Monday, October 01, 2007

Avoiding a Dull Funeral

by a Not Entirely Anonymous Author

I spent an hour of my weekend at a cemetery on a sunny, windswept hilltop with a beautiful 360 egree view of Pennsylvania's rolling hills of farm and forest as my extended family interred the ashes of my mother's sister who passed away last winter. The impromptu service was lovely and charmingly hilarious--her husband wrote limericks to her for every birthday--and sad because her daughter read aloud an angry diatribe she'd written to her mother. (It was the first time I'd ever heard a eulogy include the word, "bitch.")

That evening, twelve of us walked into a local restaurant, and a whole table of people leaped up to give me hugs. My family thought they were fans who had recognized me, The Famous Author. They were impressed by what they perceived as an encounter between a celebrity author and eager readers.

(Why they would assume nobody would know me in the town where I grew up--I dunno. And in fact, my "fans" were actually a group of writer friends who serendipitously happened to be in the same town--where there's really only one restaurant where you don't receive your food through a window from a gum-cracking teenager. You Know Who You Are, and I am among your fans, too. It was my great pleasure to see you.)

You guessed it. My moment of family fame was soon balanced by its opposite--the yin to its yang, the lightning bolt of reality, the blast that sent me, the human cannonball, into the bog of ridiculousness. Within minutes of being seated with my family, a mentally challenged cousin announced she was writing a book.

And in the very same sentence, she asked me to help get her an agent. Like a crowd watching a tennis match, the entire clan turned their heads and looked at me expectantly. It should be easy, right? For me, the lucky one, to help my relative get published?

I gave the standard, one-minute talk on How to Get an Agent. (Write the book first.) Instead of the hour talk on the same subject. (Write the book, then get a ruthless critique partner . . . ) Or the two-hour version. (Nevermind. You know it, because if you're reading this blog you've probably given this speech yourself.)

Her next lob: "I have 90 pages. How do I know when the story's over?"

Well, I have learned not to make a snide remark in response to this question. Or laugh. But instead of talking to her about Aristotle's three-part plot or the intersection of climax and the arc of a character as well as the link between theme and setting, I took a deep breath and said, "You'll need 300 pages."

From across the long table, she gave me a brisk, can-do nod. "I can do that." And the whole table relaxed.

This, of course, is the public perception of what a writer does. Writing a book isn't much different from writing a postcard home from Niagara Falls, just longer. For the benefit of our dinnertime audience, I have her the cheerful, supportive pep talk. "Enjoy your story! Write every day! And read, read, read!" (Which might work in the long run--if only she actually read books. But no, she only wants to write one.)

This interlude is part of any author's job. Smiling when people say, "I'd write a book if only I had the time." Or looking politely interested when someone says, "Oh, I have a story for you! I'll share the profits if you'll just type it up." As if time, the ability to hunt-and-peck, and trolling for ideas among cocktail party guests were all that's standing between anyone and the NYTimes list. (It happened to me again on Friday night when I attended a museum lecture. At the reception afterwards, an out-of-town curator actually said the words to me.)

The almost universal misconception of what writers do doesn't make me angry. Or even exasperated anymore. In fact, I've started to enjoy it in a perverse kind of way. Did you see the ad in the Sunday NYTBR this weekend by the self-pubbed, Xlibris mystery author? Two mis-spelled words in the ad! How deliciously delightful!

But it's also humbling. The public perception is that we have no particular skills, no education, no constant quest for self-improvement. No determination to ignore the relentless negativity that--by necessity--pervades the industry. No talent for assessing an ever-changing marketplace to find a niche. We make no heart-breaking decisions to toss ideas we've struggled with for years because their time has passed. We simply have more time--and luck--on our hands than the average bear.

What should we do about it, my fellow writers? Nothing but smile. Smile and nod. Agree with everyone, because otherwise you will look like . . . a bitch. And somebody will say so at your graveside.

The upside is that it will jazz up your funeral. And funerals can be dreadfully dull sometimes, right? Attended any good ones lately?


Tory said...

My mother's Memorial Service, 14 years ago, was great. We asked people to share stories of my mother during the service. I guess we have the attenders to thank, but they did a really good job of turning a rather dysfunctional and ineffective woman into a funny and eccentric one. I guess that's similar to what we writers do, isn't it?

