Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Who Would You Like Me To Make This Out To?

I have always been one to be in the background, behind the scenes, behind the camera and out of reach from the prying eyes of judgmental people who criticize, evaluate and condemn most everything one does. I know because I do it too. Which is why you’ll never find me purposely attracting attention from large groups of people, and I’ll very rarely put myself “out there.” Perhaps I fear people’s opinion or maybe I don’t want to stick my creativity on the line only to have it chopped off.

Maybe I’m just plain old insecure about my abilities, but one of the joys of writing is that I don’t have to talk to people or interact with them in any way. I can hide behind my words, duck behind the articles without having to face anyone reading it. I can say whatever I want here, because the second I hit “publish post,” I no longer have to deal with it. I’ve satisfied my urge to create without the repercussions of listening to the immediate reaction of doing so. There was no bigger fear in my life growing up than to have my teacher read out loud to the class something that I wrote...and for an introvert like me, it happened all the time. My face would burn with embarrassment like I was being singled out for the firing squad.

Whatever it is, I was hesitant—nay, reluctant—nay again, down right averse—to attend the book signing of my own book, one that I wrote, so much so that I almost didn’t do it at all. It’s not that I don’t want to promote the book, I do, as the more it sells the more I’ll get paid, but I think it comes down to not wanting to pat myself on the back for something that didn’t take a whole lot of skill and effort to accomplish. Eighteen thousand words and 189 pictures is a walk in the park to me, especially put in the context that all of my blog entries here total nearly a half million (this blog alone is over 2800 words). So, after all, I just wrote a book; it wasn’t War and Peace.

Plus, I’m just not that important to warrant all the fuss. For some reason, that sort of promotion, that level of availability, makes me very uncomfortable… I’m not sure why, as it has nothing to do with being in front of people; I can take that with a grain of salt. However, I think it has more to do with an unworthy justification of what I have accomplished. Who am I to inject value in my signature on the end pages of a book that took little effort to complete? Writing a book… more succinctly…writing a bunch of captions, doesn’t, in my opinion, bring cause to celebrate a book signing tour, as if I’m pleading for validation.

It’s arrogant, conceited and self-aggrandizing—I’m just a regular person—and it makes me feel as though I built a pedestal if only for myself to stand upon.

Well, my kicking and screaming went unabated while the publisher scheduled two book signing engagements for me, back-to-back on consecutive Saturdays, this last one and the one coming up. Originally, the first one last Saturday was supposed to be at a small bookstore in Glendora, a hole-in-the-wall place that caters to a surprisingly large clientele of people who have specific tastes and difficulty finding rare short-run titles. I pictured myself sitting at a table in the corner listening to crickets and watching the occasional tumbleweed roll by, nary a pen to paper the whole time.

The entire ordeal unleashed a flurry of emotional anxieties.

First off, I vexed over anyone even showing up. There were a couple of local newspaper articles the week before, and the bookstore does a newsletter, but part of my personality as someone who doesn’t consider what he does as important, I had a tough time thinking anyone would be interested in attending such an affair. The book? Sure, it’s a good one (by comparison to the last one someone did about Glendora) and people will surely buy it, but who is going to go out of their way to have me write my name in it? It doesn’t make it any more valuable. I’m not Steinbeck or even Bombeck, so why bother with the extra trouble? My fame as an author extends to my immediate family and friends (roughly those that have suffered enough to read down this far and who will still read on), and to everyone else (especially to me), I’m just a guy who knows how to type and who has too much free time.

Then I discovered that no, I won’t be able to hide in the corner of a quiet bookstore safely on the fringes of the limelight, but instead, I will be set out in public, smack dab in the middle of an Earth Day Festival on the patio between the City Hall and the Public Library. Great. Just great.

When it was in the bookstore, I had accepted the situation and came to terms with it only because that my insecurities were safeguard and insulated by the fact that the people who came into the store were at least interested in books. That’s an important factor to consider when signing them, that the people you will come into contact can actually read. At a festival, outside, in public… there will be gobs of slack-jawed yokels scavenging the various booths for free swag, logoed bags with witty puns about the environment and informative pamphlets about global warming and what you can do about it. They don’t want to buy a book, not when Wal-Mart is giving away Frisbees two booths over, nor when you can have the company that collects your trash paint semi-adorable animals on your children’s faces. No, these people don’t read. The ones that do are at the bookstore…where the books are.

