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.