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What do people think of me?
A good friend is in the midst of an incredible professional success. She directed Into the Woods, a revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical from 1987 that debuted last Spring at Encores! and has now moved to Broadway. It’s wonderful! And it arrives just when we need it, with the promise and acknowledgement that bad things happen and there is no happily ever after, but we forge connections with each other, and persist.
This show is really so good. But don’t take my word for it. Check out the many fabulous reviews. The New Yorker calls it a “delectable revival.” The New York Times says it arrives with its “humor, wonder and humanity intact.”
My friend doesn’t know any of this. She doesn’t read the reviews.
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We ended up discussing this recently over dinner, if you could call our visit “dinner.” It was one of those evenings where all of the children were running in every direction, fussing, refusing to eat and fighting over each others’ toys. You’d start a conversation that would trail off into a command to “finish that corn or no dessert!” In between dinner (five minutes) and dessert (popsicles, also five minutes), she turned to me and asked something that a lot of my friends have been asking: “How are you feeling about the book?”
It’s the kind of question that doesn’t have a straightforward answer. I loved writing it. I loved the early morning laptop sessions, the words falling into place. I even loved cutting the ones that didn’t fall into place. But now, I’m in the business of promoting the book—and mostly, it doesn’t feel good. When reviews land, I devour them and fixate on reviewer concerns. I can repeat verbatim the Goodreads review early on from someone who said the book “was kind of boring but I got through it.” I’m in the business of asking for a million favors from people I know (and also people I just sort of know) , and sometimes people don’t get back to me, or say no. And though it might be because they are on vacation or overwhelmed themselves or they just missed the email, it all feels personal.
I tried to explain this to my friend, who has been wrestling with what the public has to say about her work for much longer me, and she said, “Well I can tell you what I do. I don’t read the reviews.”
“At all?” I asked. I was trying to think about whether that even seems possible for me. I figured she did this to save herself the discomfort of reading ones that weren’t great. “You don’t even read the good ones? Like, eventually?”
“No,” she said, with such calm resolve that you’d think Jude wasn’t screeching right behind her. The good ones were no different than the bad, she said. She explained that each time she paid too much attention to what others said about her work, it impacted the next piece of work she did. If a series of good reviews complimented the same aspect of a show, she might lean into that aspect in the future in order to please a broader audience. Any of these compromises would take away from the nature of her artistic relationship with her work.
This makes so much sense to me. It speaks to what I loved most about writing the book: for 15 months, I let no one outside my family (the book’s subjects) read it. I didn’t pass off early drafts to friends for feedback. I didn’t take a poll to figure out what the ending was supposed to be. I found my voice and felt confident in my words. When the book was done, I knew it was as true as I knew how to make it.
This feeling—that I knew what I wanted to say, and had an idea of how to do it—was magic, and I don’t want to give it up. Maybe that’s why I dislike the promotion part of this process so much. I really do want people to find this book, especially people for whom it has a meaningful impact. And I love discussing it with readers. Beyond that, the selling part is less comfortable. With every social post, I’m asking: what do you think of me? And I’m interpreting every review, and every response, as an answer: here’s what you think of me.
So I’ve been thinking about how take a step back from it. For one, I’ve resolved to forward all reviews to my wife, who can share back on a need-to-know basis. And, I’ve committed to starting new work, to using the time that I’m not actively promoting this book—time now spent waiting for responses and being nervous—to go into the woods. To explore new ideas, not meant for an audience larger than one: me.
📘The Family Outing
Through the end of the month, you can order signed copies from Books are Magic. We’re also starting to put together a calendar of book events. Here’s an early pass. You can purchase tickets for the October 3 event here. You can register for the October 6 event here. (And here’s a cool thing about that one: Richie Jackson, author of Gay Like Me, will join me for a conversation, and it’s his birthday!)
Also! TIME has included The Family Outing on its list of the 33 most anticipated books of Fall 2022, calling it “a mesmerizing debut that shines with empathy.” (At least, that’s what my wife tells me it says. 😊)
Chloe Freeman is uniquely positioned to understand their customers. As a nonbinary actor and entrepreneur, Chloe is building a queer wellness company. It’s called For Them. On this episode, Chloe shares their coming out stories, both as gay and then as nonbinary. And, they get specific on the details of how they raised capital and what they are building.
Things I’m reading
Ben Thompson’s recent essay entitled TikTok, Instagram and the Three Trends should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand how media consumption is evolving, and how social media platforms will shift. To wit: Ben asserts that Instagram got out over its skis with its recent announcements, and temporarily rolled things back a bit, but that shift is only temporary. As Instagram’s parent company, Meta, grows more sophisticated at understanding the different between what we WANT to see in our feeds and what we SAY we want to see in our feeds, we’ll see more of the kind of content that captures our attention without affording power to creators or leading us closer to the friends and family we all originally signed on to Instagram to follow.
And, this matters a lot, regardless of what you think about Instagram. It’s really the story of the future of media writ large.
🚌 A busload of book lovers
In February 2020, children’s book authors Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr joined Hello Monday where they told listeners about an audacious dream: They planned to live with their four children on a tiny school bus for the year, visiting every state (plus DC!) to deliver books to Title I schools and do presentations on creativity and collaboration. Less than a month later, quarantine started and the plan, along with just about everything else in life, was delayed. So it’s THRILLING to see the official kick-off of the Busload of Books tour. Maybe you are wondering, how DO two tired-but-creative adults and four children LIVE FULL-TIME on a miniature school bus? You can and should follow along here. (And, they’ll be plugging in and charging up at our home in Tupelo next January. If you’re in the area and you want to bring them food and/or cheer, get in touch with them or us.)
***So maybe you’re asking, what’s this about again? You're my brain trust. I don't write for thousands. I write to exchange ideas with the small group of people I've met and who matter to me, in hopes that together we can figure out something more about where humanity is going and how it gets there. This is a team sport. Please let me know what to think about, where to train my attention, where you are training yours.