On Fame and Flyers
On the publication of my second book, a debut collection of short stories, joy and satisfaction did not arrive on my doorstop with the brown cardboard box of ten free copies from the publisher. Rather their ugly stepsisters, gloom and inadequacy.
My first book, a revolutionary mix of literary fiction and magic realism drilling deep into the pain of a parent’s suicide, bounced optimistically out into the world only to come to a sad dribbling deceleration, eventually rolling out of sight under the couch. I counted on winning some first novel literary award as my primary marketing strategy, and not unpredictably had I studied the statistics, this didn’t occur.
I’d had a really ripping book launch with excellent cupcakes and a blues guitarist, I did a few readings and a few interviews, including a thrilling one for a CBC morning radio show in an honest-to-God CBC recording studio. But there it ended. An aggressive social media marketing campaign both under- and overwhelmed me, and I opted out. Loyal family and friends read the book and said they liked it. Several people I didn’t know and who had no obligation to tell me otherwise, contacted me and said they’d been moved, which was gratifying. There was the validation of publishing with a respectable Canadian literary press, and perhaps most satisfying, registering my books with the Canada Council for the Arts Public Lending Rights Program. From this will come an annual report showing where my books reside in libraries across the country. Since libraries were a lifeline for me as a child, this is a big deal.
Yet even so, it was all a bit of a let-down compared to my secret dreams of literary success. My novel made no shortlists. Neither Eleanor Wachtel nor Shelagh Rogers left messages on my answering machine.
“Isn’t that enough?” asked my husband as we lay in bed one night. “If you made even one person feel less alone in a similar situation? And what about the intrinsic benefits of just having written the thing?”
Trying to appear spiritually mature I agreed with him. But shortly thereafter I had to admit, talking into the darkness above us, “No, it’s not enough. I want to be famous!”
“Famous? How would you define that? How famous is famous enough?”
“Not as famous as Lucy Maud Montgomery, but famous in a niche kind of way. Like Lucy Boston or Edith Nesbitt,” I said, referencing my love of children’s literature. “The average person hasn’t read them, but they’re still in print and their houses have become museums. As long as I can walk my dog without people stopping and saying, ‘Aren’t you Sophie Stocking?’ That’s where I’d draw the line, but I’d be published by Penguin and able to make at least a subsistence living off my royalties.”
“That’s not too famous. I think you could do that,” said my husband.
Unburdened as he was by such issues, he rolled over and fell immediately asleep.
The next morning, with the kids packed off to school and three fat elastic cinched bundles of Alberta Beyond Coal fliers sitting beside me in the passenger seat, I drove to the neighbourhood in which according to the xeroxed map I received from the coordinator was the zone I needed to deliver. This after reading Annie Dillard’s advice to writers; ‘Dedicate your life to something larger than yourself, to the greatest thing you can: to God, to relieving suffering, to contributing to knowledge, to anything else…. You can’t just read and write, or you’ll sink into depression. You have to be doing something undeniably useful as well.’
Alberta Beyond Coal certainly qualifies as useful, a visionary organization which I respect. I believe in stopping open pit coal mining in the eastern slopes of the Alberta Rockies. Delivering fliers is necessary if humble work, a contribution in preventing selenium pollution in rivers among other dangers, in service to which I would willingly clock many kilometres in any number of neighbourhoods.
But after parking under a poplar tree on a residential street behind Peter’s Drive In, I first pull out my phone and google the statistical odds of becoming a famous writer. The results are not encouraging. First, according to Huff Post, is the following staggering figure: 2.2 million books were published in a recent year in the United States, with 130 million books published in all human history.
Good Lord. 2.2 million books in one year, and now self-published books swell the ranks by a rough thirty percent. Worst of all only two percent of books sold more than 5,000 copies with the average book selling less than 500. What microscopic chance did my two slim paperbacks stand against this onslaught of verbiage, talent, and worthy tales?
The car on this June morning begins to swelter with the windows rolled up. I need to start walking to finish my route before the worst heat of the day, but I soldier on and google ‘percentage of people who want to be authors.’ Eighty percent! A rough eighty percent of people will confess to thinking they have a book in them. And how many people are there on the planet anyhow at this point? According to the Population Clock, seven point six billion. Somehow, this makes me feel better. Eighty percent of some eight billion people think writing a book a worthwhile endeavour.
I lift the sticky hair from the back of my neck and google one last thing; the percentage of people who just brashly want to be famous. A study in Scientific American found that a full fifty percent of young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five wanted to be famous as their primary motivator, followed by thirty percent who prioritized community leadership, twenty-two percent who strove to help those in need, and a mere ten percent intent on spirituality. Here, the article adds, only one in 62 thousand people could be classified as famous, slightly better odds than being hit by lightning (one in 83 thousand). Of course, the immaturity of the sample group, with young adults having a stronger drive for peer acceptance than the overall population likely sway the results. Solidly middle-aged now I feel like a schmuck, but no, reading on there are a variety of motivations for fame - not all of them shallow or narcissistic.
I open the door to let in some air and wipe the sweat off my collarbones with a fold of t-shirt.
