Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Those end-of-program questions...

I present several lighthouse programs each season to various groups—historical societies, travel clubs, yacht clubs, women’s clubs, book groups, libraries, and Coast Guard auxiliaries. I also speak to youth groups and schools.  These programs raise the profile of my work, educate the public, get the word out about lighthouse projects and preservation, and they keep me “social.” It’s easy to become a recluse when you’re a writer. I am definitely an introvert who derives energy and inspiration from quiet, solitary time, but I also enjoy interacting with the public. Public programs are a source of great fun for me.

One aspect of my public programs that I think is fascinating is the questions audiences ask. Questions generally fall into two categories—questions about lighthouses and questions about writing.  I’ll share of these queries in this blog and my responses to them. I hope you’ll share some comments and observations too, especially if you are a writer or a someone who loves lighthouses.

Lighthouse questions:

The #1 question I get from every group is “How did you become interested in lighthouses?”

I’m always ready for this one and quick to tell audiences that I am not “interested” in lighthouses; I’m “passionate” about lighthouses. Passion is the fuel for my work. It grows and multiplies with each project. The more I write and speak about lighthouses, the more passionate I am. Passionless work is easy to spot. It lacks something essential, most often emotion. So, I’d prefer audiences ask me how I became so passionate about lighthouses, not how I became interested in them.

I can’t really put my finger on the answer to this question; it isn’t any one thing. Lighthouses came into my life at a time when I needed something new to learn. I had withdrawn from college, out of money to finish, started working for a company that manufactured heart monitors, then married and moved to Maine. It was winter 1973, snow was piled high, and I was stuck day-after-day inside an apartment in the top of an old house. My husband stopped by the library on his way home from work one afternoon and grabbed some books for me. One of them was Edward Rowe Snow’s Lighthouses of New England. I read it cover to cover in a couple of days and then asked my husband if we could drive to Popham Beach. I wanted to look for Seguin Lighthouse.

We found it, a small white spike sticking up on a high island about a mile offshore with a pencil-like beam piercing the misty air. I stared and stared…and was transfixed. Someone lived out there. Someone was keeping the light so boats and ships didn’t bump into the shore of that island it guarded. The light was hypnotic.

I found more books, and articles, and I started a scrapbook…and then another and another. By 1982 the scrapbooks gave way to articles I wrote out by hand, typed up on an old Royal manual I bought at a garage sale, and then sent to newspapers and magazines. Mobil Oil’s Compass Magazine was the first periodical to publish my work on lighthouses, followed by Sea Frontiers.  A byline fueled my passion, not only for lighthouses but for writing. I had an audience with whom to share my passion! Thirty-something years later, I’m still sharing my passion.

Another question I usually hear from audiences is “What is your favorite lighthouse?”

If I’m speaking to a lighthouse group, of course, I tell them their lighthouse is my favorite, and then I wink. “Will this answer help me sell more books?” I quip! Then I confess: “Lighthouses are like grandchildren; you never have a favorite.” But I will admit my favorite lighthouse, for a short time, is always the one I’ve just visited. Each lighthouse I see makes me fall in love with all lighthouses all over again.” Audiences get it. Passion needs to be refueled.

“Are there any lighthouse keepers in your family?”

Everyone assumes I have a family connection to lighthouses. Why else would I be so passionate about them? There are no lighthouse keepers or lighthouses in my pedigree, as far as I know. It would be fun to say there are though! I could joke that I was shipwrecked off Cape Cod as a baby, floated ashore on a spar and was adopted by the local lighthouse keeper. I could say Ida Lewis is my great-great-great grandmother, but all lighthouse aficionados know she never had any children. She said “The light is my child.”

You don’t have to be a parent to love children. You don’t have to be a sailor to love the ocean. You don’t have to have lightkeepers in your genealogy to love lighthouses. I live the lighthouse life vicariously through my stories and books.

“You didn’t show my favorite lighthouse!”
Yes, I get this comment/question too. It’s really a question, as in, “Why didn’t you show my favorite lighthouse?” I’m not sure people realize how many lighthouses there are in the world. The United States alone has almost 700. Russ Rowlett, who publishes the very useful and popular online “Lighthouse Directory,” estimates there are close to 38,000 lighthouses worldwide. The size of the count centers on the definition of “lighthouse.” If you consider skeleton towers and pole beacons and ramshackle remains of towers to be lighthouses, the tally goes higher. So if I don’t show your favorite lighthouse, I apologize. But I’m glad you asked, because this is my chance to tell people how very, very many lighthouses there really are!

Finally, there’s always a question about lighthouse ghosts. “Have you ever met one?” someone will ask. Lighthouses are notorious for ghost stories, deliciously frightful ones too. Books have been written on this subject, dozens of them. It’s fun stuff, and I admit I enjoy a good ghost story. I have a program called “Haunted Lighthouses” I present this time of year. It’s quite popular and much in demand every October. There’s always cider and candy corn on the refreshment table, and maybe a Jack-o-Lantern. I see this program as an opportunity to sneak in the real story, which I do with each PowerPoint slide. “Oh, by the way, this lighthouse has a first-order Fresnel lens, a technology developed in France in the 1820s…” If a ghost is what makes people excited about lighthouses and willing to visit them and possibly work to preserve them, then I’m all for haunted tales. Boo! says the foghorn!

