Every seven years I wish with all my heart I had become a large animal vet instead of a novelist. That’s because every seven years I publish a book, and the prospect of stepping out of my room, out from behind my keyboard and into some sort of harsh or sunny spotlight, is about as exciting to me as daylight to a mole.
But isn’t every writer’s dream to be published? Of course, but we’re writers not performers. These days your publisher’s questionnaire might include queries like: Are you willing to appear before a television audience? Are you willing to go on Oprah? Certainly, as long as I don’t have to stay up past nine o’clock or wear itchy new clothes.
I’m an introvert. Writers are. We choose to be alone much of the time. Writing, as it turns out, is not very interesting to watch. It’s not like tennis, or even bowling. My dog used to sit and gaze at me when I was at my desk (especially if I was eating something), but she was the only one. People who aren’t writers forget that when they see their writer friends out in public buying Wheaties at the store, we’re out of our element. Our element is our room where we write, and if we’re not there it’s probably because we have to eat something, or drink something, or stand in a classroom and make money. Or maybe we like teaching or going out in public because it gives us relief from our scrunched-up thoughts, but really our place is at our desk, the way a male penguin’s place is on the egg.
So every seven years, when it comes time to promote myself, I do one of two things: I hoist myself by my own petard or I pretend I’m Amelia Earhart. The former is a kind of self-sabotage that results in poor sales but allows me to get off the road and return to my desk to produce the next dread-inducing opus. The latter is a trick I’ve developed after five novels. It works like this: When I enter a public place, especially one where many eyes may come to rest on me, I simply remind myself I am who I am, Amelia Earhart. I’m sitting in my plane, full of excitement and happiness because I’m about to become the first woman to cross the Atlantic alone. I see myself in my leather helmet, goggles resting on my forehead, a smile of satisfaction on my face, a smile of confidence. I never think about the Pacific voyage. It only messes me up.
Sometimes after these visualizations people come up to me and ask if I’m related to Ms. Earhart. This amazed me at first until an acquaintance pointed out it may have something to do with the similarity of our names. Nonetheless, why not use the powerful personalities of others to get us through the drudgery of self-aggrandizement? It doesn’t seem right to toot my own horn. It even makes me nervous when someone else toots it for me. I’m superstitious about praise. Uncomfortable. It’s not that I don’t do things well—I do, and writing is one of them. It’s just that when someone wins, someone has to lose. In my family, losing became my preference.
Here’s why. When I was nine years old I was invited to a costume party. I decided to go as Pocahontas. My father thought all the girls would go as Pocahontas and he had a better idea. “You’ll be a winner,” he said. “And your mother won’t have to sew.”
That was the clincher, at least for my mother, and once he had her on his side they couldn’t be budged. They were the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. So it was settled. I would go to the costume party and I would stand out from the crowd, I would be remembered, because no one in the history of fourth-grade costume parties had ever donned a costume just to undon it, never dressed up just to undress. No one, as far as I knew, had ever let their parents convince them to glue a rhinestone in their bellybutton and wear a pair of black falsies under what appeared to be a simple-minded fairy costume (if fairies wore spike heels), to satisfy their father’s repressed creativity and their mother’s need not to sew. I went to the party as a lady I had never heard of, with a dubious profession, a hot ticket named Gypsy Rose Lee. When it came my turn to walk across the room in front of my all-girl classmates and introduce myself as Tinker Bell, and curtsy, and skip off into the shadows, well—I climbed up onto a table instead, and humming my own accompaniment, a vampish tune I’d practiced, I started turning in a circle and stripping off my clothes. Right down to the dyed black underpants and falsies I went, then I kicked off my heels and with a dramatic bump of my little hips I climbed down and went out into the crowd.
I did win first place as my father promised me I would, but later in the taxi going home, I knew Kublai Khan should have won. She had a better costume and all I’d done was take mine off. If that was winning, I didn’t think much of it. At least losing meant a quiet life. Of course all these years I’ve been writing, what I’ve really been doing is taking off my costume over and over again. Vulnerability, nakedness, is what’s required, not just to win, but to survive winning. Losing may give me the peace and quiet of a writing life, but that life’s worth less to me without some winning. So every seven years, if I have to dance on a table I’ll do it. With a rhinestone in my bellybutton? Why not?