Brand building through storytelling

My two children: the son and the book

“How’s your book doing?” my neighbour asked as our carts bumped at the local market. I gave the same answer I always do: “I’ve had wonderful feedback from readers.” This is true, and deeply gratifying. But it’s also true that Brian Mulroney has nothing to fear at the book store from me. And as for Rhonda Byrne, who has plumbed The Secret of eternal abundance in a book, a movie and a calendar, with a ringing endorsement from Oprah…well, let’s not go there.

My neighbour posed her question with the offhand, time-passing friendliness that invites a quick status report. So I didn’t tell her about the three sisters who convened a dinner (with many glasses of wine) to talk about My Mother’s Daughter and the memories it evoked of their own complicated family. Or about the woman who stayed up late to read the next chapter, and the one after that, when she should have been grabbing some sleep for a big meeting. It’s not that I’m shy about sharing good news. It’s just that people don’t expect anecdotal musings while they’re picking through the potatoes in search of the ones that haven’t sprouted yet. For potato-bin moments, people like a sound bite. They like upbeat news about quantifiable results. Sales, movie rights, that kind of thing.

Well, who doesn’t? We live in a culture that defines success in terms of results—getting into law school, snagging the promotion, making the numbers. In my previous life as Editor-in-Chief of Chatelaine, I used to seize upon our latest stats on newsstand sales, which defined the difference, corporately speaking, between a hero and a zero.

In my new life as a writer, I’ve worked for months at a time with no tangible results whatsoever. I’ve been known to spend the best part of a day dismantling what I wrote the day before. I have wondered if the sprawling reminiscences on my hard drive would ever find a theme, much less a publisher. While struggling with the manuscript that became My Mother’s Daughter, I once asked myself, “If no one ever publishes this book, if the writing has to be its own reward, is this project still worth all the energy and passion I bring to it?” Yes, absolutely, it was. And so I pressed on for the sheer delight of the moments when my own words swept me away with a power I didn’t know I had.

Maynard RonaBen 1978ishI didn’t come entirely unprepared to the wrenching uncertainties of writing a book. There’s no project more uncertain than parenthood, and I have raised a son. As a child, Ben was a scamp and a rebel whose irrepressible clowning led to regular sojourns in the principal’s office. He must have been 10 when the police caught him fishing coins out of a wishing well with a magnet. “Those coins were intended for charity,” huffed the officer. My little boy, stealing from kids with muscular dystrophy! Meanwhile his teachers warned that if he didn’t pull up his marks, Ben was headed for vocational school.

When casual acquaintances asked how my son was doing, I’d put on my brightest smile and chirp, “Full of high spirits!” But I secretly feared the worst. If Ben wasn’t meeting the benchmarks for childhood success, what kind of future awaited him? Would he end up pumping gas for a living? Would he hover around ATMs, waiting to mug some frail geezer with a fistful of cash and a limp?

I should have had more faith in my child, whose escapades had more to do with boredom at school than with anything sinister. Ben was never less than loveable, and I couldn’t suppress a grudging admiration for that stunt with the magnet (clever multi-tasker that he was, he’d learned a bit of science while driving his teachers crazy). But when authority figures judged him harshly, they were judging me as well. Because I worked long hours at a job that enthralled me, I was presumed to be neglecting more important priorities. To complicate matters further, I was young and insecure. I listened to my critics instead of telling them to back off.

I hungered for proof that I was doing something right. And clearly I did (along with my husband), because Ben grew up to be a splendid young man—open-hearted, loyal and honest. On the brink of his thirty-sixth birthday, he has his own place in the world as a father, a citizen, a boss and a lover. Where he goes from here is entirely up to him. I can cheer him on from the sidelines, but it’s not for me to decide when he marries or how spends his time.

I feel much the same way about My Mother’s Daughter. I’ve done all I can for this new child of mine, and now she’s gone out into the world like a plucky peasant girl in a fairy tale, seeking her fortune with a bundle on her back. She tells her truth to anyone who’ll listen. She seeks no reward except friendship, and she no longer needs me to point the way. She is looking for good readers, as my flesh-and-blood child used to look for a good partner with whom to make his life. I hope she’ll keep walking when I’m not around to wish her well, but who knows? She has my love and my belief in her. There’s nothing more I can give.

Coming up: In praise of good readers

Posted by Rona

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