I'm still a little shaky from my two-minute dance with destiny at this year's Jewish Book Network Meet the Author event. Described aptly as "somewhere between JDate and a camel auction" in Rachel Donadio's essay in this week's New York Times Book Review, the night was one more in a season's worth of simultaneously exciting and panic-inducing rites of passage that I've experienced as a first-time author on a publicity jamboree.
I'd spent the better part of the winter on The Road -- definitely more of Cormac McCarthy's than Jack Kerouac's -- traveling from town to town on tour for my first book, The Girl's Guide to Absolutely Everything. The tour took me to large cities and small, where I lost myself a little in the tide of local TV interviews and bookstore appearances where there could just as easily be one person in the audience as 100. I learned to talk about my 500-page book enthusiastically even when I was exhausted, nervous, or, as was usually the case, a reading by Jodi Picoult or Paula Deen was happening on the other side of town at the exact same moment.
Here's why first-time authors are, according to my unscientific study, prone to identity crises. You spend a lot of time writing the book -- in my case, about four years of researching, interviewing, writing, revising -- in necessary isolation. No matter how dark those years can be -- and trust me, my friend, you don't know lonely until you've stared down a filthy-keyed iBook in the hour before dawn on the day the first half your book is due -- you focus on the finish line. After all, this work is not for naught -- there's a baby coming! And it's yours! This is what every writer dreams of! How could it not be a best seller? How could life not be permanently great after you finish? It is entirely possible that there is not enough champagne in the world for all the celebrating that will occur on final delivery of this genius opus.
And it is pretty great. I wrote a book, a book I love, a book that young women write me letters about, saying it changed their lives. I'm an author, but I'm also a salesman. The printed word is an endangered species, and, with very few exceptions, any author who can't get up and tell you, irresistibly, in two minutes or less, why you should buy her book, is in trouble. And here's where the identity crisis comes in: I'm a writer, I toil in solitude. Then comes publication, and now I'm a Writer, I go on the radio, I go to book signings, book festivals, book clubs, and I'm irresistibly social! I'm hawking my wares to anyone who will listen! I'm All About the Book. My life is some bizarre blend of Barton Fink and Glengarry Glenn Ross and it's exciting but it's also totally terrifying.
When I stood up a month ago in front of the starmakers of the Jewish Book Network, I was more nervous than I'd expected. The weeks leading up to those two minutes in heaven had raised the stakes. When I asked a veteran author of the circuit why the Network was such a big deal, he said "I've got two words for you: Bee Season." The organizers of the event emailed weekly and offered phone consultations, coaching and tips for how to maximize your milliseconds, how to wow the audience in the time span of the average sneeze.
Since The Girl's Guide to Absolutely Everything isn't explicitly Jewish, I had decided to talk about the research I'd done on young women and spirituality, to talk about the issues of assimilation and intermarriage, which many American Jews fear are leading young people far from the faith, and how I've observed they're coming back to it, albeit on their own terms. My bottom line was "I'm young, I'm funny, I wrote this big important book for young women, and I also know a thing or two about the 'hipster Jewish movement,' invite me to your community and I'll be smart and wise and entertaining and uplifting and oh by the way please pick me, please pick me, pick me, please."
The weirdest thing about the night was that, by virtue of the event itself, we thirty or so writers were in competition with one another. This wasn't a congenial "I love your book, let's have dinner and talk about the craft" confab of authors like I was used to from grad school and book festivals. This was every Jew for himself. Our books were serious tomes on Israeli politics, light-hearted tomes of chick-lit, young adult manga fiction -- the only thing we had in common was that we were all Jewish and we all deeply wanted a ticket to the fair.
After about an hour of listening to the most articulate, engaging auctioneer-style pitches by my fellow authors, we got to the K's. I was so enjoying making notes of whose books I was going to read that I almost forgot to be scared. The girl who went before me was a stand-up comedian and had the audience rolling in the aisles with her one-liners. I furiously started scribbling "jokes" on my perfectly-timed, laser-printed speech -- "Oh no! They want to laugh! I'll make them laugh! I can do funny! No one outfunnies this funny girl!" Before I knew it, I was on deck.
I started out with some of the self-effacing wit I'd just perfected in the previous eight seconds. Silence. Uh-oh And I even held for the laugh, like a Borscht Belt novice. Okay, switch tacks, back to the script. Wait, the proctor's holding up the "ONE MINUTE" card. How can I have wasted one minute? Why did I try for funny? Just talk. Go. Talk fast. Remember, young Jews, assimilation, revisiting and revising Judaism, revolution, pick me, pick me, pick me.
It was over. It was okay. I mean, I think it was more than okay. I got my points across, I was articulate, I was genuine. And it was exhilarating. And terrifying. Like pretty much everything these days.
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