What I’m Learning From My Book Events

My novel The Songs We Hide came out May 1, and since then I’ve done eleven book events. I’m using the term “events” loosely, because these gatherings have come in different sizes and taken different forms. I’ve presented at bookstores, with one gathering consisting of over 70 people and another consisting of four. I’ve spoken to a small writing group, a church women’s book club, and a whoever-wants-to-come group in a retirement facility. I’ve spoken in homes and in a business conference room. My largest number of sales was 44; my smallest, I think, was three.

Claire Gebben, a writer friend who’s been doing this longer than I have, wisely told me that book events usually aren’t money-makers, but they’re good opportunities to connect with people. That’s what I’m finding out. After these events, what I tend to remember is the dialog, the stories people tell me afterward, the questions they ask. I’ve talked with aspiring writers who feel confused and overwhelmed, and I’ve talked with Hungarians who still carry painful memories 60 years after leaving their homeland.

At times the conversation is more rushed and interrupted than I’d like: a few nights ago a man was trying to tell me about his Hungarian grandparents while someone else wanted me to sign the book she’d just bought. But I try to listen whenever I can. People need to know that their concerns matter to someone, and in situations like this, I am that someone.

Another thing Claire and other writers told me is, “People don’t just want to hear you read from your book. They want to hear your own story.” At first I didn’t know what to do with this. My story? What’s interesting about that? But I’m finding that the advice is true. People want to know what this process has been like. They want to know what has motivated and frustrated me. Recently one perceptive audience member asked how the writing process has changed me. What a question.

So I talked about learning to deal with criticism of my work. I spoke of putting myself into the mind and heart of my protagonists, which meant thinking like someone else, not just now and then but almost daily for a number of years. This has been a long season of setting myself aside–telling my ego to leave me alone so I can work, quieting my own self-talk so the voices of my characters could emerge.

This self-emptying was hard to put into words at the book event. But afterward a writer and an artist in the audience came up to me and told me they felt inspired. They wanted to go home and write or paint. My friend Claire was right: my inner story matters more than I know, not just to me, but to others as well.

Congratulations to some writer friends: Iris Graville, Janet Buttenwieser and Joe Ponepinto

My excellent MFA program, Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA), closed a year and a half ago, and it was a sad event for all of us who had loved the program. Nevertheless, this has been a fruitful year for NILA grads. Last September Iris Graville’s memoir was published; February saw the publication of Janet Buttenwieser’s memoir; on March 15 Joe Ponepinto’s novel will come out; and my own novel will go public in May. I know what hard work it is to write a book, revise it numerous times, find a publisher, make more revisions, and then offer the book to the world. With my novel, the process has taken years. In the case of Janet’s and Iris’s memoirs, I guess you’d say the process took decades, if you include the long time those women spent living their stories. To Now that we’re at this point with our work, there is an amazing sense of crossing a finish line. And if you’re guessing that this marathon has also produced exhaustion, well, I won’t disagree.

I’ll be buying Joe’s book, Mr. Neutron, this week, and I look forward to reading it. As for the two memoirs, I recently read both and loved them. Iris’s story, Hiking Naked, tells about the two years she and her family lived in a remote, tiny town in the North Cascades, seeking the perspective that comes with a simplified life. Janet’s book, Guts, is a story of her own battle with a debilitating intestinal illness, which she eventually overcame, and her best friend’s lost battle with cancer. Iris’s book is gentler and Janet’s more raw, but both memoirs are reflective and insightful, and the stories linger with the reader.

Congratulations to Iris, Janet and Joe, in these wonderful steps forward!

Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for BalanceMr. NeutronGUTS