Party of None
Top 3 recurring anxiety dreams:
Being chased, usually by a shadowy, terrifying something: a cougar, a monster, Ben Affleck and his gnarly, mealy freak-beard.
Rolling into class at the end of the semester and realizing A. I’m totally unprepared to take the exam. B. I’m totally unprepared to teach the class. C. I skipped the class all semester, which is why I am not prepared to take the exam. The immediate realization sets in that I will fail the entire course and won’t graduate. If this is the type of monumentally dorky pit-sweat fantasy filling my sleeping hours, just think of how wild my waking life must be.
Throwing a party that no one comes to.
You might think the onset of some version of maturity would knock that last one off the list. Maybe it would be replaced with dread related to something relevant: getting an emergency root canal without anesthesia (I could have gone with “without insurance,” but I live in America where you hardly need to dream up that fear). Nope. That would be a shockingly benign gift from the Gods of Adolescence who ruled with iron fists of acne, body odor, braces, and shattering insecurity. Grow out of the incessant need to be liked and celebrated? And then the Gods of Adolescence said LET THERE BE SOCIAL MEDIA! Welcome to your waking nightmare, loser.
In 2019 I did a book. The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women: 50 Trailblazers of Comedy, published by Running Press, (BUY MANY COPIES HERE) became my first general readership book. Before this one, I had turned my dissertation into an academic book published by The University of Michigan Press because at the time I was angling for a life in academia and getting a job without a book was a little like trying to get to Prague with an expired passport. Reader: I am not a professor nor am I summering in Prague. You do the math.
The Internet — that repulsive love child of technology and animus that is half abject David Lynchian hellscape and half quasi-utopic commune of good — makes it possible for a new author to learn so, so much about the do’s, don’t’s, maybe you should’s, we haven’t tried that one, yet’s, sorry, we would deny that in a court of law’s, about the journey (gack) from writing to publication and beyond. It really makes the whole thing sound like Lord of the Rings minus the parts with the elves lounging around on white satin couches sighing while gauzy curtains blow around them as if Rivendell were actually just a sound stage for a Stevie Nicks video.
Writing anything that makes it to the public light of day is much more like the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney World. Whiplash and upchuck will happen. It is unpredictable. There are break-downs and slow downs and let downs. There are incredible moments of profound gratitude and joy that slink past you far too quickly. There is relief. Fear. Anxiety. There is ruinous self-doubt followed by a god-like sense of impenetrability (this withers the instant you realize you have to start all over and do this VERY HARD THING again with even less sense of how you’ll pull it off). These are not complaints, just realities of the journey (gag, gorf) that you are crazy ass lucky, lucky, lucky to be on. Acknowledge. Often. I sure have.
If there is something that gets you over the steeper hills in the climb, it’s two things: seeing your book on a real shelf in a real bookstore that is definitely not also a church basement or even a regular basement. And doing signings. Sorry, that’s a term I grew up with in the days when we discovered fire and had phones the size of Kleenex boxes screwed to the wall. They’re called book or author events now and resemble little of the ones you might have seen on TV or in films. Samantha Jones will not be booking a fabulous club filled with glitterati and delicious, twee artisanal cupcakes. Hopefully an angry ex or seething nemesis will not show up and make a messy scene in the middle of your reading or at the signing table, unless, of course, that was the whole reason you wrote the damn book to begin with. In which case, way to play the very long, painful revenge game.
I’ve attended a few high-profile author events: David Sedaris, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Sarah Vowell, who was probably my favorite. She was at a Unitarian church that sits on the edge of the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sarah Vowell’s writing style is wry wit laced with lethal intelligence as is her public speaking persona. At the end of her reading, she took questions from the audience. The third person in line was a Zuckerberg-ish clone who executed a classic D-bag move by essentially asking a non-question in an attempt to come off as smarter than Sarah Vowell (As. Freaking. If): “When you were researching, did you consider also looking at yackety yack yack yack?” Vowell tolerated Mark Zuckerberg IV, patiently waiting for him to come to the end of his own dissertation. When he did, she leaned into the microphone and responded: “No. Next question?” That was probably ten years ago, but I still dine out monthly on that delicious morsel of burn with a “sit down, son” dipping sauce.
Of course, I am not Sarah Vowell or Elizabeth Gilbert, nor do I have a tenth of the talent that David Sedaris has in one of his toenail’s cuticles. But did I lie awake at night sometimes, whispering the pithy answers to questions from the audience standing in line at my book events? Yes. When I was a fourteen year-old baked potato with braces did I think I could become a Broadway dancer? Also yes. Look, if a bit of delusion helps power your dreams, is it really wrong? At some point it will burn off like the chemically slicked Cuyahoga and you’ll either be compelled to put in the real work and sweat equity to make your dream a reality or you’ll shove it to the back of your glove compartment next to some stray rubber bands and car wash tokens.
