Blue Valentines, back roads and building your book

We took a winding back road home from the accountant yesterday. I had no idea where we were, but my wife knew the way because it took us past a place that used to be a dive called the Charlestown Saloon.

That was one of a half-dozen or so places she once worked back when she was just starting out. She tended bar and waited tables at night to make ends meet until, slowly, she managed to establish herself in her day job. Building up your “book,” they call it — developing a reputation and a customer base substantial enough to pay the bills without 18-hour days of moonlighting at a second job.

This is a picture of me, wading through the flooded streets of Sea Isle City, about to do the best thing I ever did.

My wife is a licensed cosmetologist. She cuts hair and she’s really, really good at it. I’ll spare you my usual rant about Aristotelian virtue and craft. Suffice it to say she’s put in the 10,000 hours it’s said to take to acquire mastery and she has become a master at what she does.

I’m enormously proud of her. So are the dozens of customers in her now well-established “book,” who share that pride we all get whenever we’ve discovered a reliable master of any necessary craft, as though we’ve earned some sort of initiation into an elite secret society.

When we first started dating, after she had cut my hair for the first time, she asked me, half-teasing, if a bad haircut would have been a deal-breaker. I tried to tell her that what mattered to me wasn’t just that she had done a great job, but that she cared about doing a great job — that what mattered to me was how much it mattered to her. I tried to tell her that I wasn’t just impressed with her handiwork, but impressed with her.

I think I probably bungled that. I may have actually mentioned Aristotle or even, God help me, Alasdair McIntyre. Even now I haven’t yet mastered the craft of communicating to this woman how much she impresses me, or how very much I love her. But I’ll keep working at it, putting in the time toward my 10,000 hours. Practice, practice, practice.

And I do love this woman very much. That’s something you should know about me. If you don’t know that about me, then you don’t know me, because that is who I am. It’s an essential part of my identity.

This … thing here. This blog. This digital pamphleteering, this quixotic collection of secular sermons and sectarian politics and the whole virtual soap-box, pulpit, slacker-activist, gadfly, Hazel-Motes-at-Mars-Hill, evangelical expat in the progressive channel, pep-rally for the underdog, skeptical believer, believing skeptic, post-apocalyptic post-evangelical howling at the moon. This blog and its readers and the whole glorious Algonquin Round Table of commenters and friends I’ve never met. This is also who I am. This is also an essential part of my identity.

I am immensely fortunate and grateful not to have to choose between the two. But if I ever did have to choose, well, I’d miss all of this immensely. I’d feel that phantom pain that amputees describe, the enduring ache of a missing limb. But you can go on living without a limb. You can’t go on living without your heart. (Dick Cheney being the exception that proves the rule.)

I say all of this because it’s Valentine’s Day on Thursday. When you write for a living, you should write something nice for your spouse on Valentine’s Day instead of just sending flowers or chocolates. (Particularly since writing for a living tends to mean a pretty limited flowers-and-chocolates budget.)

But I’m also writing this because that back-road trip past the old saloon was a reminder to my wife of all the stress, strain, uncertainty and exhaustion of those long years when she was just starting out. It was her second such reminder yesterday, following that trip to the accountant.

My wife worked hard to get past all of that, enduring all the struggle of building her book, of juggling bills during months that always seemed a couple of days too long, of working to master her craft, to stay committed to it until that commitment could bear its own weight, all the while wondering if it ever would or could or if it wouldn’t be more sensible, more responsible, just to give up and find something else steadier and more substantial.

My wife went through all of that long before she met me. And she thought she was past all of that. But now instead of the rest and relief that she’s earned, she finds herself married to a husband who’s in exactly the same situation in his 40s that she struggled through in her 20s.

I’m building my book, trying to establish the readership and the reputation that would allow this thing here to bear its own weight.

And it’s working. Slowly but surely, it’s working. But still too slowly to spare my wife the stress and strain and uncertainty that she remembers all too well.

What that means, in part, is that now it’s my turn to pick up the double-shifts and moonlighting if I can find them. That’s something I’d resisted because I didn’t want to take away from my efforts here. I wasn’t sure how to calculate the opportunity costs, but the arithmetic has gotten much clearer and now it’s time. My commitment to you here is not to let that show.

Another part of what that means is that building a book will likely involve an actual book book. I’ve begun work on that (your D&D stories have been a great help, thank you), but I haven’t mentioned it here directly. This is me, now, mentioning it here directly, because that helps to make it seem more real and may help me to make it actually happen.

Yet another part of what building my book here means is that I’m going to have to get better at the marketing end of things. That runs against the grain of my skill-set and my inclinations, but it’s a necessary aspect of building one’s book, so it’s something I’m going to have to learn. Can I figure out how to do that without it seeming as crass, transparent, grasping and manipulative as everything I tend to associate with that word, “marketing”? I hope so. If not, I invite you to keep me in line if I ever stray too far in that direction. I invite you to let fly with honest criticism and honest mockery if you catch me clumsily urging you to “like” every post on Facebook or awkwardly begging for you to share every post via Twitter. (I also invite you to “like” every post on Facebook and to share every post via Twitter.)

And finally, part of what this means — speaking of crass, transparent, grasping and manipulative — is that I’d like to ask you, if you are able and inclined, to donate through that Tip Jar button crassly and graspingly located up there on the right.

Thank you if you can do that. Thank you if you can’t. And thank you for your patience with this uncomfortably personal post.

  • Ouri Maler

    Well, I’ve been benefiting from your thought-provoking, enjoyable, and/or* informative posts for years, so, Paypal time.
    And if I do end up getting that job with the higher salary, it’ll be Paypal time again. Best of luck to you.*”and” more often than “or”.

  • Kit

    HA YES FINALLY A BOOK-BOOK!

    In other words, I heartily approve and will do my best to support your work financially. Thank you for everything you give to this community.

  • Doug

    Congratulations, Fred.  If marketing is bothering you, I strongly recommend taking a look at Seth Godin (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/)  I think he shares many of your reservations about what is typically meant by “marketing” and re-imagines both the theory and practice around generosity, connectedness, and truth-telling.  

    While I haven’t had the occasion (yet) to employ his marketing advice, I’ve found “The Dip” (about perseverance) to be immensely valuable. 

    Good luck in your venture. 

  • Tomas

    Here’s some advice of the “shut up and take my money” variety.  Make a book out of your Left Behind review.  Bookstore shelves are filthy with titles like, “The Unofficial Guide to Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Davinci Code, or Some Other Popular Book”.  A Left Behind book from you is long overdue, and timely, with the new movie coming. 

  • aw/swpa

    If you ever need a graphic designer for the effort, let me know. I work f/t with a disability, but if there’s anyone I’m willing to help do websites, business cards, &c. for, it’s the guy who helped me keep hold of my faith when the house of cards was collapsing. I am so glad to hear of your successes, and hope that they only grow in the future. 

  • Noirceuil

    Good luck with your projects, Fred! (I hope you don’t mind that I call you “Fred”) I feel where you are coming from, being in the same position.

    For some reason, I’ve never “shared” your posts on Facebook, even though I read you asidously; I do rave and recommend you to my friends in person. I guess the reason is that heavy, insightful discussions into American Evangelism (specially when you and your friends are neither) isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so I didn’t put it on my Facebook wall.But starting today, I will. It’s time for the world at large to follow the Slactivist!

  • Noirceuil

    Discus ate the formatting… And I just spotted all my mistakes. Great. 


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