Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tales of a Third Grade Nothing

I was cool up until third grade. And not just cool meaning I didn’t usually spill milk in my lap at lunch. I was funny. Girls liked me. Boys feared me. I had a Speed Racer lunch box. I knew most of the Three Stooges routines by heart. I had a Stingray bike with an extra high sissy bar and baseball cards safety-pinned into the spokes. I had life right where I wanted it.

Then everything changed.

It started innocently enough. Our class was filed into the auditorium for eye tests. You remember those? “Look at the colored dots and tell me what number you see.” “Read line four with your left eye closed.” It was all fun and games. We joked around about which kids were actually blind, which is why they could never catch the kickball, and who would end up with a pirate patch. I had nothing to worry about. I mean, wouldn’t I know if I had eye problems? Neither of my parents needed glasses. None of my brothers or sisters did.

I was still laughing when they pulled me out of line for extra tests.

I didn’t stay laughing long. Turns out I had what the doctors technically referred to as a lazy left eye. (Okay, that’s probably not the technical term, but it’s the one I could remember.) The gist of it was that while my right eye was 20/20, my left eye was apparently fishing for marlins off the coast of Florida.

Now this is just me, but I would’ve been perfectly fine with looking at everything only through my right eye. But the doctors had other ideas. What their ideas amounted to was, number one, a pair of glasses with black plastic frames thick enough to support a three story building. I recently noticed that those thick plastic frames are now cool. People actually buy those when they are given a choice of dozens of frame types. I wasn’t given a choice and let me say right now that when I was in third grade, those glasses were NOT cool.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

If any of you have read Orson Scott Card’s SciFi novel, “Enders Game,” you’ll know that they took a young kid with a promising future and constantly stacked the deck against him. I’m not sure I had such a promising future ahead of me, but I can absolutely imagine this conversation taking place behind closed doors.

Doc 1: “Isn’t it bad enough the kid is soon going to discover he has next to no depth perception? Pretty much everything in a third grader’s life requires depth perception. He’ll miss easy pop flies in kickball. The tetherball will smack him in the face every time a kid smashes it back. He’ll run his bike into light poles. Let’s just leave him alone. He’s already going to be a loser.”

Doc 2: “I’m afraid that’s not enough.” Pulls out Groucho Marx glasses with lenses thick enough to guarantee any kid’s eyes will immediately look like gold fish eyes through them. “Adversity brings strength. And a pair of glasses like these just scream out, ‘Hit me.’ And with these humongous lenses he’ll never see the punches coming. Plus he’ll lose them or break them at least once a month, driving his mom crazy.”

Doc 1: “Fine. But you know you’re guaranteeing this kid will instantly be transformed into a total loser.” Takes the glasses and starts toward the door.

Doc 2: “Wait. There’s more.” Pulls a cardboard box out of his pocket.

Doc 1: Goes pale and steps away. “You can’t be thinking . . .”

Doc 2: “Yes.” Chuckles evilly. “He only has one good eye, which the glasses will screw up anyway. That will break him. But we can destroy him completely.” Opens the box and pulls out a flesh colored patch that looks like an eye-shaped adhesive bandage. “If we slap one of these over his right eye, he’ll be as good as blind. No depth perception. Only one eye—that can’t see well anyway. Stupid geeky glasses. And finally this. We could give him a pirate patch, which would at least be cool looking, but I want to see what happens when he shows up to school in this.”

Doc 1: “The other kids will murder him.”

Doc 2: “What doesn’t kill him will make him stronger.”

Cut to junior high. I’ve finally gotten rid of the patch and the glasses. (It’s amazing what happens when you break your spectacles over and over.) But I am firmly ensconced in loser-hood. I got beat up for the first time a month or so after the glasses and it just increased from there. My thermos got broken so many times, my Mom just started sending me to school with milk money. I constantly tilted my head to one side without realizing I was doing it. I had developed a weird scratchy voice thing (think Froggy on The Little Rascals) so I went to speech therapy. I was actually nearly voted as the Junior High homecoming king—as a joke.