1) The desire to be seen, valued, and recognized.
2) The desire for an elite high-status lifestyle, and
3) The desire to use fame to help others or to make them proud.
Predictably test subjects who scored high in narcissism wanted 1 and 2 and thought fame relatively attainable. Those who scored high in a fear of social exclusion also scored high in 1 and 2, though they doubted that fame would be attainable for them. Finally, those test subjects who only scored high in a need for relatedness chose the third motivator.
Okay maybe I’m not immature and narcissistic after all. Didn’t I draw the line at anonymous dog walks? And I dislike most things pretentious or materialistic, so phew, my desire to be famous is a healthy, even noble social impulse! I put my phone and two of the packets of fliers into my backpack. Removing the elastic band from the third bundle I unglue my sweaty thighs from the vinyl seat cover and get out of the car. This delivery zone is a straightforward grid of residential streets, I can work from north to south, up and down the streets on the east side of Edmonton Trail, and then systematically back again south to north to arrive once more at my starting point. No wasteful backtracking required, essential now as I’ve blown thirty minutes on google research while the heat ratchets up a degree every ten minutes.
I head down Seventeenth Avenue, parallel to Sixteenth, a central artery in Calgary that turns into the Trans-Canada Highway as it exits the city. It’s a teeming six lane thoroughfare, and the yards backing on to it are noisy, so not prime real estate. The result; blocks of rental bungalows and grimy apartment buildings. I walk and try to comprehend one in 62 thousand people. No, that isn’t enough. I should get my head around being one of almost eight billion people. As I go, I deposit fliers, the cover flap to hang lengthwise outside of each mailbox as I’ve been instructed, with the words “Protect Our Water” in green and blue. And for each mailbox I try to ascertain from plant pots and door mats and all the other domestic detritus, some flavor of the person or family inside.
It is so hot. Thirty degrees and only the middle of the morning. I push open a heavy wooden gate hanging askew and walk up the crumbling concrete step with its tattered indoor-outdoor carpet. The door sits propped open, and white daisied curtains shift in the breeze. A cactus planted in a teacup takes in the sun on a windowsill. University students, I think and lift the rusted flap of the mailbox. The next three houses, judging from the rotting gates and carpeted stairs, must have the same landlord. One is surrounded by new age gee gaws, a Buddha’s head, angels dangling crystals, driftwood, and broken seashells. The next house, just a sheet pinned over the window and a tin can on the doorstep holding cigarette butts. I arrange the flyer hanging lengthwise, though the mailbox is stuffed with several months’ worth of junk mail already. At the last house a guy sits tattooed and shirtless on his doorstep with a Pitbull cross who starts to bark. I’m not going in, but I could reach the mailbox hung on the inside of the fence.
“Quiet Betsy,” he says. “What have you got?”
“Alberta Beyond Coal? We’re raising awareness about open pit mining in the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Do you want a flier?”
“Sure. I don’t like coal. Put it in the mailbox,” he replies, appearances being deceiving.
Four out of eight billion lives, and all the ones in Calgary at least, too hot on this day in June. The old stucco bungalows lack any shading eave and are no doubt poorly insulated. I finish the five blocks backing onto 16th Avenue. One has a plastic wading pool filled up on the driveway. Pinecones hang by delicate red threads from the branches of a spruce tree above it. Two plastic children’s windmills spin, turquoise and orange, planted in clay pots on either side of the open door.
A new condo building of five tiny units which don’t even have mailboxes. It occurs to me that paper mail for some people is a thing of the past, that they’ve gone fully digital. I leave the flyers sticking out from under their door mats. One door stands ajar, with dropcloths and painting going on, so I toss the flyer just inside. A man’s voice with a Swiss accent says, “Thank you!” As I do the final two units, he comes out carrying a ladder.
“You’ll be getting strong legs,” he says.
I laugh. “Also heat stroke!”
The last house exudes such an aura of evil that there is no approaching it, the driveway filled with cars in various stages of repair, some ten pairs of men’s shoes on the doorstep. I see a woman standing between the window and the closed curtains, looking down the street smoking and crying. She turns her back when she sees me.
Damn it’s hard sometimes being one of eight billion humans. What had the Alberta Beyond Coal organizer said to me when she handed me the fliers?
“We’re fighting for water-based life.”
It’s hard sometimes to be water-based life. I’ve never thought of it quite like that. The flora and the fauna, all the humans, all largely composed of water, and how a day in June shouldn’t be this hot at ten thirty in the morning, and that I wish weather didn’t make me so anxious now in my middle age.
Crossing the street, I start working west. There are fewer rentals because the houses back onto a quiet laneway. Perhaps every tenth house boasts an amazing garden, some rigidly tidy with plastic deer sculptures and cherubim, some chaotic and lush with reflecting balls and birdbaths. Sprinklers run here and there. Blinds are drawn tight to keep out the sun. Most have just the requisite pot of petunias at the front door, or a sign instructing me to ‘live love and laugh’. And though I think I have more in common with the gardeners, when one woman in a truly beautiful yard asks me not to litter her property with fliers, I’m not so sure. It has been an hour and a half, and I’ve made it to the A&W on Edmonton Trail. From here I will cross the street and work the other half of the rectangle back to my car. But first, something cold to drink. I pull open the door, and the blessed air conditioning hits me.
