I often ask authors what they think makes a great story. It’s one of my favorite interview questions, and there are so many wonderful and varied responses. The most common answer I get is one simple word: character. Characters captivate readers. If they’re sympathetic, if they’re dynamic, if the reader finds himself or herself in the protagonist -- if these things happen, the reader will follow the character through almost anything and anywhere.
The truth is, we are all protagonists in our own stories. We all matter and we all have a purpose. But after launching my book last month, I wasn’t so sure what my purpose was anymore.
My book lifted into e-book orbit on November 4. The night before, a group of my closest author friends came over to help me settle my nerves and drink (lots of) wine. The fellowship was instrumental in keeping me from hiding in my closet, where my anxiety likes to hold me hostage from time to time.
The Odyssey of Falling’s release was not life-changing in terms of sales numbers. It’s selling steadily, though not widely -- think one to two copies per day, and on some days no copies -- but it is out there, finding its way into the hands of (a small little village of) readers.
The reader response is a surreal thing, and I can see how it could become addictive for an author. Connecting with another person, knowing your work makes a difference -- it’s the reason I write in the first place.
It’s also the reason I’m in this life transition, shifting from journalist to author, suffering an elongated existential crisis as I (to quote my friend Courtney Stevens) fail forward. That’s what this indie expose has ultimately led me to: I’ve stepped back from being the southern correspondent at Publishers Weekly (a job I have loved, full of amazing people who have helped and supported me), and I am attempting to become an author. It's a scary leap, and at times it feels downright terrifying.
After the book launch, I froze up. Fear and vulnerability crept in, and I stopped being able to put words to the page. I spent an embarrassing number of hours watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dramatic-Shows-Full-of Insanely-Good-Looking-People on the CW.
Then I volunteered at Parnassus Books in Nashville for Small Business Saturday. Surrounded by authors and the awesome staff at one of my favorite indies, I talked books and story. Without pressure. Without expectation. Doing this, I was reminded how much books matter. How much artists who create them matter.
Customers in the store connected with authors, and bought new works, while sharing favorites of their own. I listened to authors discuss their current doubts while seeking community. I cut out decorations for a window display in the back room and told Ann Patchett I was having an introvert snowflake party.
And I realized something. Launching my own book into the world threw me for an existential loop-de-crash. The Odyssey of Falling’s release was life-changing because it forced me to ask myself what I really want out of life and my career.
Marketing and being a salesperson are opposite to my nature. Am I a failure if I can’t do everything and wear all the hats?
I want to make meaningful art. To do that, I have to dig deep. If I let my thoughts drift, they'll find all manner of supposed to’s and should's: How I’m supposed to make more money, and I should be working all the time. I’m supposed to do all the things author X does on social media and booking tours, and I should be more like author Y who never stops smiling and should be nominated for Salesperson of the Year.
Don’t get me wrong; I love authors X and Y. They’re doing what works for them and that is great. But I’m not them. I’m a writer with anxiety who prefers her dogs to people 22 hours out of the day. I rock small groups, while large ones and public speaking make my skin crawl. I can’t always excel in the ways those I admire can, but I can shine as Paige.
I’m finishing the final revision of my next novel, and hard at work on a new novel about the life of a charming girl named Ina Strange. When I’m writing, I’m captivated by my protagonists, cheering as I watch them fail forward. What I’ve noticed about these characters is they don’t stay down for long. No matter the circumstance, inevitably they get back up, shake it off, and continue chasing their passions.
It’s through the pursuit that they become the people they are meant to be.
I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote by Howard Thurman I’ve been turning to as I continue this journey I call life. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”