And then my family moved across the country from Sunny California to New Jersey at the beginning of my eighth grade year. I’d like to say the fresh start turned everything around, but it actually turned out the opposite. A mindset is a terrible thing to break. I didn’t talk to other kids unless I absolutely had to. I expected to get beat up and did regularly. I was introduced by the teachers as the kid who had moved from California (which all the kids assumed consisted of nothing but surfers, hot babes, and beaches.) So my shyness was taken for aloofness and things only got worse and worse. You know the kid in the Bad News Bears movies who gets eggs smashed on his head, all of his underwear ripped, and has about twenty annoying nick names?

That was me.

Fortunately, fate had one more twist in store for me. The summer before my junior year in high school, my family moved back to California. This time to San Jose, where there really was lots of sun and surfers. What chance did this loser from New Jersey have amongst all the cool kids in California? It should have been a massacre of epic proportions. Except that on a whim, I signed up for drama. And as part of drama we were required to try out for the spring play.

I ended up getting the lead.

That in and of itself would not have changed everything. Could not have changed everything. But it did change one thing. My attitude. For the first time since second grade, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be a loser. I started smiling more. I talked to other kids. I remember one conversation in particular that opened my eyes. I wore straight leg 501 Levis and T-shirts most of the time. Not as any kind of fashion statement, but probably because that’s what was on sale at J.C Penny’s. But I remember a girl coming up to me and asking if that’s what they were wearing on the East Coast. I had to look at her twice to make sure she wasn’t mocking me. Finally I nodded my head. “Um, yeah.”

And because my attitude changed, everything around me changed. I went out for cross country. I went on dates. I got kissed—more than once. I started laughing. I liked school. I made friends. A couple of years later I happened to run into a guy who had given me a ton of crap in New Jersey. I recognized him right away, but it took him a minute to realize who I was. When he finally did, he looked up at me (I was taller than him now, heh, heh) and kind of stammered, “Hey, Savage. You look good.”

More importantly than that. I felt good.

The reason I’m telling this story is not just because I’m desperate for blog material. (Although that could be a part of it.) It’s that lots of kids had much rougher trials than I did and never went through eight years of loser-hood. Somehow they didn’t let the things life threw at them get them down. They maintained an inner confidence that helped them feel good about themselves, which in turn encouraged everyone else to see them in the same light.

I know there are a lot of writers who read this blog. And for some reason, an inordinately large number of writers grew up as shy kids. And despite our successfully publishing books, we are still afraid other people will reject us. That’s a big part of the reason why we are so scared of doing events like book signings. It’s hard to be outgoing when you expect someone to tell you how crappy your book is. And if they don’t buy your book, they’re just reminding you of what a loser you are.

Then there are people like Kerry.

Maybe deep inside Kerry is afraid of rejection. But I’ve never seen it at any of her book signings. She is the most friendly person in the world to everyone who comes by. It doesn’t seem to faze her if they are interested in her book or not. And because she is so friendly, everyone is friendly back to her. They can’t help it. She has a great time.

As I look back at my experience in New Jersey, I don’t think the kids there were any more or less friendly than California. Yes, there were cultural differences. But the biggest impact was that because I was from California, they expected me to act stuck up. When I was too shy to talk to them, they saw it as me snubbing them. Even though I’d never had a girlfriend, rumors quickly spread that I thought the girls in California were much better looking. Essentially I fulfilled their expectations without ever knowing they even had them.

As authors, we are viewed differently. People expect us to be stuck up. We’ve published a book. Surely we look down on people who haven’t. They can’t see the scared kid inside most of us who is so completely afraid of rejection we are too scared to do anything more than make eye contact. They don’t know how afraid we are that no one will buy our books and that even if they do, they will probably hate them. What they see is someone who is too good for the rest of the world.

Knowing that, what can we do about it?

First and foremost, break out of your protective shell. It stands in the way of making friends. And honestly that’s what author events are. They are not about how many books you can sell. They are about how many friends you can make. Once you stop worrying about selling, you can start having fun. Talk to every person who comes by. Expect them to like you. Talk to all the store employees. If you are good at small talk and making friends, do that. If you aren’t, then by all means tell the store employees how scared you are and ask for their help. It’s much better to have the employees know you are a big chicken than to think you are a snobby author.

Ask people what kind of books they like and recommend authors that write those kinds of books. If it’s a slow day, help the staff stock shelves. If you are uncomfortable talking about yourself, ask people questions about themselves. It’s a lot like second grade all over again. If you are friendly and outgoing, people will generally be friendly back. And for the occasional kid who is rude, feel bad for them and move on.

