|Me, far left, failing to look|
inconspicuous onstage with fellow
Chicago Quarterly Review readers
"I'm a writer," I respond, my mouth dry, unwillingly, but I can't deny my calling after all. As a 20-something smart-ass, I used to answer: "I sell health insurance for pets." That's a real thing now that veterinaries charge as much as brain surgeons.
Then comes the follow-up: "What have you written?" I know it's just making conversation. Nature hates a vacuum. Nonetheless, I break into a neurotic sweat. I imagine the questioner thinking: If you're a writer how come I haven't heard of you?
I need a warm-up act. I name some titles, not that any will strike up the band: Gunning for the Holy Ghost, Our Own Kind, Milagro on 34th Street...
Here comes my old friend, impostor syndrome. There's truth in it. I am not the fellow who writes my books. Writers wiser than I have noted that aspect of the process.
From there, the conversation can go off the track completely. I've been asked, more than once: "Are you related to Umberto Eco." We Umbertos are all related, of course. People will blurt anything to avoid silences.
I shouldn't hide my lamp. So I must continue, smiling. As Rabbi Hillel noted: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, then what am I? If not now, when?" One way or another, all but the most famous of writers must promote themselves, yet appear modest - never hustle. This is not limited to indie writers. Corporate publishers expect authors to be "marketing partners" - ie, sell books for them.
Self-promotion, however, makes for lousy conversation. I know my story. I'd rather get to know somebody else. Better to question my interrogators and be keen about it. Unlike yours truly, most others do like to talk about themselves.
Aunty Mame has nothing on my inamorata, narrative surrealist painter Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, when it comes to lighting up a room. She gets strangers pouring out their life stories in seconds. She doesn't shy from inquiries, though this has evolved. "I'm basically an introvert." she says. "I had to teach myself to reach out."
"When I was young," she adds, "I used to say I was a painter, not an artist. I felt I had to earn the title." Once in a while, someone who doesn't know her well will ask if she's sold anything. Not that it's a valid measure of an artist. "They will ask if I do arts-and-crafts fairs. I tell them my art is too expensive for fairs, which it is."
It's natural to inquire about what people do for a living - less so, as a passion. Maybe it should be the other way around.
I'm open to suggestions. Let's make this an informal poll. How do you handle being asked what you do? Are you comfortable responding? Is telling folks about yourself like threadding a needle, or opening a door?
Fame is a slippery thing. It doesn't necessarily sell books either. I used to speak at luncheons and go on local TV shows as part of my job as a magazine editor. It made my stomach cramp. It was tempting to conflate corporate with personal fame and delusions of merit. The same goes for dropping the name of a book publisher who happens to carry one of my titles.
Self-promotion is a necessary evil for authors, no matter how subtly done. Too many budding writers wait like Cinderellas to be discovered by a fairy god-editor or princely agent - intoxicated by the myth that the system sorts us fairly. It's true that fine creative works do surface at times, and writers do become famous. But let's not confuse proximity with cause.
"I'm still an introvert," Eleanor says, "but I realized that I'd have to come out of my shell if I wanted people to notice my work," Eleanor says. "I saw that artists who were successful tended to be outgoing."
That sounds familiar, except my act is less convincing. Don't get me wrong. I like people, just one or two at a time.
I'm a writer because I write, every day I can. When I'm not writing, I'm gathering strings of narrative to roll into my dream ball of stories. This has nothing much to do what has been published under my name - mainstream, back-stream or indie.
As a writer, I want to share those dreams - make them readily available for people to enjoy if they so choose. I don't mind telling folks about my stores when they show interest, but I find it hard to say that I am a writer with defining confidence. Like the name of a continent on a globe, the title of "writer" covers a lot of territory that it doesn't begin to define. It stands for something I do, and for something I aspire to be. It's a lot, but paradoxically says little about me.
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's Name, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He has four grown children and resides in Chicago.