Have you ever been to one of those barbecues where some guy is name-dropping all over the place? He’s talking about the big things he’s done, and everyone flocks around him because some people are actually impressed by this?
And when the food is served, the host asks this guy to say grace, or toast, or whatever.
The guy answers, “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly.”
But he does anyway.
He makes a big speech, drops a few more names, tells a few more grandiose stories, and you need a seasickness bag.
But in truth, you hardly notice him all night because throughout the party, you are in the corner talking to an old woman—let’s call her Maddie.
Maddie is the mother of one of the guests. She is wearing slippers and a nightgown, but her mind is sharp. She looks out of place at this party, but you like out-of-place people because you are one.
Maddie survived the Great Depression, and she never talks about this in public. It’s too painful. But tonight, her meds are kicking in, and she’s talking with you because she’s high as a weather balloon.
And you fall in love with her. You even contemplate kidnapping her to be your own private granny.
The more she talks, the more you want to tell everyone at the barbecue how incredible Maddie is, but everyone is too head-over-heels about Mister Name Dropper, who is telling a story about how he once ran into Kim Kardashian in an elevator in Toledo.
So the party ends, and Maddie goes to bed because she has chair yoga in the morning. And that night, you go home and feel so inspired that you start writing a novel.
And that’s how the book begins.
It’s a tribute to an old woman you met. Only, the more you write, the less it becomes about her. Pretty soon, it’s not about her at all. It’s something else.
Maybe this is how most novels start. A little kernel of an idea gets bigger and bigger. And the more you mess with it, the more it becomes a part of your everyday life.
You think about this book in the shower. During lunch. You think about it when you take your dogs for walks and beg them to go to the bathroom while they sniff every blade of grass in the postal zip code.
A few years later, you’re still working on it. And one night, you find yourself at another barbecue. Everyone is gathered around Mister Name Dropper again.
This time, he’s telling a riveting story about how once, in Toledo, he played golf with Kelsey Grammer.
But you end up talking to someone like Maddie again. Only this time, Maddie is an eighty-five-year-old man. And he’s perfect.
So you go home and you put him in your book, too.
And eventually, your book gets finished. Now what do you do?
This is scary territory. You could share it with someone, but who cares about your dumb old book? To ask someone to read your novel is a lot like asking them to join a multi-level marketing scheme.
So you have a few options at this point. You could burn the book with kerosene. Or maybe invest in a high-quality paper shredder. Or you could let your spouse read it.
When I finished my first draft a few years ago, I almost couldn’t even share the book with my wife. That’s what a wuss I was.
What if she hated it? I would have been embarrassed if my own wife would have closed my book and said, “I was thinking meatloaf for dinner, what about you?”
But do you know what happened? She closed the book and, in what can only be described as an intimate moment, she said, “I was thinking turkey casserole tonight.”
Embarrassment has been a common theme in my life. I was bad at baseball, I couldn’t make it as a musician, I’ve had a hundred and fifty-seven construction jobs, and I scooped ice cream for minimum wage.
After writing a book, the last thing I wanted was to give people another reason to whisper about me:
“Did you hear about Sean’s latest failure?”
“He’s thinks he’s a writer now!”
“Ha ha! What a loser!”
“I know! Hey, you wanna go to Toledo?”
But somewhere along the way, life catches up with you, I guess. And you realize that all the crummy things you believed about yourself aren’t true.
They were never true. Those confidence issues were in your head.
So what if you are mediocre? So what if you didn’t get the greatest shot at life? So what if you scooped ice cream? So what if you’ve never been to Toledo? Everybody has a story.
And this makes you feel better, somehow. I don’t know why.
Then one night, a few days before your book is released, you find yourself at a barbecue. And you remember the way you once sat in the corner with that sweet old woman, and how the first idea sprang into your head. And how in only a few days, it will all be so real.
You only wish Maddie were still here to read it.