“Diet root beer, please,” I say to the dark eyed man behind the counter.
“Small or regular?”
He returns with the foaming mug. Sliding into an orange plastic dinette, I press the icy glass against my neck, my wrists, then suck on the straw. Ahh, root beer. How many years since I’ve drunk one of these?
Elton John sings on the sound system, making the moment an eighties throwback in every respect. It’s “Rocket Man.”
I miss the Earth so much. I miss my wife. It’s lonely out in space. I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.
I realize I’ve been mistaken all along about the line I’ll be high as a kite by then. I’d thought that a reference to drugs, but now I can hear he sings about homesickness for Earth, for the ‘lonely planet.’
I google “life in the solar system.” In short order Wikipedia makes it clear; in the entire solar system the only possible life that exists beyond Earth consists of extremophile microorganisms residing in subsurface oceans, whatever those are. Wow. Rocket Man fades out, I think it’s gonna be a long, long time, and I try to imagine Earth’s comparative tininess in that black immensity. How do you get your head around concepts like that? I need a ratio. I Google “Life to Not-Life ratio of the solar system.” What are the chances - something comes up. It turns out you can calculate that, and somebody has. It’s quite simple; subtract the Earth’s habitable zone, its biosphere, from its total volume. The biosphere is only a twenty-three kilometre deep, wrinkly blanket wrapping a rock and magma core. Once you get the biosphere volume, you make a ratio with the volume of the entire solar system, which is possible because they somehow know the radius, and there it is, 1/33,327,655,248,734,400,000, or alternately 0.00000000000000000300 % of the solar system is habitable.
I finish the last of the root beer. I’m actually starting to feel cold. I pull another bundle of fliers from my pack and think about this. 1/33,327,655,248,734,400,000 made the ratio of fame, 1/62,000, look like a home run. But what this means in the broadest possible perspective only occurs to me when I step outside into the baking heat and roar of Edmonton Trail. On a solar system scale any multi-celled life form qualifies as a rock star, some 33,327,655,248,734,400,000 (for short thirty-three quintillion) times more famous than Jesus, or even the Beatles!
Pushing the walk button, I wait for traffic to stop, then cross to a despondent monolith apartment block on the corner. No flowers bloom on balconies, many are crowded with garbage. Cigarette butts litter the desiccated grass on either side of the walkway to the windowless front door. It does open, the landlord seeing no need for a security system, so I step inside. Graffiti scrawled on walls, encrustations of gum on the dirty linoleum floor. I slip an Alberta Beyond Coal flier into the crack beside each mailbox recessed in the wall, and then I leave.
Heading down the road towards happier places, I almost step on something. In the silt accumulated on a square of sidewalk I see marks that could only be made by a human hand. Stopping, I examine the lines scratched with a stick, two piles of pebbles, some placed as markers within a lopsided grid joined to a spiral, a game, the invention of a child. A stick figure with wide arms and a broad smile in the circle of its head, with the word MOM printed beside it. I stand and look up at the apartment block and wonder behind which balcony this child lives. Does she lie in bed at night and continue to invent this game? A game constructed from nothing but imagination, and a stick, and it would seem the love of a mother. Because who knows - after all, the quality of love bestowed on that child which would result in such resilience, appearances again being deceptive.
I go back to the Life/Not-Life Ratio as I walk and study the elm trees. Above the tree line birds, and insects, and humans in planes, microbes as well I suppose, exist in a very sparse density for some kilometres. Beneath my feet, maybe a kilometre contains life, and then, nothing. Nothing all the way through to the molten core of the planet, and then nothing again, spinning out into the practical infinity of the solar system. This “habitable zone” which we feel we are drowning in, in the suffering and competition, the apparently endless hurdles to overcome, the joys and temptations, is exponentially onion skin thin, and exponentially unique, and therefore, logically, exponentially precious.
I put a flier in the next mailbox. A cat sits on a wicker chair tethered by a leash, sunning itself and taking in the sparrow and squirrel action. A sign on the door says “I don’t know. Ask the cat.” I work my way, mailbox by mailbox, through the grid of streets back to my car, and think how imperative it is that the person creating a joyful life for their child, with only slender red threads tied to pinecones and a Walmart wading pool, continues to do so. That even the person living behind the pinned-up sheet, with the can of cigarette butts on the doorstep was a work of extraordinary sophistication and possibility, God knows maybe no one had loved him early on.
The woman crying, trapped between the window and the drapes, must not give up. All of us creating and competing and caring for each other, fomenting new plans. All this water-based life.
I open my car door and sit gingerly on the very hot seat, fire up the air conditioning, and take the last swig of tea from my go cup. We are all famous. No matter where we fall due to the whims of social media logarithms or luck, if we settle at the top, or somewhere in the middle, or the bottom of the heap of accumulated life, the important part is the doing and the being. And so I think, backing out of my parking spot, I will go home and start the next book, whether anyone reads it or not.