A Life Well-Lived

What follows is a speech I recently delivered at a banquet for the National Honor Society at my old high school, Sandusky Central Catholic. I received a lot of positive responses to the theme and thought I would share it on my blog. Enjoy

It’s truly my pleasure to speak here this evening.  Heck, it seems to be the only way I can get invited to one of these things. They didn’t want me when I was a student here, and they haven’t wanted any of my children. What you all have failed to recognize is that, perhaps, you’ve invited the wolf into the chicken coop. I tease.

In fact, it is an honor to be here and to share this meal and to address this collection of educators, parents, and most importantly, young scholars. And that is the challenge I make to all of my students, to be more than students, to be scholars, which to be honest, I didn’t become until the university.

Obviously, SMCC has played an important role in my life, first as a student and later as a teacher. I believe that it was in my time there that the seeds of excellence were planted in me that, as an adult, have sprouted into a commitment to excellence in all that I do. I’m going to talk about fears in a moment, but as evidence of my devotion to excellence, my biggest fear is mediocrity. Additionally, SMCC will forever be the place that gave me the good fortune of being a student and later a colleague of Mr. Gary Kelley. It was in Mr. Kelley’s classes and through his passion for teaching Creative Writing and The
Modern Novel that my vision for what would become my future was formed.

I read recently that the fear of public speaking is the #1 phobia amongst Americans. Well, let me warn you, I wasn’t in on that survey. I LOVE public speaking, so if I start to go long, please, Connor, give me the sign. Let me also warn you that when I am speaking in public, I find it almost impossible to turn off the teacher in me. So excuse me if I wax pedagogical (teacher-like, esp. in a pedantic manner). My intention is not to condescend. Even as an author, I view my writing as just another means to expand my classroom.

As a teacher, unlike Bret Michaels of Poison fame, who wanted to give you “something to believe in” (good luck getting that out of your head for the rest of the evening all of you who were actually alive in the 80’s), my goal is to give you something to think about. So, hopefully, I can at least accomplish that much this evening on the theme of “A Life Well-Lived,” on which I’d like to make three broad points.

I’d like to challenge you NHS members to live the life you imagine, and the more difficult part, I’d like to challenge the parents in the audience to allow you to. For if you allow your parents, teachers, counselors, friends, whomever, to plot your life’s course, be assured that one day they will all be gone, and you will be stuck with a life of someone else’s dreams, and it may be too late to start over.

 As an example, let me offer my best friend, Bob. So Shelly is dedicated to him. The story has nothing to do with Bob or anything that would have even remotely interested Bob. It is dedicated to him because his choice to live the life of his imagining has inspired my own and because his death inspired nearly every page of that novel.

 Bob died two years ago of colon cancer at the age of 46. He was the only person I’ve ever known who, as an adult, truly lived his childhood dream. As a boy, he’d watch sports on the television with the sound off while he provided play-by-play into an imaginary microphone, and after the game, he would ask questions of the players on the screen as the announcer conducted the actual interview. He drove his family crazy, and they told him, “Bobby don’t be a fool, ain’t no black boy from the inner-city of Rochester, New York, gonna be a television reporter.” Well, as an adult, after we attended college together at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Bob worked as a television sports reporter and anchor on the evening news in Rochester, Louisville, Philadelphia, Nashville, and Minneapolis, where he was working when he passed away. During his career, he interviewed the likes of Pete Rose, Mohammed Ali, Charles Barkley, and Tiger Woods, and reported from the Masters, the Final Four, and the Super Bowl.

 When Bob died, I decided that my tribute to his life, love, and friendship would be to dedicate myself to achieving my lifelong dream of being a published novelist – in other words, I was finally going to commit to “living the life I’d imagined,” which, as I said, I’d like to challenge you to commit yourself to this evening

 My second piece of advice on how to carve out a “life well-lived” is to find a way to blend vocation with avocation.

