You called, I answered.

 phone 

The first anniversary of my book’s publication is next week. So I’ve been thinking lately what difference it’s made in my life to have a BOOK about MY LIFE out there in the world.

ha ha. I said “lately”: “I’ve been thinking lately…”

Actually, I think about this ALL THE TIME. If you and I were having dinner together at that lovely Chinese restaurant down the road and you thought I was listening to your story about the cute things your cat did that day well, actually, I WOULD be listening to that. I always have time for a good cat story.

But if you were telling me about how your kid tested in the top 10 percentile of its class I definitely WOULD NOT be listening…but then, I would have tuned that crap out anyway, long before I became a published author.

And yeah, if you were telling me about your awful co-workers, your demented boss, or if you work for The Public and are telling me about the lonely, crazy, and purely snotty people you deal with, I would be all ears for that stuff. I love hating people vicariously. I’m very Republican that way.

But if you were telling me what you think the resale value of your house is on today’s market, or anything having to with a wedding, a bar mitzvah, or Christmas, and you think I’m actually paying attention to you, you would be wrong, because all I can think about these past 365 days is that I have a BOOK OUT and WHY AREN’T WE TALKING ABOUT ME?

In other words, I have a manically self-centered fall-back preoccupation for when my mind wanders, not that this makes me any different from anybody else in the world, except for that “I have a BOOK out” part. 

My fall-back used to be “What the hell am I doing with my life?” so I have the publishing industry to thank for giving me a new focus when it comes to that.

But I digress.

I wanted to tell you what it’s like to have a BOOK out there, about my LIFE, this past year: 

Lately I’ve received a slew of emails (three or four) from new readers and, because this is how life works (in strange ways), they have all said almost the same thing:

Dear Vivian — You’ve had such an interesting life!

And I want to answer this, once and for all: I have not. Had such an interesting life.  No more than most. Most lives, I mean.

However — and this is my whole raison d’etre as a writer / illustrator — I do know how to present ordinariness in a readable way.  And that’s the only reason I get away with writing a whole book about myself, and why I give the impression of having had an interesting life.

Yes, it was somewhat interesting that I found myself in a taxi in Sao Paulo, wearing a big diamond necklace under my turtleneck sweater that I was going to smuggle into the U.S. and realizing that since I spoke not a word of Portuguese and it was pitch black nighttime that I had no way of knowing whether or not we were in fact heading to the airport or to a back alley where I’d be killed (it was Sao Paulo, after all, which is a very dangerous city). But that was a total of thirty minutes of terror in an otherwise routine visit to Brazil. (For those of you reading along at home, that story is in the August chapter of my BOOK, page 122.)

But, in my world,  Brazil is  a muchless an interesting place than that alley behind my apartment house in my little village on the Long Island Sound(August chapter, pages 124, 125, 126, 127).  The memory of those early Summer mornings, in the alley, with my one and-a-half cats (my full-time house cat, Woody Robinson, and my part-time stray cat pal, Louie) are much more precious to me than many of the objets d’art I’ve ever had my hands on.  (Those times that I handled a Faberge Imperial Easter Egg and Barbara Streisand’s Cartier “Mystery” clock were pretty cool.)

So, the trick is, to write about that alley (and any other similarly ordinary part of one’s life) in a way that would make it interesting to other people, specifically readers. And that is the whole trick to writing a memoir: having an interesting life is not enough (and, in my case, not even necessary); it’s being able to write about it in a manner that doesn’t bore the socks off your reader.  Well, actually, your reader comes last: first you have to not bore your agent, and then you have to not bore your acquisitions editor, and then you have to not bore the editorial committee at the publishing house, and then you have the chance to not bore your reader.

That’s why I wrote about my alley as if it were a Micro-Nation.Which took me a long time to figure out: I started thinking of that alley in typically predictable terms: as my Queendom, our own little world, a private paradise….boring, boring, boring. Then, when I’d taken the actual measure of the square footage of that alley and I was researching other small principalities to compare it to (I thought it might be funny if I could describe this alley as some fraction the size of Monaco), I discovered Micro-nations.  I’d never heard of Micro-nations before, but the idea of them and the real stories behind them struck me as hilarious, and unusual. Voila: I turned that alley into Pawsylvania.

I hope you see what I’m getting at: The fact that I used to drink tea in the early morning in an alley with my cats is hardly interesting; nobody would want to read a sentence about that .But give a reader a little travelog into the Micro-nation of Pawsylvania, and you’ve got a story — and that’s all us readers want: a story. If you give us a good enough story, we’ll let you get away with having an ordinary life.  See? See how it’s done? And this is what I’ve been meaning to say, to all you who have questioned me about this: If I can do it, so can you.

This has been a long post so I’ll have to end this here, but I will tell you more about what I learned about ordinary life when I went to hear Patricia Hampl read from her latest memoir, The Florist’s Daughter, tomorrow. Or the next day — it depends on how much I digress in the next post.

And, by the way, if I could do it over, I’d re-do page 124. Because looking at it now, I think I should have come up with a better way to describe the climate zones of Pawsylvania. I meant to use those color chips as cues to the level of sunlight and shade in that alley, but I don’t know if you get that.  I should have used “Bright Sunlight”, “Dappled Sunlight”, “Partial Shade”, “Full Shade”, “Deep Shade”. Or words to that effect.

6 comments to You called, I answered.

  • Maryann

    oh my, i love this post! (actually, i probably love all of your posts because they usually are hysterically FUNNY, but i also love this one!!) thanks for once again making me crack up, but also for explaining the idea of ‘story’. it was much appreciated!!!

  • Rachel

    Well, you did lead a *different* life from many folks, and you found delightful ways to tell us about it. It is a pleasure to know you, and I am looking forward to reading about November in just four more days.

    Meanwhile you certainly keep my attention, and keep me cheered and entertained, with your current stories. Who woulda thunk we would have all been on tenter hooks about the doings at the chinese joint at Exit 37??? Goodness, tomorrow is FRIDAY again. Time flies when we are having such fun.

    Thanks for the great reads.

  • Louise W

    Vivian,

    Though I haven’t read your book (yet), I loved what you said about your micro-nation. Makes me want to run out to my little backyard and start looking it with different eyes than I have been using – not to see what needs to be done, the miserable failure of a garden, the holes under the fence that the neighbor cats use to get to their personal garden kitty litter box – but to really look at what’s out there. Even the dreaded weeds!

    Will I write or paint about it? Probably not. But I may start a photography study of the little things! Thanks again for my inspiration!

  • mary

    Vivi. What about the house you were going to tell us about? The “plain” one? You found out who lives there?

  • admin

    When I found your book, it was the way you dealt with the ordinary that made me fall in love with it. The balloon in a tree, the different types of rain and mud, the snippets from village news.

    Anyone who has traveled the world as you have has an interesting life, but your gift is how you make life interesting.

    jessica

  • You know what…….

    I just like you, and the way you write.
    I happen to think your way of looking
    at this world and the way you paint all of
    the little things that no-one else thought
    of. Little jewels of leaves, different kinds
    of rain, snowflakes, sunsets. Inspiring!
    So there we are….simple!

    ‘Cheers, lets crack open the gin!’

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