Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"Being Jessica Fletcher"

Some time ago, there was a rather successful movie called Being John Malkovich. Several people I knew saw the movie; I didn’t. But the concept, as I understand it, was that the cast of the movie spent time literally “being” actor John Malkovich, being in his skin, being in his life, for a limited period of time. They experienced life as someone else, another actor, within the same movie. Yeah, the concept is pretty surreal, and so was the movie—again, from what I understand. Whether it “worked” or not, cinematically, seems to be a matter of some debate. A more interesting question is, does it ever work in real life? Now, your first knee-jerk reaction to this might be, “Oh, for pete’s sake, of course not. You can’t be somebody else. Besides, it’s not good to even try to be somebody else. You need to be yourself. You need to be true to your own muse, your own drummer…” etc. Yatta yatta. You know the drill. And partially, that’s right. Hey, that’s what we teach our kids, mostly so that they get the message that we really don’t want them to become the kid down the street with the spiky orange hair and multiple body piercings…er, I mean, so that they’ll be happy being themselves. And it’s generally good advice, unless you really don’t know who you are, in which it’s kind of like a chicken-and-egg thing. You need to try on different personas until you find the one that fits your skin. But one day I found myself, literally, having grown remarkably close to someone else’s persona—and it wasn’t a bad thing. A surprise, yes. But a good one. And something I definitely have decided I want to pursue much further. Let me explain. I am a great Murder, She Wrote fan. I wasn’t a fan of it at the very beginning of the show—I listened to too many people saying, “That’s not real. She’s supposed to be a writer, and they never show her actually writing anything!” So for awhile, I didn’t watch it. But my inlaws were fans of it, and I saw it at their house a couple of times, and …well, long story short, I soon became hooked. Yeah, the scriptwriters caught on that they needed to show J.B. Fletcher actually producing work and/or at least appearing to go through the motions of some of the actual writing life, and they did show her hammering away on her old typewriter, then a computer, eventually. But their attempt at a semblance of a wave at realism wasn’t what connected me to the show, in the end. Other things did. I love a good whodunit; I love the “cozy” sort of mystery that they took and made uniquely American (a nifty trick, with a British actress in the title role :-) ). I enjoyed the small-town feel for the show, the continual development of characters (in all senses of the word), and pretty much the whole world that these writers created... …to the point that one day, I said out loud, “When I grow up, I want to be J.B. Fletcher.” Think about it. She was a retired English teacher, which meant she probably had a pension. She might have even had her deceased husband’s pension as well, considering he was a war hero and all, so she had no money worries. She lived in a gorgeous house with small-town roots, where she was a local celebrity. She supported herself by being a best-selling author; she had more “nieces” and “nephews” (who can forget Grady Fletcher?) than any woman should have, everywhere in the world. She made friends like breathing, she always knew the right thing to wear, the right thing to say, and the right way to stand her ground without becoming either a shrew or a doormat. She traveled, she enjoyed life, she kept up with technology and the latest things in the world without letting the pace control her, and she had people all over the country who loved her. So it's no wonder I would latch onto someone like that as a role model...fictional or not. I was struggling to be published in the first place as a novelist, never mind being a bestseller. I was far from self-supporting; I had been raised in a family that was almost pathologically antisocial. I hated my real cousins, and I certainly didn’t have many “adopted” ones I could claim. In short, there wasn’t much I had in common with J.B. Fletcher. At least not at first… But then, things began to happen. I got a job doing corporate newsletters in which I was forced to exit my "comfort zone" and learn how to "schmooze" (something I actually enjoyed, but was afraid of). I took my own stab at technology: I tackled a computer for that job, for the first time, with fear and trembling—then dove in and began to enjoy it. I joined AOL, became a Community Leader and began hanging out in the Writers area, then began mentoring people (not quite an English teacher, but close!). After receiving dozens of mentoring e-mails asking the same questions, I started an online workshop, ASK THE MENTOR, which fast became one of the most popular places to hang out online. In the process of workshopping, I made friends of other hosts and chatters alike; I coached people, critiqued work, and found myself on the receiving end of quite a few nice compliments for my efforts. And then…I had a friend visit from Texas, a friend who co-hosted with me on AOL…and took a vacation later that same year in which my husband and I stayed with another workshop hostess, this time in Louisville, KY. It didn’t dawn on me until much later(when I was busy pitching my newly sold novel to my online friends) that delcaring wishes out loud can be a powerful thing. :-) I had a community of people across the nation with whom I was close enough to stop in and visit, should I be in their neighborhood. (In fact, I was told point blank that if I didn't stop and visit, I'd be in big trouble!) I had an extended family both from school and from various work connections; people whom, literally, my daughter didn't know we weren't related to until I told her. I was a successful writer—not financially independent, but successful in various corners—who had won a national writing award, had published a book and several magazine articles, had written a newspaper column, was a regular online teacher and was actually presenting at writers’ conferences… When I realized this, I sat down and grinned a lot. I still have a bit to go to “grow into” that persona. I do live in a great house in a small town now; I need a better figure (J.B. Fletcher is tall, something I will never be...sigh) and a better wardrobe; I need more tact and composure; I need a tougher skin at times. On the other hand, I have handled myself pretty well in a controversy in which I was, however briefly, a "lightning rod" both online and in my professional organization. I’ve performed so well as a book editor that I’ve netted kudos and tangible rewards alike; and I still mentor and encourage writers all over the country…several of whom I plan to get to know a lot better. So I’m getting there. I’m, slowly but surely, moving toward “Being Jessica Fletcher.” And the best part is, I don’t have to step over dead bodies to do it. So who would YOU like to grow up to be???? Worth a little daydreaming, Janny


Donna Alice said...

That's a hard one to answer! There would be perks to being J.B. Fletcher---I LOVED that show and aspire to write a terrific adult mystery some day. But, I think maybe I'd rather be another author--I can't remember Her name---LOL--she's successful writing a children's series, has a terrific husband and kids, homeschools and has a super blog too! She writes the Charlotte books based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's grandmother's life. That's what I'd call having it all. And her blog wins AWARDS! Can't even get all my friends to read mine--LOL! Maybe someday....

Termagant 2 said...

I wanna be you, only a tad bit more prolific.

And if you really wannabe Jessica, run, do not walk, to the LL Bean catalog. I'm told that's where Aunt Jessica got all her best outfits.