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Thursday, July 16, 2009


I have conveyed my hatred of graduation speeches before, but there was one graduation speech I heard that actually meant something to me. When I was at the School of the Arts at Columbia, the great philosopher Bill Murray came and spoke to us.

The gist of his speech was: “Look, people thought I was going to be a huge failure, but then I got kind of lucky and made it. And I had and have lots of amazing friends, and we’ve seen each other’s careers go up and down. Take my advice: don’t go comparing yourself to other people. You will go insane. It’s pointless. Your fortunes may rise and fall, depending on all kinds of things you have no control over. Keep your friends. Never compare all the outward markers of success. Do what you love, because that’s all you really get and that’s all that matters and that’s all that will ever really work. And don’t be an as$h&^e.”

It was the only useful graduation speech I’ve ever heard. And it was much longer, funnier, and more nuanced than that—and it was specifically geared to us, because we were the School of the Arts. So this was advice to people about to go out and try to become actors, directors, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, and writers . . . which is a little like addressing a group of swimmers about to do the 500 meter shark tank event.

Getting into the writing game can be kind of hard, and it’s an arena where you’re often judged by things that either you can’t control or things that have very little to do with your book itself. How your book will sell, what people will think of it, what cover it will get, what money will be spent to place it in prominent places in the bookstore . . . it's generally out of your hands. You will get unexpected bursts of luck from unlikely corners, and at the same time, people will slam you sideways in scathing reviews. All par for the course.

Nothing you can do about any of this.

If you are following the advice of Mr. Murray, the thing that matters is quality. It’s the only thing you can control. And quality is a slippery, slippery eel. For example, some people think that if something is popular and sells well, it must be kind of bad. There are other people who think that if something is popular and sells well, it must be kind of good. Neither of those things is universally true. Good things sometimes become popular, sometimes they don’t. Bad things can become raging successes, and sometimes, they slip back into the ooze. You must write the thing you love, and then you hope. You can play your cards smartly, but there’s no way to determine the outcome.

But we do live in an age of RANKING! Of POPULARITY! Editors sometimes buy books out of sheer love, and other times, just because they think they might sell. This has caused some people to worry (rightly) that we’ve entered a blockbuster mentality—where the trick is just to throw everything you have at a book if you think it might generate some sales.

And the truth is, when a publisher decides to put its chips on a book (and they usually do for one or two a season), that book is probably going to do well, and probably make the bestseller list. If they buy ads, if they spend loads on shiny promotions, and if they throw down some serious bank to buy premium space in stores . . . then people are going to see the book, see the shiny, and perhaps buy it.

This is the reality I personally live in, and I respect it. It’s the game I chose to play, because this is the game that allows me to write. And I’m not immune from it. Good sales mean I can do more writing! And I have causes to fund, like my Institute for Disco Studies and my Home for Wayward Hamsters** What defines good? Well, for me, anything that allows me to continue with these grand plans of mine.

But in general, I stay away from the numbers. Most of the writers I do the same, and these include some people who are pretty massive bestsellers. They avoid it because they know the numbers make you crazy in the coconut, and they distract you from the important things, like writing things you love, reading awesome books, eating snacks, and spending time with friends. Sometimes I hear of people who have a book about to come out who get a little nuts about looking at numbers. I can understand how this might happen. But, if you ask me (and I am fully aware that no one did): don’t do this. Because then your life will become about the numbers, not the books. And they are two very different things. And trust me, there are enough people looking at those numbers for you that there’s no reason to drive yourself up a wall about it.

Now, perhaps you are thinking, “But mj, I am not an author. I see what you are saying about the books, but what about ME? What about MY LIFE?”

Fair enough. Once again, you’ve dazzled me with the way you bring me back to the point.

I get a lot of e-mail (which you know I love, even though I sometimes have trouble replying). Some of you write to tell me about the books, but some of you write just to tell me about your lives, or your desire to become authors, or things that are happening to you in school. And the one thing I have definitely noticed is that you are not immune from these kinds of pressures.

There are a lot of numbers out there. Your SAT or standardized test scores. Your GPA. Your number of Facebook or Myspace friends or Twitter followers and whatever comes next. For some people, like the characters in Wintergirls, it’s all about the number of the scale or in that snack you want to eat. I know sports people have all kinds of numbers of their own, but I know nothing about sports, so you have to fill all that info in here.