 A VOCATION is synonymously-defined as a career, trade, profession, or in the religious sense, a calling. These are means through which we make a living. Now, as you know, when the prefix –a- is added to a word it  means “not.” Therefore, an A-VOCATION is NOT a career, trade, or profession. Actually, it is typically defined as a hobby. It is something we pursue not “to make a living” but to make living JOYFUL, and JOY is the ultimate prerequisite for LIVING WELL – not happiness – happiness is a fool’s pursuit. Our culture, our very Declaration of Independence sets you up for failure in this pursuit of happiness. Happiness is an emotion. Like all emotions,  it can’t be sustained. Have you ever tried to stay angry or happy, for that matter. Besides, happy people are annoying. But, if in the end, you can put a handful of joyful moments in your pocket – you’ve won; you’ve lived well – like Bob.

So, try to marry your vocation with your avocation, like Bob did, and I continue to do. I like to say that I’ve never worked a day in my life – I just keep going to school, where THEY pay ME to read and discuss great literature all day – ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? Let me advise you to choose a career – not one that is practical or that pays well – but one that brings you JOY and one that you would pursue whether or not you were paid at all.

 At the very least, choose one that provides you with an abundance of the most valuable commodity of all – it’s one that you students have in abundance and for which I greatly envy you – TIME!

 Although I love teaching, I also love the time that teaching affords me to pursue otherinterests. To paraphrase Emerson, I’m not a teacher, I’m a man teaching, but I do and I love other things, like writing, of course, but also traveling, exercising, reading, napping, being with my family, and just mingling with the universe before I mingle with it, literally and eternally. In order to live well, don’t let your career define you, and choose one that does not consume all of your  time for other pursuits.

 Remember, no one ever died wishing for more money, or a bigger house, or a faster car, but plenty have died wishing for more time. Don’t waste yours working a job that brings you no joy, no matter how much it pays or how much stuff you can buy with it.

 Which brings me to my third and final piece of advice for living well.   Lastly – for those of you who think I’m some kind of crazy hippie wannabe – I’ll concede that despite my best efforts, some of your children will wind up in that soul-sucking world of business, or as I like to pronounce it, busy-ness. And to prove that I’m not a hypocrite in allowing my own children to pursue the lives of their imaginings, my own son, Travis, is a busy-ness major. Deep down, I like to think that he hates it and will eventually come to his senses. But, for now at least, I’m glad that he is a busy-ness student at my alma mater,
Xavier University.

The Jesuits there teach that even a life in the business world should be a life of service to something larger than yourself. For those of you destined for a life in business, I ask that you don’t pursue just any job making, buying, or selling widgets. Instead, work for or, better yet, start a company that somehow benefits your community at large, not just your and the stockholders’ bank accounts. Choose to work only for companies that display a sense of social conscience, a commitment to service, and respect for its employees and customers. Then, even in the business world, you can forge a life well-lived.

 That’s my speech – my advice for living well, for what it’s worth. I hope, if nothing else, I’ve done my job and have  given you something to think about.

Music and My Writing Process

A question I’m frequently asked by interviewers is whether or not I listen to music when I write. My answer is always, “No, I don’t.” The reason is that when I listen to music, I’m drawn into it completely; I’m incapable of listening to music as background noise. I find that inattention disrespectful to the artist. Also, if I have music playing while I’m writing, the lyrics and melody continually distract my attention out of the story I’m trying to craft. Therefore, I prefer silence or the white noise produced by a little machine I use, called a Sleep Mate (J.C. Penney’s catalog), that drowns out all the noises laying siege to my fragile focus. I’ve often confessed that writing is always work for me, and I can be easily convinced to pursue other interests; therefore, for me to be productive, I have to guard against all temptations.

This does not mean, however, that music plays no role in my writing process. I’m constantly inspired by the music to which I listen. I sometimes listen to music as part of my prewriting that is reflective of and helps me to set the mood in my own headspace that I hope to create in the portion of the story on which I’m working. Songs that I hear when driving or running also inspire ideas pertaining to plot, characters, and especially themes, when my mind is nowhere near my writing,

I also tend to prefer singer/songwriters who write with a narrative bent rather than those that focus strictly on emotional expression – artists such as, Bruce Springsteen, Better Than Ezra, The Counting Crows, and Ray LaMontaigne and genres such as country, Celtic folk music, and Broadway musicals. Many of the songs by these artists and in these genres are a sort of mini-novel. One of my all-time favorite singers/songwriters/storytellers is Dan May, whose current album Dying Breed is on heavy rotation on my MP3 player. (http://itunes.apple.com/album/dying-breed/id431741937?v0=9988&ign-mpt=uo%3D1)

With technology advances such as the Apple iPad, there’s little question that the future of e-books is limitless. E-book readers will demand more than black words on a field of white or gray. They will want  allusions in the texts they read to be hyperlinked to web pages that explain and expound on those allusions, especially any mentions made to songs/artists, whose music could then be immediately played as an enhancement to the narrative and purchased if desired.