I stood up and told a story about how I got my name, and as I was about to sit down my mom's best friend said, "What you don't know, Tory, is that you were almost named Anemone Petunia."

Now, at my dad's memorial service ten years before, our folk dance band played wailing Balkan numbers ... (my mom's request, really!)

In terms of how the uneducated view our profession, I still would much rather be known as a writer than as a shrink. While most people view writers as entitled scribblers, most people see therapists as someone who can see into their darkest secrets, and therefore scary as Hell. (Sweetie, I do that for a LIVING. Why would I use my spare time that way?)

Hmm. Another reason to get that book written . . .

Nancy said...

Tory, you've convinced me. I want a folk dance band playing Balkan music at my funeral. How festive! And bagpipes are so over.

Joyce said...

Great story, Nancy.

Every once in awhile, my husband will say, "I don't quite understand how this publishing stuff works." I start to explain it to him and his eyes glaze over. I think it's something you have to go through to "get it."

I was 18 when my mother died, my younger sister almost 16, my older sisters were 26 and 28. She'd gone through a long bout with lung cancer, and by this time we were mostly relieved that it was over. One of my grandfather's brothers had been real pain throughout the whole ordeal and he'd actually taken pictures of mom when she was sick and then again at the funeral home.

As we were driving through the cemetery to the chapel, we spotted an open grave and my brother-in-law mentioned that he'd like to throw Ellwood into it. Well, that did it. We all started in with ways we'd like to do him in. Most of them painful. By the time we pulled up at the chapel, we were laughing hysterically. During the service, every so often one of us would giggle. I can imagine what the other attendees though. "Oh, those poor girls. They lost their mother and went nuts."

Joyce said...

I don't know, Nancy. I think I still want the bagpipes. And professional mourners--you know, the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

My husband wants a tailgate party in the parking lot of the funeral home. And a keg inside by the casket.

Nancy said...

Ooh, a tailgate! Now, that would be an event worth looking forward to. I wonder if I should supply the menu in advance?

Joyce said...

Ya gotta have the traditional 'burgh foods 'n at.

Gina said...

Who wants to bet that the cousin will finish her book, get it published, and have a best seller?

Cathy said...

I attended a funeral yesterday, now that you mention it. My ex-husband's second-third-and-fourth wife, now also an ex, well, her mother had died. Kim was there with her new fiance, who had brought his daughter and ex-wife also.

My daughter and I sat at the lunch table with Kim's father whose children ostrasized him because about five years ago, at age 70, he left Kim's mother and went to live with another woman.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post today, Nancy.

Probably the most memorable funeral I ever attended was the memorial service for my aunt, who passed away from cancer a few years ago. Her adopted son and girlfriend kept "disappearing" during the service. We later learned that they were sneaking out to the car to get high.

Nancy said...

Gina, usually I am more than delighted when friends get their books published. I'm overjoyed, in fact. But in this case, I might have to shoot myself. But you'll all come to the tailgate, right? And I want Lee to do something delicious with a pig. Consider that a last request, okay?

Annette said...

Hey, just because we're writing friends doesn't mean we aren't fans, too.

Last fall, I attended a funeral for my vibrant cousin who died much too young of breast cancer. She had lived all her life in West Virginia and during the service, at her request, everyone had to sing "Country Roads." There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Gina said...

Uh, Nancy, what exactly did you want Lee to do to that pig? Find out who killed it and how?

Joyce said...

Gina, Lee's from the south. I was going to say that he knows all kinds of things to do with pigs, but I'd better rephrase that. I hear he's quite proficient at pig roasts.

Anonymous said...

What a great story. Actually, as a former nurse (and Joyce's sister), I have been around numerous weird, or shall we say eccentric families. As you can tell by Joyce's story about our Mother's funeral, I suppose we WERE one of those eccentric families. I can honestly say that isn't the only family funeral that included moments of hysterical laughter, or just plain hysterics--period. All of that restraint of emotion during the death and dying, not to mention grieving process has to find it's expression in some form. Seems perfectly harmless to me to have a few laughs about an annoying great Uncle, as long as you are willing to laugh at yourself when your little imperfections perk up to the top of the stew as well. Ahhh---families. Can't live with them, and can't shoot them!

Amy (Joyce's sister)