I just had to suck it up and start to sell myself to the masses… like a John Hancock whore, and make my name big enough so King George III can see it. There was nothing I could do but bring a pen and a smile, all the while hoping the foul thoughts and acrimony for the general public didn’t punch through my teeth. I don’t expect everyone who picks up a copy of it to buy it, but don’t be surprised by the incredulous in the tone of my response when you ask if it is free, okay?
Then, I fretted over which pen to use…I didn’t want it to smear the moment I closed the book and handed it to its new owner. I didn’t want it to look too thick, like a crayon in the hands of a two-year-old. I didn’t want it to leave unwanted spaces while I wrote—some pens do that when I sign my name, like it can’t keep up with the top of my R or the curve of the P. Mostly, I didn’t want the pen to exacerbate my terrifically poor penmanship.

There is a reason I learned to type and there’s a reason I type everything, and those reasons are the same: It is because I was supposed to be left handed. I’m better off right-handed, for sure, as I never had to search out that one left-handed desk in class (which is always in the back). I can cut using 99 percent of all the scissors I’ve ever seen in my whole life. My hand doesn’t get discolored from running through the ink of what I had just written, and I don’t have to distort my wrist, arm and shoulder to write a grocery list. However, I have often wondered that if my parents hadn’t changed me from a lefty to a righty (and I don’t blame them, as it was for the best at the time), that my penmanship might have been better, as if my brain is wired to write with my left more naturally and therefore better.

In his book Right-Hand, Left-Hand, Chris McManus of the University College London, argues that “The proportion of left-handers is rising and left-handed people as a group have historically produced an above-average quota of high achievers. He says that left-handers' brains are structured differently in a way that widens their range of abilities, and the genes that determine left-handedness also govern development of the language centers of the brain.”

Since Matthew’s a lefty (it is a hereditary trait) and we’re going to leave him this way, it will be an interesting experiment.

Either way, I was probably doomed to write horribly, but I am embarrassed by it nonetheless. A writer is supposed to have nice writing. After all, it is right there in his job description. Alas, if you cut off a chicken’s head and beat the rest of him onto a piece of paper, the scratchings from his flailing legs would be more legible than me on my best day. Everyone who has ever received anything hand-written from me has probably said to themselves, “What the hell does that say? Is that an E or a Q?”

Anyways, I needed a pen, a good one, not a Montblanc or a Caran d’Ache, nothing that I’d have to take out a second on the house, just a sturdy pen that would fulfill a few basic criteria. This was the first time I’ve ever signed a book commercially for the general public… so what would J.K. Rowling do (I mean, besides swim in a pool filled with the tears of her ex-husband who divorced her before she started her billion-dollar writing career)? What sort of pen does she use to sign her books?

A couple of days before my signing, I stood before a sea of pens at Staples, deciding on which one to get. I had gone through most of the pens in my general collection, from a couple of my favorites that I use on a daily basis to a few that I’ve actually been keeping for a special occasion (including my Montblanc…which sadly no longer writes) and I discounted them all, deciding that none of them would do. The paper of the book is thick, thirty pounds at least, but it is coated slightly so I figured that any regular ball-point pen would smear. However, given the options, I still wanted a ball-point pen (like a Bic) over a felt-tip one (like a Sharpie), for its clarity and integrity in maintaining a steady line even through the wispy parts of my signature. There are God knows how many pens at Staples, so even my limited criteria hardly narrowed down my options.

I stayed clear of the gel grips with the fancy colors and the one-off body designs, just a flash in the pan of the pen industry, like a Swatch Watch is to a Rolex: sure, they’ll both tell time, but a Swatch is clunky and awkward... and will be out of fashion before you have to replace the battery. I wanted something simple but classy, so I focused on the pens with removable caps. A clicking pen just smacks of a ticket-writing cops or a professor who is about to tear a new hole in your term paper. There is no credibility behind that plastic snap of a pen click; instead it just says I don't have the time to bother taking care of this properly so I'm just going to grab whatever pen I find handy and dash off a quick boilerplate response followed by a reasonable facsimile of my autograph.

On the other hand, when someone pulls out a pen from the breast pocket of their suit that requires the extra effort—two hands no less—to remove the cap before he can write anything, then you know that what he is about to write will have a lasting effect and it will be important... that you are important to him. It says that I won’t lose this cap for the life of the pen and what I am about to put on paper means something to me. Capped pens say that I’m responsible, and I won’t rely on needless mechanism to retract my nib into its housing when I can surround it by a fully functioning case that not only serves a purpose but looks good too.

