Dogged by Fame

Clifford to the rescue!

I became a writer because I like to write. But I also did it for the attention. At one point, I wanted to be just like J.D. Salinger -- but when it turned out he was a recluse, I dropped him. I would make a terrible recluse. On the off chance that I managed to write spare, funny, intensely moving accounts of our life and times, I wanted to be pestered by an adoring public. Even at a young age, I understood that being fussed over and feted -- in short, being a Famous Writer -- would be a lot more diverting than actually sitting around, writing. And so I set out to become whatever the opposite of a reclusive writer is called. A ham bone? A showboat?

But these are not the right words to describe my first encounters with Famous Writers -- the people who came to my school to lecture during the writing portion of Women's Day in the early '70s. Gloria Steinem was charming and funny and extremely babe-a-licious in her suede miniskirts with matching boots. Novelist Lois Gould was even better -- she read aloud to us from a work in progress, and within three sentences she had uttered the words "excitable adolescent cock," getting the attention not just of the eighth-grade English class, but of all the moms who had come to have their consciousnesses raised. Given the chance, I knew I would love to write dirty scenes and read them aloud in public.

For many years, I also knew that if I wanted to both write and stand around on a stage getting attention, I would have to do them separately. Thus I wrote at home, and in public played piano and sang in a local band -- a band that, for a brief, glorious time, opened for national acts. I learned that if you play your cards right, you can siphon off some of the attention that's supposed to go to the third Neville Brother, for instance, and no one will be the wiser. Just having been in the same dressing room as John Hiatt or Warren Zevon made me pseudo-important.

That was only what I pseudo-wanted, though, so I kept writing. Eventually, I sold a book to a national publisher, was given an advance against royalties and even wrote the book. And then, finally, came a book signing at the Tattered Cover. It was heaven. The audience, which consisted of everyone I'd ever known plus everyone I'd ever written about, was receptive to my amusing remarks. My right hand cramped up from signing autographs, and people kept asking me very personal, writerly questions: What was my schedule, how do I treat my subjects, where did I get my inspiration and did I, for God's sake, have any advice for younger writers? It seemed I had arrived.

Over the next two months, however, I found that my Tattered Cover experience was an aberration. What happened in my actual life as a Famous Writer was this: I would go to a Borders bookstore in some suburb, where I would sit at a table near the magazines, trying desperately to make eye contact with men who had only popped in for the latest Sports Illustrated. Or I would stand up before a crowd of two sleepy old ladies and deliver an hour of "remarks," my voice growing louder and more desperate by the minute. Occasionally, I sold one or two books, in which I wrote long, affectionate inscriptions.

My Famous low point came in Seattle, where I appeared at Third Place Books, a very enticing shop with a multicultural food court and stage at its center. Here I howled my off-the-cuff witticisms into a microphone, disturbing some thirty people who were just trying to eat their fajitas and who kept changing tables until they were as far away from me as they could get. After that, I sat alone before a pile of books for a half hour. Then I spent $110 on other people's books and $6 on a burrito. The irony did not escape me: Here I was, living the life of a literary recluse -- in the middle of a book tour, no less.

I decided to limit my public appearances to groups that did not want to hear from a Famous Author but did want to hear about gardening, the subject of my book. In the past year, I have talked and signed at Elks lodges, Kiwanis clubs, Toastmasters meetings and ladies' garden clubs. The free lunches have been generous, the audiences more so, and I've felt at home.

So I was surprised to receive a call earlier this year from the Denver West Barnes & Noble. The events director, Elaine McDaniel wanted me to do a book signing in the spring. I thought it over and got back to her with a counterproposal: I would do the signing, but only on the eve of Mother's Day, and only if someone a lot more famous than me was appearing the same day. I figured this strategy might work as it had during my music days, when people had to sit through me if they wanted to hear Peter Himmelman. Elaine was very understanding and read me her entire roster of visiting celebrities.

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