Legacy, Identity, and Validation
Writing and storytelling is a meaningful venture, but without an audience, it can feel quite empty.
An interesting column in The New Yorker caught my attention last week. It was written by a guy named Adam Dalva who told a personal story of a unique relationship he formed with former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
When Bush was running for president in 2015, and had brought his struggling campaign to New Hampshire, he apparently invited the state’s voters to email him their problems — ones that they felt the politician could perhaps help with. It was easy to assume the offer had come from a position of political desperation, but Dalva — an aspiring novelist whose first completed manuscript, written over four years, had been rejected by publisher after publisher — took Bush up on his offer.
Dalva wrote to him:
I thought I might ask you for some advice on a difficult, private subject. After four years of work . . . it’s looking like my first novel won’t be published. I’ve come as close as is possible to success without succeeding . . . how does one keep his head up in such a jarring failure? I have nightmares about the first book. It stalks my new novel like a ghost.
Thank you for your time,
Unsurprisingly, Dalva never received a reply to his email, but the sheer act of sending an intimate, brutally honest letter to a complete stranger oddly appealed to the writer. It felt like a therapy session — a tool for releasing his stress, anxiety, and the taunting pain of failure… at least for a while. The act was satisfying enough that, with mounting family struggles adding to his professional woes, Dalva found himself sending Bush another email a few weeks later:
Dear Mr. Bush,
. . . How, in the past, have you overcome career setbacks? I’m at a bit of a crossroads right now. I spent three years working on a project that ended up not going as I hoped. Though I think the experience has left me more skilled than ever, the idea of starting over seems daunting. I know that chipping away at something every day is no Sisyphean task, but I feel so stagnant. How does one sustain morale and effort in such a situation?
Again, he received no reply, but the therapeutic benefits of the process compelled Dalva to continue sending emails to the address… for years. He came to think of them as entries in an “intimate journal,” a repository of his dreams, sorrows, “deepest shames”, and life’s questions.
In early 2018, Dalva finally sold a book. It wasn’t a novel, but rather an illustrated one. When it was time to solicit others for blurbs, he again turned to the email address for counsel:
Dear Jeb, happy 2018! I was hoping for some advice . . . am a bit nervous to reach out to my connections and mentors for blurbs. . . . I’ve always felt so guilty to be baldfaced, to simply ask for help, especially time-intensive help. What do you do when you need a favor from someone? How do you approach it?
This time, to his utter astonishment, he received a reply:
You need to simply ask for help and give people an out.
A flood of thoughts swept through Dalva’s mind. “Had Jeb read my other e-mails?” he writes in the piece. “The romantic confessions? Had I sent him a description of that weird Technicolor sex dream I’d had?” It also struck him that the advice Bush had just sent him was actually quite good.
Dalva had many questions, and was so enamored by the response he’d received that he requested an interview with Bush, who — to his surprise — accommodated him. The rest of the piece gets into the discussion the two had, which explored some deep topics including the parallels between a failed novel and a failed presidential run.
Like I said, it’s an interesting read. And as a novelist, I could certainly relate to some of Dalva’s experiences, including the personal investment and sense of identity associated with that first novel. Mine took me more than four years to write, though it fortunately (and surprisingly) found a publisher pretty quickly. But the timing of the Dalva’s essay also held some particular meaning for me, because I’ve been thinking lately about the element of self-worth when it comes to writing a book.
A couple weeks ago, I was representing my publisher at an annual booksellers’ convention down in Denver. It was my third time doing it, and the point of my publisher’s participation was to draw more attention to our book titles — specifically among independent bookstore owners — for consideration in putting those titles on their shelves. Lots of other publishers were there for the same reason.
Every year, along with booksellers, publishers, and other book-related businesses, are authors who sit at tables and sign free copies of their books for interested attendees. Again, the purpose is exposure.
These authors (I was one of them last year) range from bright-eyed youngsters hoping their flashy new novel will become their first of several bestsellers, to seniors proudly but humbly presenting their life story through a self-published memoir. I feel a certain kinship with all fellow authors (because I intimately understand the work and commitment it takes to write a book), but it might surprise some of you that I have a particular affection for the memoir-toting seniors. I think the reason is that they, in most cases, have no preconception of book-writing becoming their profession. Nearly all are retired, and wrote their book purely out of a sense of legacy and wanting to share their life experiences (and perhaps some wisdom) with others.