If everything else fails, just remember you could be doing the event in thick black glasses, a patch over one eye (not the cool pirate kind), and a voice that sounds like a tractor in low gear.


At 5/12/2008 3:52 PM, Blogger Rijjka said...

Wow, that is so true. I've sort of gone through the same sort of thing, being the looser kid for a few years, but never to the extent of that. Yout insights into attitude are ones I agree with.

I appreciate you taking the time to write this, despreate for material or not. It ought to help me in any book signings I get to have fun with.

At 5/12/2008 10:33 PM, Blogger Keith Fisher said...

Great blog. You hit the nail on the head. I (luckily) didn't get my glasses until college and I always felt sorry for the kids who did. Its nice to know that I'm not the only writer who has those insecurities. by the way, did you mean clothes pin instead of saftey pin? I cant see how a safety pin would help attach a card to the spokes.
thanks again for the blog.

At 5/12/2008 11:51 PM, Blogger Becky said...

Thank you for this post. I'm a manager at Seagull Book, so I'm on the other side of the signing. I love talking to authors and getting to know them on a more personal level.

It makes a big difference when authors make an effort to talk to customers in the store and introduce themselves. When authors introduce themselves it opens the door to discussion. It's a great time to get feedback and possibly even some ideas for future stories from the lives of the people you meet.

I love having all of you authors come to my store and am looking forward to many more signings and having the opportuniny of getting to know you.

At 5/13/2008 12:58 AM, Blogger Nancy said...

Loved, loved this blog, Jeff. Made me hurt for the poor kid in glasses, but what an awesome comparison to author insecurity. So very, very true.

And look at you now!! (I love your cover, by the way!)

Nancy Allen

At 5/13/2008 1:49 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

I'm having a really hard time picturing Jeff not cool. Because Jeff is like, way cool.

At 5/13/2008 2:55 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Oh, gosh. You really don't know me, do you, Jeff? I am STILL the geekiest kid on the playground. Remind me to tell you about my "wandering eye" someday. Kids thought I was spooky -- and I did nothing whatsoever to relieve their suspicions. (Spooky kids are pretty much left alone, after all.)

Fast-foward DECADES. Book signings were like slow, agonizing death to me. (Think junior high school dances.) I probably would have expired or quit writing, but one day as I dragged myself morosely across a parking lot in Bountiful, Utah, pen-in-hand, the Spirit bonked me on the side of the head and said, "Who do you think you are anyway?" (The Spirit communicates differently with me than I suspect he does President Monson.)

It was an epiphany. All at once I realized that book signings didn't have to be about me being cool or pathetic or anything else. They didn't have to be about me at all. They could be about OTHER people. I could be myself and observe humanity while making new friends and sometimes even blessing a stranger's life a teeny, tiny way.

Over the years I've come to LOVE book signings, as long as selling books is optional in everybody's mind. If managers would let me just sit in their stores and chat, I'd show up every week. It's only awful when they clearly want me to sell my books. I don't do it. I can't.

(I CAN sell other people's, however. Ask me how many copies of "Fool Me Twice" I sold during my week in Utah. Twenty-eight, but it wasn't much of a challenge. Everybody and their dog wanted one.)

But when it comes to selling something with my name on the cover ...forget it. If somebody happens to buy one, I'll sign it, but even that makes me uncomfortable. People bought almost a hundred copies of various titles at the last Ladies Night. I should have felt like a rock star, but I mostly hated it. Too much signing and not enough chatting. You know.

I'm hopeless. What an awful example. Still, I'll forgive you because, like Tristi said, you are just way cool.

At 5/13/2008 5:30 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

Kerry, if it makes you feel any better, when I went to Stephanie's book signing, I purchased a copy of her book and one of yours. =) And my mom loves it! BIG Virtual Hug for you!

At 5/14/2008 12:13 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

I have never been cool. (At least not since second grade.) But I have managed to at least become confident—most of the time. Kerry, you can deny it all you want, but I love watching you at book signings and even at the mystery dinner, which would have stressed me out to the max. You look like you're sipping virgin Pina Coladas enjoying every minute of it. You are COOL!


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