The numbers all have a kind of meaning within their own realm, but when spread out over the world, they lose a lot of significance. The number on the scale tells you how much you weigh, not what you are like or what you are worth. Your SAT score tells you how good you do on that particular type of standardized test, and sheds a certain degree of light on your current skill level in math and English, right now, given all of your current life conditions. If you’ve been raised in an affluent household where academics are considered important, you’ll probably do better than someone who didn’t grow up under those conditions. Maybe you worked hard. Maybe you’re just good at standardized tests. Maybe you got lucky. Maybe you were sick, or upset. Your number of Facebook friends probably reflects the amount of time you spend on Facebook.**

You have to do things because you want to do them and because you love them (or at least LIKE them). The numbers themselves are innocent, merely offering a measure of whatever it is you wanted to know. When you stay obsessively focused on them, you tend to miss the bigger picture. You may end up like this:

“Okay,” you say, “I do that a little, but not NEARLY as much as other people I know. In fact, they are obsessed with EVERYONE ELSE’S numbers. What do I do about them?”

I know who you mean. You mean the person who comes up to you in the hall after some test you know they’ve aced and they ask you, all sweetness, “So, how did you do?” And you say, “I got an 83.” And they say, “Oh, that’s too bad. I got a hundred. Oh god. You must feel so awful.”

Obviously these people have problems, and a quick punch in the throat would probably be very educational for them . . . and while it is always tempting to perform a public service like that, forget about it. Life has a way of sorting these people out. Yes, it’s true. Some of them get to be rich and successful. But if they keep that up, no one likes them. Period. They do not live on the fun side of the street. They have their own kooky ranking system for the world, and they cling to it, and if the slightest thing goes wrong, they go insane. I HAVE SEEN IT HAPPEN! Have faith, friends.

It’s like Bill Murray said, the one thing you can’t do is start obsessing about how other people do—as if the successes of others somehow diminish you.*** Of course, there are all kinds of things that annoy me. There are people I have wanted to see go DOWN. But I’ve noticed that every time I dwell on this, I go radically off the path and down the bumpy, sure-death side of the mountain. And for what? This stuff never matters for long, if it matters at all, which it usually doesn’t. When others do well, celebrate! When they are down, help them up. If you follow the opposite of that, then you are probably an as$h^&e. Which means you should go back to the beginning of this entry and re-read Bill Murray’s final point, “Don’t be an as$h&@e.”

And love what you do.

* So why not buy a few copies of Suite Scarlett today! Do it for the hamsters.

** Twitter numbers, however, reflect your worth as a person so please follow me on Twitter immediately.

*** Unless that person is someone like Hitler, in which case you must absolutely worry about their successes and thwart them wherever possible. I’m just saying that you have to make a pretty clear distinction between “Actual Evil People Who Keep Freeze-Dried Orphans In The Basement” and “Other People Just Living Their Lives In Close Proximity To Yours.”

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Blogger Unknown said...

Hi :)
Another terrific blog post.
Having Bill Murray give the commencement address sounds pretty awesome. Couched in the humor is extremely good advice.
Thank you for sharing.
Love from Canada

12:00 AM  
Blogger ROSIE!!!!!!!!! said...

I love it. Seriously, i've been given the "it's only a number on the scale speech" about fifty times, but when you said it, I finally belived it. You just did something that everyone around me has been trying to achive for six months at least, you got me to stop hating myself. Thanx.
hugs and sparkles.

12:08 AM  
Anonymous lisa said...

Hey MJ, thanks for this. Gonna put this on the wall of my cube, cos I have have have to remember that I am more than these three half-walls.

12:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that Lauren Conrad can have a New York Times best selling book is proof that not all popular things are good.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Lois Carlisle said...

Thanks, Maureen. This post made my day SO MUCH better! :)

PS: When is the next ARC contest?

12:47 AM  
Anonymous Ruthanne Reid said...

Man, the timing of this post is incredible. It's exactly what I needed to read.

I'm unpublished, finishing up the (hopefully) final draft of that-thing-I-write, and have recently joined Publishers Marketplace. Oh, numbers - they are everywhere.

Getting obsessed with them is easy to do when you realize just how many of them there are to keep track of.

Thanks for this post. Seriously - just what I needed. You rock.

1:25 AM  
Blogger Chelsea said...

Your blogs always give me something to think about.

2:20 AM  
Blogger Melanie said...

How many hamsters are currenty in your possession?

Having good numbers makes me feel good, but I need to remember that there are tons of more important things in life. Thanks for the reminder.

4:25 AM  
Blogger Kiera Jo said...

