categories: Cocktail Hour
When I was a child, my father’s best friend hired a marching band to show up at our house on my mother’s birthday one year. This was one in a series of outlandish birthday events he arranged for her, but it remains the most memorable in my mind, seeing that band marching up our street with the neighbors wondering in disbelief whether they had forgotten to mark some holiday or parade on our calendar.
That event left such a permanent mark on me that I still consider the arrival of a marching band as the ideal way to celebrate a momentous event in one’s life—which, in my case these days, takes the form of the publication of a new book. Each time one of my books has been published, I sit around the house expectantly all day secretly hoping that a marching band will appear around the corner at any moment, the leader carrying a box of my author copies, neighbors standing agog in their driveways, my family smiling and proud.
It hasn’t happened yet.
The publication day for my newest book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, came and went in mid-March without so much as an oboist serenading me from the driveway. But even though that has been my experience with each of my five books, it still has not diminished this expectation that on publication day something amazing will happen. I’ll be lying in bed and my wife, an early riser, will call from the kitchen: “Jim, get down here, Katie Couric’s on the phone!” Or I will log into my e-mail to find that I have been invited to Stockholm for a reason that they can’t state right now, but let’s just say they need me there for an evening event and I should wear my tuxedo.
Here’s what happens instead on publication day: exactly what I make happen. And that, my friends, is the hard truth that I have to re-learn with the publication of every new book. Almost nothing happens, on publication day or any other day, unless I make it happen.
Of course all of us who write books these days know that we are the primary marketers of our own work. We have to write for print and online publications on the topics of our books, getting the title in our bylines; we have to reach out to whatever friends and contacts we have in the media to wrangle publicity; we have to hump our suitcases and author copies to a dizzying array of venues—bookstores, colleges and universities, the homes of friends and supporters—in order to get the word out. Publishers count on the author as the primary sales force for their own books.
But it still feels to me like something unique should happen on publication day. Maybe they could send me a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates. Or perhaps a phone call from my editor saying “Good work, Jim! Nailed it again!” Perhaps the college where I teach should have offered to have someone teach my classes for me, and I could have sat amidst a pile of my author copies in the student center, just sort of lording it over all passersby that today was my special day, the day on which I have published a book and the rest of you have not.
Instead, my publication day schedule included three meetings on campus, two dog walks, packing some boxes for an upcoming house move, and checking my rankings on amazon around four hundred times. This was an especially strange publication day because although the official publication date was March 14th, the book actually and unexpectedly appeared in stock on amazon on March 7th. Good lord, I thought to myself when I saw it available a week early, this is going to be very awkward if a marching band shows up on March 14th!
But there was no marching band. There never is. And, I really must resign myself to it, there never will be.
I let myself do no real work on publication day, in exchange for the lack of a marching band, but the next day I was back at work, putting in a few hundred words on the next project. What else can you do? This is the way I have been made, and apparently the lack of celebrations on publication day won’t change that. Writers must write, marching bands or no.
The same friend of my parents who arranged the marching band for my mother once sent me a note about my writing. At that time I was still attempting to write fiction, and I was most of the way through a novel that I had shown to my mother and she had spoken about in glowing terms to her friend (if only my mother had been an acquisitions editor!). The note that he sent me read something like this: “In my life I have probably known 50 people who said they wanted to be writers. You are the only one I know who actually writes. Congratulations on pursuing a dream.”
Sometimes when the writing life disappoints, and I am waiting for the trumpets and drums that never arrive, I think about that note, and I carry on. The next publication day awaits.
More from Jim Lang at @LangOnCourse or http://www.jamesmlang.com.