challenging, but it lacks narrative tension. What does a writer (as a fictional character) want? To express her inner-most self? Well, what prevents her from doing so? Words? Time? Patience? The conflict is internalized and thus difficult to render on the page -- versus an adolescent boy, clutching a ticket stub in his hot, little hand, who's denied entry to an R-rated movie by a prurient usher. Here the conflict is externalized, and therein lies the difference between an interesting story and a boring story.
If you can't conceive of a character who isn't a writer -- who's an accountant, or a cab driver, or a mongoose -- then your professional experience may be lacking; however, I find this hard to believe. Weren't you, at one time or another, a camp counselor? Or a waitress? Or a scallop-shucker? What's so wrong about telling that story? And if you're too young to have held many jobs, weren't you recently a camper? Or a diner? Or a boy clutching a ticket stub?
The great thing about free advice is you can ignore it. I would applaud these Colby/Dalton students for thinking, Who the hell are you, Mr. Fancypants? With your v-neck shirt and your New Balance shoes? I'd love that. I hope they stomp home and ignore everything they've heard me say. Only, please (PLEASE! as one who has written self-referential drivel and taxed the patience of others!), put your words in the mouth of a labradoodle and not another writer.
I expect to be surprised at my readings by unexpected guests -- which is to say, I expect to encounter old friends, enemies, and lovers. Which is further to say, I vaguely assume I know what to expect, which is contrary to being surprised. You can't really expect the unexpected.
Yesterday, at a reading at George Mason University, an older man joined the audience late. He was so late, in fact, that I assumed he was early for the next speaker. He was of indeterminate age -- somewhere in his late 50s or early 60s -- black, and wearing the kind of baseball cap I associate with Navy veterans. As soon as I finished my Q&A he came up to introduce himself.
"I worked with your dad," he said. "I was sorry to learn of his passing."
It's worth mentioning that my father, Edward Yourdon, died in January of this year. Though he was in his early 70s at the time, it caught everyone by surprise. From my perspective, absolutely everything changed with this event -- my life has been turned upside-down. And now this man whom I'd never met before, with his firm handshake and unwavering gaze, was offering me his condolences.
"I was an instructor at Yourdon, Inc.," he continued. "In the 80s. I was walking by and recognized your name."
This is a blog post. Elsewhere, I could write at great length about publishing my first novel after my father's death, all the things he did or couldn't have anticipated for me; or about being a public speaker, the myriad ways in which he and I are similar, as a result of genetics and disposition; or I could describe 2016, a year in which everything horrible and momentous seems to have occurred, save for turning forty (a treat reserved for 2017). I could try to make sense of the unexpected. I could provide context.
But this is a blog post, so I'll leave you with the gut-punch. A man, a strange man, to whom I'd only speak for 90 seconds, walked into a room and invoked my dead dad. Then he left me alone. And there I was -- in Virginia, of all places. In 2016, this seemingly interminable year.
On the first stop of my book tour, in Great Falls, Virginia, I told my audience it was a momentous occasion: that morning I'd tucked in my shirt. This comment got a laugh, so I said it again: I'd tucked in my shirt and I'd tied my shoes, a momentous occasion, indeed.
These days I conduct freelance work from home, but for the two years I spent writing Froelich's Ladder (and the two years prior to that), I was the office manager at a CPA firm in Northwest Portland. I wrote fiction while filing people's tax returns and, you know, "working." My boss could tell I was up to no good. Or, if he wasn't absolutely certain, he was suspicious. I figured, the man was leasing my brain for nine hours at a time; if there was only enough work to occupy three hours, well, I'd spend the difference as I saw fit.
Tax season lasts from early February though early April. No one gets their act together in January and CPAs burn out by 4/1, muttering, "File an extension." Sure, there's a burst of activity in September when those extensions come due, but most of the calendar year is spent twiddling one's thumbs. Me, I made coffee. I ordered sporks. I tucked in my shirt and tried not to spill on myself, lest I be forced to pay for dry-clean. I wasn't opposed to earning a living -- if anything, I work longer and harder now than I did then. I was, however, opposed to faking it, which is what I was doing.
I'd like to say I got a book deal and quit in heroic fashion, but that just wasn't the case. I tucked in my shirt until the very last day, when I quietly announced my intention never to return. Since then, with the exception of a few weddings, my attire has remained casual -- until now. For you, Virignia, it's worth tucking in my shirt. Same for you, New Jersey, New York, and Maine. There's nothing fake about it.