I looked for something narrow and sleek and definitely a dark body with just a touch of chrome. But also I needed something lightweight so my hand wouldn’t get tired, which contrasts with the pig of a pen I use on a daily basis here in my office. I like it because I don't have to press so hard, as the weight of the pen does that for me. The downside is that fat and heavy pens are difficult to manage, and you’ll end up swinging wide most of your fancy arcs, which will then look fumbled. Unless, of course, you are a slow writer, then get a fat pen so those little hand jerks won’t be so exaggerated as they would be with a lightweight pen.

I ended up going with a black Uni-Ball 1.0mm Jetstream, a three-dollar rollerball pen (an upgrade from a ball-point pen) noted especially for its quick drying ink to resist smearing and its smooth roller action, which is like saying it is a high performance pen. It is a pen endorsed by Frank W. Abagnale, if that means anything to you. I’m sure he’s signed his share of books (as well as forged checks) in his life, so he might know what he is talking about.

So, I sat there on the patio of the library and answered questions from people who became disinterested in the answer as soon as they had finished asking the question, and I started to be able to tell immediately the three types of people in society by merely looking at them:

1. Signed Author Book Buyers: These people would buy any book directly from the author, and you can tell them immediately because they come directly to the table and pick up the book for a quick examination. I fall into this category. If I happen upon an author hocking his wares, I’ll bite and buy a copy of his book. For starters, I intimately know how he feels and I can relate to the bevy of emotions he is carrying around, all of it spread out for the world to see in his freshly printed book. Plus, he might be the next Steinbeck and I’m young enough to be able to wait it out, eventually having in my possession a signed first edition. If not, then it goes on the shelves with the 1300 other books in my library.

2. The Book Wafflers: They want to buy the book because it piques their interests either as a resident of Glendora or a local history readers, but something is keeping them back. They’re distinguishable from the crowd because they’ll study the book for about 20 minutes before making a decision. For one Waffler, I had to defend the publishing company because it got a bad rap for publishing the first Glendora book (mostly because of its crapulence, wrong facts, poorly written captions, you know, the basic suckitude that goes with lack of research on the part of the author, etc.). On the other hand, some people just don’t want to spend the money and I can respect that. Twenty bucks is pretty steep for a book of that size (just under 200 pages), but I don’t set the prices, so there’s nothing I can do about it. The Wafflers usually engaged me in some small conversation about writing the book, then quietly put it back and make their slow exit, trying to be as casual and unnoticeable as possible.

3. The Illiterate Morons: These folks are just trolling for something free, be it an entry card on how to win two hundred bucks, a flyer on hazardous waste dump stations in the valley or a t-shirt for signing up with a credit card (which will end up being the most expensive “free” shirt they ever bought). They stroll by the booth, hardly slowing down while their eyes scan the tables like it is a swap meet at a drive-in parking lot; they’re looking for deals, something for nothing. They have no interest in reading, no interest in history and no interest in learning anything. For them, a D in school meant Done. They might pick up the book and give it a glance, but they’ll quickly put it back when they find out it isn’t free. Thankfully, they won’t say anything to me or ask me any questions. They just move on to the free energy saving light bulbs at the next booth.

Overall, it was a good three hours, and for my first public signing of a book, I found some rewarding moments. My family was there to help take off some of the anxiety and pressure of being exposed to the public, and Natalie was very excited to see someone actually buy one and for me to actually sign it. She kept coming back to the booth to ask me how many I had sold since the last time she asked, which may have been no more than five minutes before. We sold a bunch of books, which was the main purpose for the store owner, of course, but I thought we would have done more.

I accepted a great deal of compliments about the book—which is always nice to hear—and I ended up with a sunburn on my face, which is about par for my pale white skin, something I try hard to keep out of the limelight.

On that note, I was happy when it was over, of course, because it meant that I could slink back into the shadows of anonymity, at least until next Saturday when I’ll be doing it again at Barnes & Noble on Gladstone (from noon until two).



Tris Mast said...

So, is the pen everything Frank W. Abagnale promised it would be? If so, I'll buy a box full.

Ryan or Kara said...

...and so much more... It performed flawlessly.


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