Sure, they hope their book finds an audience, and that it enjoys a certain level of commercial success, but what they’ve written is primarily their way of saying, “Here I am. This was and is my life. I hope you take away something from it.”
To me, that’s no less honorable or meaningful than making it onto the New York Times Bestsellers’ list.
I met an author named Martin Frunkin at the convention. His memoir, Suspected Hippie in Transit, released just last month. I love the title, but must admit that I didn’t pick up on its acronym until just now.
The book tells of Martin’s backpacking adventures through Asia in the 1970s, and playing the role of Jeb Bush, I listened to what he had to say about it.
Martin, a very friendly fellow, spoke with unmistakable pride about his story, and he told me that just getting it to print after all these years was his own personal measure of success. It was a great attitude to have, and he’s absolutely right. It’s one heck of an achievement.
It’s important to understand just how much courage it takes to put something so personal out there for the public in the first place. That’s true of any book (as Dalva reminds us in his piece), but perhaps more so with autobiographical work, because you’re presenting a window into your very soul (to be, in a sense, judged by those looking through it).
What if a reader reads your a story and is thoroughly unimpressed by it? That could easily be interpreted as your life lacking significance. So yeah, it takes real guts to do what memoir-authors do.
And in my opinion, it’s a good thing for society — not just for creators but also consumers — when such courage and hard work is rewarded.
Many years ago, I remember some public figure (I forget who) offering the advice that if you want a happy, fulfilling life, one easy habit to help you reach it is to never pass by a child’s lemonade stand without stopping. Take a break from whatever you’re doing, and wherever you’re going, and buy a drink. You’ll make the child’s (or children’s) day, and the glowing sense of achievement it will bring them will, in turn, add some warmth to your heart.
I believe that’s true, and I think the same sentiment applies to memoir writers, especially the type I’ve described. If you go to a bookstore or festival, and spot an older individual sitting behind a small, lonely table with a short stack of books detailing their life, why not walk on over to them, ask them a little about themselves and their book, and consider — if you can — purchasing a copy… even if you’re not convinced you’ll ever get around to reading it?
And if you do purchase a copy, make sure to ask them to sign it. Authors take pride in that sort of thing. I guarantee it would mean the world to them, and I’m pretty sure you’d find the exchange pretty gratifying as well.
Martin offered me a copy of his book before he left that day (he had some left over after the bookseller traffic died down). I jumped at the opportunity, and smiled later that night, at home, when I cracked it open and read his inscription.
His story really does sound interesting, and I look forward to getting into it, but I already feel like I’ve been rewarded by our meeting, and I suspect he feels the same.
When you come upon someone who’s effectively saying, “Here I am. This was and is my life,” I’m not sure you can go wrong by taking some time to listen to them. You might even end up carrying a little of their life with you, and spreading it onto others.
I’ll be signing copies of all my Sean Coleman Thrillers this coming Saturday (10/15) at The Midnight Oil Bookstore in Downtown Greeley, Colorado. Click here for details.
Obligatory Dog Shot
When their brother comes home from college.
Obligatory Invisaligns Graduation Shot
Thanks Dr. Dana!
Have you picked up your copy of RESTITUTION?
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Back in the 90s, I took a liking to a number of Canadian rock bands that arrived on the scene around the tail end of the grunge era. Some would be considered only modest one-hit wonders, at least as far as U.S. charts go, but popularity has never really mattered to me. If I like a band’s music, I couldn’t care less who else does.
One of those bands was Moist (a word I’ve since discovered a lot of people viscerally hate). They were from Vancouver, British Columbia, and their song “Push” received some decent airplay on U.S. radio stations. They had a unique sound, and front-man David Usher had a unique voice. I also enjoyed a number of other songs on their debut album “Silver”, and remained a fan long after they stopped getting airplay in the states.
In fact, I had to special-order their later CDs (which were very good), since the band’s popularity was confined mostly to Canada after that… where their albums were still going platinum.
The band split up for a while in the 2000s, but reunited a few years ago and started recording music again. They just released this year’s “End of the Ocean” (their fifth studio album) on vinyl, which I pre-ordered off their website about six months ago. It arrived just last week (I think there were manufacturing problems, lol).
Anyway, Usher (David, not the R&B guy) sounds as strong and as sharp as ever, as does the rest of the band. A good purchase for sure.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!