"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Monday, October 27, 2008

I'm a bad girl (and I'm okay with that)

One of my personal demons (in a long list) is that I am a pleaser. I like to make people happy, which is such a double-edged sword. If I make people happy by doing something I don't like, I'm unhappy, but if I make people unhappy by doing something I like, I'm still unhappy. Is that clear?

I think this demon makes me good at story telling; I've learned to read my audience and adjust my tale or delivery until I see the result I want on their faces. Of course, I have no control over my readership and can't adjust my writing to make them happy. This is where my demon tortures me.

In my magazine (Western Side Story) column and my newspaper (What a Day) column, I try to entertain, enlighten and interest people. Note that I didn't use any verbs like "challenge", "bait", or "offend". There are enough columnists and bloggers who want their readers to snarl and snap at their musings. I want people to be happy. And still, I manage to offend.

Last year, a reader wrote to my newspaper editor that he hated my column. He considers me selfish, self-centered, egomaniacal, etc, because my humor column always talks about what's happening in my life. He's absolutely correct; this is because that's what my column is about. It's a slice-of-life humor column, like that self-centered Erma Bombeck. He obviously didn't get it, perhaps because he's a curmudgeon and possibly needs to get laid (sorry, cheap shot). But my first reaction to his letter was, "Oh, he's right, I need to talk more about the community. I'm so selfish." Thank goodness, I had an email that same day from a women who said she loves the fact that she can identify with me as I write about daily life.

My magazine column is about horses in general, and western riding specifically. I cover horse shows, give information about where to get a saddle that fits, and review trail rides that I've taken. One such trail ride was on a trip to Alaska. I wrote about the beautiful scenery, discussed the differences between this ride and the ones I take in Pebble Beach, and I sang the praises of the trail horses, who must walk the trail quietly while putting up with many inexperienced riders.

I had used a specific rider as an example of what these horses have to put up with - she was on the ride, despite having recently had knee replacement surgery. As much as I love to ride, this would have stopped me cold. All the horse would have to do is spook; if she came off, what would have happened to her knee? I described the 5 people who had to help her mount and dismount. I also wrote about the way she kept leaning left, right, left, right, like a human gyroscope. A horse's natural instinct is to keep the rider centered on his back, so I applauded the horse's ability to ignore her. Sounds fairly benign, yes?

Not so much. A man called my editor to complain that I had made fun of this woman, and said I was crass. Okay, I did refer to her as a Weeble, but I don't think comparison to a children's toy is that rude. He wanted the magazine to print a retraction.

My editor took it in stride. She told him they only print retractions if an article isn't true, but they'd be happy to print a letter to the editor if he'd care to send one. She also told me that, after re-reading my column, she still didn't agree with him. In her opinion, my column was about the ride, the scenery and the horses. The 25 words I used for this woman were not the point of the column, nor were they mean-spirited.

I was again vindicated, but I still felt like I should be extra nice next time, or write an apology to that man.

But I won't. Instead, I'll do what I did the last time I "offended" anyone. For the next week, when I get up in the morning, I'll look myself in the mirror and say, "I'm a bad girl, and I'm okay with that."

This exercise will come in handy when my book comes out and the first bad review comes in. I'd almost be grateful for no reviews, but I know you need publicity. My publisher, Karen, will like the fact that I'll work my butt off to make her happy, but will she like holding my hand when I'm weeping about someone who doesn't like my book? After all, if my book is bad, it's because I'm a bad person, right?

Oh, wait, I'm okay with that.

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