I’ve often said that my goal is to write a novel that catches and maintains the vibe of a great pop song or, even better, an entire pop album. I think that young adult literature is especially conducive to making this link between literature and music because music is so central and speaks so loudly to teenagers and their larger-than-life emotions and dreams. The blending of literature and music is a natural fusion that I will continue to explore and attempt to implement in my writing because in the final analysis, I’d rather be a rock star.

A Review from “The Reading Shelf”

Here’s a link to a very insightful review of So Shelly. It provides one of the better summaries of the novel I’ve read from a reviewer, and although the review is far from glowing, it is positive and well-written. http://thereadingshelf.livejournal.com/15595.html

Book Signing: Overcoming Fear Itself

Book Signing at Sandusky Borders

In last week’s post, I discussed my nervousness regarding yesterday’s in-store signing at a Borders. My fears included that one, that it was precious time that could be better spent writing; two, that I wouldn’t sell enough books to justify the time spent; and three, that I would sit idly twiddling my thumbs as customer after customer passed by me completely indifferent to me and my book. Post-signing, I’m glad to report that, as usual, I’m a worry wart and an idiot. Reality proved each of my fears to be irrational and false.

My first in-store signing was, by both my own and the store manager’s assessment, a success. Traffic was constant and sales were strong. I credit the article “How to Have a Successful Book Signing” by Mary Janice Davidson (http://tinyurl.com/yzfzqnn), which I found at Writing-World.com, for providing me with the necessary attitude adjustment needed to overcome my fears and make the most of my signing. What I primarily gleaned from Davidson’s
article were two simple pieces of advice that are applicable to nearly every uncomfortable situation with which one may be confronted, whether you’re a writer or not. As I sat in my car in the parking lot of the mall steeling my nerves and preparing myself mentally, I called upon the following tidbits from the article: First, I was in control. If I wanted the two hours to be a positive experience, it would be determined by my attitude. I could either choose to sit glumly, wallow in self-pity, and literally repel potential readers by my own attitude and body language, or I could choose to make eye contact and smile as mall-goers passed my table. Never underestimate the power of eye contact and smiles. Most of us are on the constant lookout for connections, and nothing advertises ouselves as a potential port in the storm of human aloneness than looking another in the eye and smiling. The vast majority of those I connected with in such manner walked right on by, but the majority of those returned my smile. Really, how cool is that? A few stopped to chat about So Shelly, and a few of those chose to buy it and have it signed. And, who knows, maybe a few of those returned later and bought So Shelly on their way out, or ordered it online when they got home, or will pick it up the next time they are in a bookstore. Secondly, in the immortal words of one of my all-time favorite bands, Kool and the Gang, I got my “back up off the wall.” If I wasn’t busy signing a book or chatting with another customer, every time someone entered the YA section, I struck up a conversation about the books shelved there. I asked what genre they or the person they were buying for liked to read. If I knew of any titles, I offered afew suggestions. I also took the opportunity to point out So Shelly and to discuss her. Many of those with whom I spoke actually purchased my book and one or more of those I suggested. So not only did I make sales; I also sold a few books for some author friends (Amber Kizer, author of Meridian, you owe me. I emptied the store’s supply.).

In life, there are few obstacles as plentiful or more difficult to overcome than those we put in our own paths. By far the biggest are forms of fear. Fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, and fear of rejection are the most common, and they were the real root causes of my own trepidation regarding book signings. By recognizing them as self-imposed, I realized that if I was the one creating them, I could also be the one to destroy them. I did so with the help of the Davidson article and with old-fashioned determination not to be my own worst enemy. Now, I’m looking forward to future book signings and hope to book a few soon. Be sure to visit my web page at www.tyrothbooks.comfor upcoming events.