Friday, September 2, 2011

I Yam What I Yam

by Susan McBride

A few months ago, I read an essay by Marilyn Brant that resonated with me.  She delighted in a talk Jennifer Crusie gave at this year’s RWA conference about being yourself when you write.  The point she made was that, while there are only so many stories to be told (and endless variations thereof), only you can tell a story in your own voice, in your own style, with your own points of reference and experience.

I love that message.

Not staying true to yourself in your work would be like writing a book in a genre you don’t read.  The fact that you’re not feeling it or understanding it is going to shine through like a lighthouse beacon.  I’m not saying “only write what you know,” because I believe that telling stories allows us to explore people and worlds we don’t know, first-hand anyway.  It affords us a chance to get in other folks’ skins and learn what it means to be them.  But we need to feel inside that sense of “ah, yes, this is right.”  Because when it’s wrong, it’s impossible to fake well or for long anyway.

It took me a while to learn this.  The first manuscripts I wrote were traditional romances. I had read a few, admired them, but it wasn’t my thing.  I had to try my hand at other genres that more deeply engaged me, like mainstream fiction, family sagas, and mysteries before I really got that “ah-ha” feeling.  Once I was finally published, I realized getting my foot in the door was only the beginning. 

When you’re thrust into the big, bad world of promotion and put yourself out there—whether it’s doing social media or standing in front of people in small groups or large, sometimes speaking on panels and sometimes all alone on a stage for an hour or more—it’s important to be yourself.  Whatever that is!  For me, at first, it was all unpolished awkwardness.   

At 34 when my first novel debuted, I still looked like a college girl with headbands in my hair and flats on my feet. I had zero experience in public speaking.  I typed up word-for-word speeches until I realized that wasn’t comfortable for me or anyone listening. I bumbled around on panels, hoping to be funny but coming off as sarcastic instead (well, I am pretty sarcastic so that wasn’t hard to do!). I wanted to be Mary Higgins Clark, glamorous in her Chanel suits, pearls, and pumps.  She looked so poised and spoke so eloquently. 

It took me a few years to finally realize the cold, hard truth:  I will never be glamorous or elegant any more than I will ever be MHC.  I yam who I yam, to quote Popeye.  And sometimes it ain’t pretty.

That sunk in deeply when I went through Crappy Health Crisis, which began at the end of 2006.  When you hear a frightening diagnosis and wonder if you’ll ever get your life back, you suddenly strip away all the pretenses. You say bye-bye to the meaningless. You shed responsibilities that aren’t important.  You even shed people who seem to tug at your emotions in all the wrong ways.  You realize it’s vital to say “I love you” and “thank you” and “you’re the best” to people who lift you up because you never know what’s coming ‘round the bend.

My mom has often told me, “Only do things because you want to, not because you think you’ll get something out of it,” and that’s some of the best advice I ever got.  I decided that “only say things because you want to, not because you think you’ll get something out of it” applied, too. It’s refreshing to feel like you’re not out to impress anyone. You enjoy everything more if you stick to doing things you love and saying things you mean.  It makes you all the more grateful for people around you who do the same things.

I guess I’m thinking about all of this with Little Black Dress out last week and my publicist asking, “Do you want to do this?  Do you want to do that?”  These days when I do anything—whether it’s promotion or going out for dinner—it’s solely because I want to, not because I feel like I have to. Every day, I strive to be more positive in my life.  So when I put something out there, I want to know my heart is behind it, whether it's talking on the phone to a dear friend or writing a new novel.


  1. As the old lady in this group, I'd like to say you've discovered the secret, Susan. Do what you enjoy and surround yourself with people you love and who love you.


  2. Great post, Susan! I heard Dennis Lehane say "write the book you want to read." Just as I don't like to read heavy books--or see heavy movies even--I don't think I could write a heavy book, even though people do die in my books sometimes. (It's usually a bad guy, just so you know.) I don't know if it is the Crappy Health Crisis that made me shed a lot of negativity--and give me the courage to say "no"--but whatever it was, I'm glad it happened. Maggie

  3. Marilyn, it took me long enough to figure out the secret! You'd think it'd be easier to learn, but I guess everything in this life is trial and error. Now it's just a matter of reminding myself now and then what's important (and banishing the guilt when I don't do the things that others think I should be doing!).

    Maggie, write the book you want to read is great advice! I know you and I are on the same train re. the saying "no" and getting over not being able to be everything to everybody. But I think we're making really good progress! :-)

  4. Love, love, love this post Susan!! Well said.

  5. I used to write down little sayings or quotes from people and post them on a bulletin board above my desk. Guideposts & inspiration for writing as it were. When I moved they got taken down except for two that managed to worm their way out of the box and onto the windowsill. One, from Louis L'Amour, says "Girls named Kitty don't stick around long enough to become grandmother's." And the other is from Snoop Dogg, who I generally loathe, but caught my ear one night as I was flipping channels. "I'm gonna be me at all times." Snoop Dogg and Popeye... they know the truth.

  6. Snoop Dogg and Popeye...who'd of thunk it? ;-) Thanks, Laura and Bethany, two fab peeps I've come to appreciate all the more for being who they are (I was going to say, "they yam what they yam," but it just sounded too weird). :-)

  7. First of all, you look pretty good to me. Secondly, I like your books, so you must be doing something right. Third, enjoy your life as much as possible-it's the one you know you have, and you know how vulnerable that can be. Love is what keeps us going sometimes...

  8. Lil, you're so right!!! (And thanks for the kind words!) :-)

  9. I totally agree with your blog. You have to be who you are and it comes with age. You finally stand up and tell people you get what you get. Life should be filled with laughter and sometimes you have to make the laugh.

  10. Susan, this is really well said. You are so right on the way you re-evalutate after a diagnosis. I feel as if I did some serious closet cleaning after mine and I'm better off because of that.

    Thanks for this post. It was awesome!

  11. Oh, yeah, it's amazing how being scared to death can change the way you look at things--and the way you want to live your life. Thanks, Laura! :-)

  12. Okay - I really needed this reminder. Thanks. I do need to stay true to myself especially as the promotional merry-go-round begins to spin again. This post was fabulous. Thanks!