Oh Maureen, your story of "So, how'd you do?" person reminded me much of a girl who graduated with me. I shall share this tale with you now:

Once upon a time in my french class in high school--in which we never ever learned any actual french but just ate nutella on french bread while watching DVD's on the french language setting instead--we had a test on conjugating verbs in the "passe compose" tense. My friend who normally got A's had not studied for this particular test and got a percentage in somewhere in the low 80s. The girl in front of her was one of those people who always take every opportunity they can to advertise their apparent intelligence to the rest of the world; she complained about her 97% and then glancing down at my friend's paper, squawked, "Oh. 82%...I'm sure that's really good...for you." The End.

It was ridiculous and rude, but we mostly just laughed about it a lot, even at the time. Some people are SO SILLY.

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love how your blog can go from hysterical Q&As to something as inspirational as this. Your blog makes my life much more awesome.

Word Verification=entio....sounds like a spell to me... :D

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I,sadly, have a friend who is this last example you gave. Anything I do she feels compelled to show everyone that she thinks she can do better. Sometimes, this can be a good thing. And that makes her feel good about herself, sadly. For example, My other friend taught me how to play this song on piano, so I taught it to her because I like to teach people things. You know, spread around the joy. So she loves to sing, and she's an amazing soprano, and she takes a choir class. I'd wandered into the choir room one day, where I knew a few people. They have a piano in her choir room, so I started to play "better in time". Annie, the girl who taught me piano, had said to practice. So, I'd been practicing and I had gotten really good. My other friends in Choir had gathered around because there wasn't anything else to do, and they were all saying things like, "Oh, I didn't know you could play piano!" and such. I asked this person I knew played piano really well to play a song so they could show off a little, too. Samantha was kind of standing off to the side and so I went over to her because i felt bad for leaving her out. She had this pinched look on her face (because she's used to being the *STAR*(cue jazz hands) of the class) and I introduced her to one of my other friends. and this guy that she liked turned to me and was like, "oh, was that Better in time?" and Samantha put in oh-so-helpfully "Hmm...well it wasn't THAT good anyways," Normally I'd think this was just constructive criticism, but the nasty way she said it, meant it was the exact opposite. I ignored this but then she goes, "well, I can do better" and she said this quietly, like she knew this was wrong.

this is just something mild she's done, too. But she's getting better at not doing this anymore. I'm trying to help her at this. She doesn't like help, though, she likes to think she's the best. It's just one of those things that makes Samantha Samantha.
I mean, we've all done things like this in there lives a few times. I have, but I'm trying to stop. I didn't mean to make her feel bad, but no one has the right to be intentionally rude. I hope the people who do things like her learn. I mean, It's not their fault, it might just be their personality. It might just be the place they grew up in, the way they were raised. I hope they learn, because everyone needs a second chance. Everyone needs help, whether they know it or not, they do. Everyone does, no one is perfect, and they'll die before they ever get there. I know it sound cliche, but it's true. just ignore people like that. Do what you want, not matter what people might say, because, secretly, some people wish they were doing exactly what you are. and they'll follow you eventually. just like a flock of birds, one bird has to fly first. or they'll never fly.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot tell you how much I needed this right now.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous JK said...

I greatly enjoyed your blog post and I agree with what you say, but I am definitely at that stage in my life where numbers are very important. I mean grades and SAT scores control my life in a way. I am about to start my junior year at a high school where alot is expected of me, and if I don't reach that standard I'm going to have a lot more problems than a few bad numbers. I mean, I'm not trying to complain, because I can fully handle myself, but grades and SAT scores control what college I go to and ultimately what I do with my life. Money aside, I want to be able to do something in life that I enjoy. The better you do in school the more opportunities are opened to you. I think it's important to remember that number affect our lives, without letting them control it.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

This like, made my life.

Of course we live in a system of ratings. It's basically human nature - whoever runs the fastest outruns the predator. Except now that we don't have predators that eat us, it's more like "whoever's the strongest/smartest makes the most money/power/popularity."

4:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You`re awesome.
Can I be your best friend? :)

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Random and completely unrelated. Is it me, or are YA books getting more and more rhyme-y? Probably just me. Too much green eggs and ham.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Effy said...

I bought "Suite Scarlett" a few days ago! There's one more Wayward Hamster that has a home :).

9:33 PM  
Blogger Callidora said...

I just 20 Questioned you and it guessed Katy Perry! I thought it was funny.

6:11 AM  
Blogger jem said...

what are the chances that you can blog about a subject i am looking for advice on.

so this may be new for you, but i am a guy looking for advice on having a crush on your best (girl) friend.

any advice?

should i give up?

is there any chance that she likes, or could ever like me?

thanks :)

10:36 AM  

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