Have I ever met a lighthouse ghost? I don’t think so. First, I don’t believe in ghosts, so that makes it tough to translate an eerie moan, a rattling window, or a clomping sound as a ghost going about in a lighthouse. I can always come up with a reasonable explanation for what is heard or seen or felt. I had a bit of an unsettling experience at Heceta Head Lighthouse a few years ago, but it turned out to be one of the housecats making noise in the darkness outside my room, not a ghost. That’s as close to “scared” as I’ve gotten. While I don’t believe in lighthouse ghosts I do believe lighthouses are spooky places. And I believe in the power of the human imagination. Ghost tales are woven into the rich, colorful fabric of lighthouse history, so there's no harm in telling them.

Click on the Book

I usually do a book sale and signing at my talks. My book table is full—eighteen lighthouse books published over twenty-seven years, plus hundreds of articles.  The books, with their beautiful covers and many pages, always elicit questions about writing, publishing, working with editors, writing income, and more. Sometimes kids will ask me straight out if I’m rich, assuming authors make lots of money and the number of books an author has in print equates to the size of her income. I’m quick to dispel the myth: Most authors rarely earn back the hours (days? weeks? months? years?) they put into a book. I once calculated that I earn roughly $0.22 an hour as a writer. Writing is hard work when it’s done right; I put in many hours for the money I make. There’s no shortcut to getting rich. Few of us in the writing/publishing business get rich. The wealth comes in learning about new things, in the friends and acquaintances we make along the way, and in the pride our family and friends have for what we do. Royalties, while sometimes respectable, usually aren’t huge, and they’re a fraction of what publishers earns. (Just last week I got a royalty statement from one of my books where my lifetime royalties on the title are listed at $3,708 and my publisher ‘s earnings are $37,085.99.) Royalties are, however, a gift that keeps on giving, provided a publisher keeps a book in print and continues to market it well.

I love what I do, and I’m not aiming to get rich doing it. I’d have given up long ago if a big bankroll was my goal.

One question that always comes my way, in various forms, is “How do you find time to write all these books?”

Time is a curious construct. It means different things to different people, and we all have cute little words and phrases to describe how we use it. “Make good use of time” is a wise adage, but how is it done? We know time moves in one direction only—forward--and it’s an equal opportunity resource in our lives. We all get 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, and so on. What we do with our time is highly individualized. My students are masters of excuse-making about how they use their time. “I had to do this…instead of my assignment” or “I wasn’t able to get to class yesterday because…” or my favorite student excuse: “I was too busy…” Busy at what? Time was out of their control, they’ll say. I tell them there are few people for whom that’s true, except those in a coma or abducted by aliens.

Somehow, somewhere, from wise teachers and hard-working parents, I learned to stay organized and keep my time sensibly scheduled so I get a lot done. Like everyone, I procrastinate from time to time, but not much. The older I get, the more I worry about how much time I have left to do the projects I have planned. I have notebooks full of projects broken down into tasks, those I want to complete and those I’ve completed. And I keep lists—lots and lots of lists to make sure my days are organized. (I wrote a blog about my notebooks and lists earlier this year.)

I use time tools as well. There’s a calendar on my desk and clock over it.
I set timers, because I get lost in my work, I prioritize, and I’m a dedicated crosser-offer of things I’ve completed. I firmly believe that it takes planning and reflection to make time work for me. Yet, I do have trouble remembering some things, the tedious things like setting out meat to thaw for dinner or answering the dryer when it buzzes. It’s funny how I don’t hear that buzz when I’m writing in my office! A joke I tell my audiences after I’m introduced is: “On any given day I may know where my car keys are or what I’ll cook for supper tonight, but I can tell you anything you want to know about lighthouses!”

As for getting the writing done, I tell people I have a simple rule about it:  I sit my butt down and do it. If my backside is in the chair, my hands are on the keyboard, and my eyes are on the monitor, work will get done. Getting started is the first step to getting done.

When audiences find out I’m a successful writer, there’s always someone who comes forward, usually quietly, and asks if I will read a manuscript they’ve written. It might be a novel or a how-to book of something they are expert at doing, or it’s their personal life story. They believe that having a published author review their work will give them an advantage with publishers...or perhaps save them the pain of rejection by a publisher. I usually politely decline. This is a difficult request. What they're really asking is for editorial advice. While I’ve worked as an editor, I can say with all honesty that it’s a tough job. Writers, even seasoned ones, have trouble with edits. It’s hard to be objective about something you give birth too, and that’s what writing is—a birth process. Everyone’s baby is darling and sweet and wonderful. Enough said.
Photo above of Seguin Lighthouse:

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