Today is my book’s first birthday, or perhaps the right term is first anniversary. STARTING WITH GOODBYE was published a year ago by University of Nevada Press. I’m so grateful to everyone who supported the book and me through a busy year.
Yesterday I had lunch with a lovely student-turned-client who is working hard to make her first book manuscript shine as brightly as possible. She asked the question I don't always know how to answer: So, what has it really been like?
I tried to explain. These past twelve months -- during which I spent a lot of time promoting, marketing, publicizing, interviewing, and making appearances on behalf of the book, the book, the book -- well, they weren't always what I thought they'd be. Sometimes events turned out so much better than I could have hoped; people and organizations surprised me with their welcoming warmth, tangible support, and wonderful moments. Other times, well, let's just say, things played out differently. (As they do in life, not just in publishing!)
What I wanted this other writer to know is that it was a year full of extremes: excitement, exhaustion, exhilaration, eye-openers, errors, and enriching experiences. Alternately fun and frustrating, busy and not, a year of learning what to focus on and what to let go.
I learned not to watch sales numbers (so much else is crazy-making about the book journey, why find another way to worry?), not to compare my book's trajectory with any other authors', and not to assume that everything promised will actually come to pass.
I've learned that the very best moments are not about crowds or high number of likes/shares/followers or what BookScan has to say. No, the best moments are when I am talking to a reader, one reader, who has something to tell me, some story that floats in the air between us, something that my book, my words, have invited her to share. I always want to listen.
As a nonfiction writer who mines my own life for story fodder, I can’t think of any better response to what I've written than someone who wants to tell me their story too. It's my belief, or at least my experience, that memoir authors write the things we do, about universal experiences we all have in common, because that is how we find it easiest to connect to other human beings.
When I think about how lucky it is that my book has created these connections, I'm still a little bit stunned. There were times when I asked myself (and frankly some people asked me directly!), how readers would react to a memoir like mine. STARTING WITH GOODBYE, after all, is about the unpredictability of grief as it snaked through my life in the three years following my father’s death.
There were times I worried that readers would not want to engage with this kind of tough stuff, with a book that might seem as if it's all about sadness. I had to trust that readers would give it a chance and along the way find that it’s not all sad, that even a story that pivots on grief can also be about funny, odd, and surprising events, about wacky relatives, about the weird things people say and do around grief that make us laugh when we shouldn’t but really need to (think Chuckles the Clown’s funeral episode on the old Mary Tyler Moore show).
Not only are readers embracing all those parts of the book, but I've had remarkable conversations about how those moments are part of grief too, lighter moments that get us through. I've been encouraged and enlightened by readers who get my larger message: that, as much as we might want to deny it, grief has visited (or will come) to us all at some time, and that if we are curious about grief, embrace it and see what we can discover from the experience, the less scary and more unifying it can be.
When I talk with readers, everything else seems to fall away -- the stress of scheduling book events, the struggle to keep the book in the public eye, the subtle background pressure to keep priming the publicity pump.
What remains is why we write in the first place, why I write. I write because I love to read and the page is the place where I find the stories that help me understand myself and others. Sometimes I read the stories others write, sometimes I write those stories myself.
I wasn't able to articulate all of this to my client at lunch, but perhaps I didn't have to. If she's lucky and continues to work hard and takes some risks, she will have her own manuscript-to-published-book path to follow one day. I hope it is for her just as exciting, exhausting, exhilarating, eye-opening, and enriching.