Samantha Jones was not returning my texts. Booking book events was all on me. Fortunately, living in New England I could easily drive to a store in a whole other state in less than thirty minutes (suck it California. Just kidding, Avocado Mafia, please don’t blacklist me). I made a spreadsheet (wretch); I put together introduction/pitch emails and reached out to lists of bookstores; I did my due diligence and harangued people on social media to come to these events. With each one that responded with a warm, “We’d love to have you!” I felt a little more smug, a tad more confident that I, too, would have the chance to put an irritating mansplaining youthful miscreant in his place in front of, at least a decent bunch (!), of people, right? And that’s when the Gods of Adolescence said, “Hold our beers.”
My first few events drew what I thought was a reasonable crowd for an essentially unknown author — ten or twelve people with a few who maybe drifted over from browsing to stand and listen for a couple of minutes before disappearing back into the stacks. Then, just like in every classic horror film where the number of dopey, horned-up teens dwindles after each bloody encounter with Hatchet Man, so too did the amount of attendees at these events. If only Hatchet Man would do me the honor of showing up to one of these, I would happily throw myself in front of the five other people in the room. A willing sacrifice that might actually sell a few more books.
And the thing was everyone I encountered was incredibly lovely and gracious. The booksellers and four others were always enthusiastic and supportive and so nice that I almost wanted to just take everyone out to the bar across the street and open a tab. I hardly felt like I deserved any of it. Wasn’t I letting these amazing stores down by failing to bring in Elizabeth Gilbert-sized crowds, to, essentially, throw the PARTY OF THE YEAR that everyone at school would talk about in perpetuity? It might be okay to admit here that I am a Type-A overachiever with outsized, unrealistic expectations about myself. And the problem with that besides the obvious (unless you’re skimming this piece because, I get it, no one has been reading things since 1998) is that it causes you to double-down and hurl yourself onward like a human battering ram. Maybe the smarter move is to step back, asses, reflect and process, and then figure out your next move. That is exactly what I did not do when I was invited to a bookstore in NEW YORK CITY.
Because it would surely be different in “the greatest city in the world,” (#Hamilton).
Because instead of doing the rational thing called “thinking this through,” all my brain wanted to do was fast forward to me at Christmas parties casually-not-so-casually telling people about my insanely great author appearance in NEW YORK CITY!!! (cue the Sex in the City theme)
Because the Gods of Adolescence, now very, very drunk, were all “Fuck it, we’re breaking out the Cristal!”
One car trip, a train ride, and a criminally expensive Lyft lift later I arrived sweaty from the roasting August weather and nerves, eager to make a good impression on the folks who were kind enough to have me — Lady Nobody of the Obscure Writers, all the way from East Over There Abouts — to their wonderful, hip, funky indie bookstore. There was a display of my books and the event info on this adorable sandwich board kind of marquis thing by the register. I had to try very hard to stay in my body. I also had to pretend that I was just scrolling on my phone and not actually taking as many photos as could be stored in my iPhotos.
The store held events after hours. They closed and I took my place over in area that had been rearranged for the event. Three young people took their seats. The manager took hers. And a woman who had been in the store browsing, drifted over to sit on the end of a row near a shelf containing nature and science books. Here we were, again: the gang of five in the, uh (clears throat), greatest, (chokes back tears), greatest city in the… (begins to turn to actual dust inside) in the worlllllld (becomes oxygen molecule. End scene).
I launched into my talk, spieling along for my five pals when I notice the woman seated on the end is not so much what you would call listening as BROWSING. She’s picking up books and flipping through them. She’s SHOPPING. Noted. I start to read and talk about the book. I hear another voice and glance over to see the woman has added TALKING ON HER PHONE to her list of activities. To review, those include: 1. Shopping 2. Talking on her phone 3. Not listening to me. Aces!
I truck on in a very show-must-go-on-Baby June kind of way. I notice the look in the poor manager’s eyes, which is a combination of horror, embarrassment, and rage. It was as if she had walked in on her best friend canoodling with her boyfriend in the pantry. Thanks for ruining those chocolate-covered pretzels forever, Steve. In that instant, I felt far worse for her than I did for myself. How did she know I wasn’t one of those meglomaniac creatives who would take to Twitter about this in a scorched earth campaign to wipe this gentle hippy, progressive store off the map? I smiled. If I didn’t start smiling, I knew I would start laughing at the delicious absurdity of it all. I saw the Gods of Adolescence text for an Uber to take their gin-soaked asses home.
I wrapped it up and opened the floor to questions from my new BFFs. We sat in a little circle and had a lovely and smart and fun discussion about comedy and gender and mental health and patriarchy and who in the book deserved a reality TV series. At some point the woman, STILL ON HER DAMN PHONE, slunk out of her row and out of the store. “Say hi to your sister for me! She’s right, Craig does sound like a major tool!” I wanted to yell.
Afterwards, when I had finished signing those three books and another five for the store, the manager apologized profusely. “I’ve never seen that woman before,” she said. “We have regulars, but, I don’t know. I’m so, so sorry!” I shrugged and told her not to worry about it. This was New York. And it’s the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, really, even Sarah Vowell.