Those who have been following my fiction for a while know that my tag line is: people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. When I said this during a reading recently, someone asked me afterward: “What does that really mean? That you write about heroes—firemen, policemen, or are you talking about superheroes like superman and batman? We can’t all be heroes, you know.”
That’s when I knew this would take a lot more explanation. So warning, get a cup of coffee. This is going to be a little long–kind of like the first chapter of a book. First, I completely disagree with the idea that we can’t all be heroes. In fact, I believe that each of us has a hero deep inside and we let it out when we feel safe. Second, I know that people make heroic choices EVERY day. They just don’t think of it in that way.
Yes, some of you reading this blog are traditional heroes, putting your life on the line every day to help or protect others. Policeman, fireman, military personnel, test pilots, astronauts, doctors, and even some of our political leaders. These are the heroes most of us think of, because we can see the sacrifice they are making. Many of these heroes put their lives in jeopardy just doing their job. I admire and support all of these traditional heroes. I have a son who is a policeman. I have another son who served two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps, and many relatives and friends who have served in the military—including several who died in Vietnam. In the 70’s I personally knew a woman who was an astronaut who I greatly admired, and I currently have two friends who are emergency room doctors who care for people coming in whether they are good or bad, drug addled or an innocent child. It is dangerous work.
In spite of all these people who I truly admire, my books tend to focus on the hero in each of us—whether we come from one of those professions or must be an everyday hero. A hero is the person who does the hard things when they are scared. A hero is the person who speaks up when they see injustice. A hero is the person who quietly works in the background to make a difference in the world—often unsung and unnoticed. A hero is the person who lives their life with the rule of treating every being with respect and dignity, and leading with love.
Each of these heroic choices requires a sacrifice. Some of these choices may put your life in jeopardy. Others require a sacrifice of your economic security, or your reputation, or the perception you’ve carefully built of who you are. Yet others require a soul or heart sacrifice—choosing to do something that is very frightening or painful and that will likely separate you from others who won’t or can’t understand.
Making heroic choices is never easy—even if you are trained to do that in your profession. It is always scary. It always requires a sacrifice. So, why do we do it?
For me, the answer is because we want or need something different in our life. For me I make hard choices because I am not satisfied with the way things are—for me, for my family, for my friends. More than that, I am not willing to live with the status quo. I am not willing to live in a world with the injustices I see around me every day, and not say something. I am not satisfied with the continual degradation of our planet, and not doing anything. I am not satisfied with the way both everyday people and our leaders treat each other with disrespect or, worse, with the belief that certain people aren’t worth the same as them. I can’t stand by and say nothing or do nothing. I am not satisfied with the first response between powerful leaders to be one of threatening war or complete annihilation. We’ve done that over and over again. It doesn’t work. We need to try another way.
All those things are big problems, they take a lot of consistent effort to change. They take a lot of patience and not giving up speaking truth to see anything happen. But it is worth it and people who undertake all of these are heroes to me. Whether that is running for office, working to clean up a road or the coastline, protesting when leaders make choices that don’t match values, or simply writing or calling. Those are all heroic choices.
There are other more personal choices that I also believe are heroic. Making the decision to stop an addiction. I’ve seen my own nieces and nephews go through drug addiction and rehabilitation. It is hard. It is a heroic choice that requires one to do the hard work of understanding themselves and making changes in their every day life. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally very painful. I admire anyone who can overcome addiction.
The choice of leaving an unhealthy relationship is a heroic choice. Like addiction this is a choice that is mentally and physically hard. In some cases, your life may be in jeopardy when you leave—which is why most people can’t do it on their own. They must make the heroic choice to go to a shelter, to seek help, and then to completely change their life. It is painful and scary and the scars last a long time.
The choice of stepping out of one’s comfort zone and trying something new is a heroic choice. It is easy to stay with the familiar, even if we are unhappy there. It is safe and known and we believe we cannot fail. Though never changing is a type of failure in my mind. It is hard—sometimes physically hard to try something new. Facing those fears and taking even a tiny step is a heroic choice.
I know a person who is paralyzed with fear of failure whenever he begins a new job. So paralyzed that he becomes physically ill—fever, throwing up, unable to sleep. This person doesn’t mind looking for a job. In act he tends to do well in the interview, which is why he gets the offer. However, when the first day of the job is set it all comes crashing down. There are a myriad of reasons this happens for this person (more than I can go into here). So every day, for at least a week, he has to make the heroic choice to go into work anyway. Going against that fear and the physical repercussions is a heroic choice. Making it through the day with that paralyzing fear is a heroic choice.
Being the real you is a heroic choice. Our need to be connected to others AND believe that others like us for who we really are is critical to most people’s happiness. Yet, so many people feel unable to be themselves in most circumstances in their life. They feel that if someone truly knew who they were, they wouldn’t like them. Making the choice to be yourself is a heroic choice.
Some of you may say, I’m always myself. I don’t care what people think. If that is the case more power to you. I can honestly say that I’ve worked my way up to probably 80% of being my true self the majority of the time. There are lots of times I make the heroic choice to speak my truth. To live my values. To persist with love even when I’m tired and impatient.
But there are also plenty of times I don’t present my true self.
If you don’t make the heroic choice does it cancel out everything else? Does it take away your hero status?
The answer is no. The answer is no one is heroic all the time—even superman or batman or the characters in my book. That’s part of being human. It would be a boring life if all heroes were perfect. How could we ever aspire to be like them? Perfection is a lie. In fact, sharing our imperfections and striving to be better is a heroic choice in itself.
When I say I don’t make the heroic choice, I’m not talking about times when I decide NOT to speak my mind to someone who is bothering me. In those times it is a conscious decision of trying to listen and be quiet so I can understand what is happening, then that IS my true self. For example, I have family members who have very different political views than I do. I could make the choice to tell them they are wrong. Or to debate them on the facts and try to change their mind. That is a part of who I am and I do that on occasion.
However, I am also a person who truly wants to understand why someone could believe things so different from me—especially a family member ho grew up in the same way, with the same values, the same circle of relatives. I want to understand their reasons, their needs, what happened in their life that makes their response so different from mine. If I can listen and learn, I can think of ways to incorporate their needs into whatever future I see for myself and the world. Seeking that understanding is an important part of my true self.
When I’m not presenting my true self it is always out of fear. Fear of reprisal. Fear that the sacrifice is too much. One of those fears stems from tarnishing my reputation. Actually, it’s more about tarnishing the perception I’ve allowed people to build about me or my life. I know I’m not unique in this fear. However, in the end, it puts me in a position of feeling if this group of people really knew me they would no longer be in my life. And sometimes that is both scary and very uncomfortable.
One Current Example of Me Not Making The Heroic Choice
Let me give you one example that I am struggling with now. I’ve been a paid writer in one or another for more than 45 years. Early in my life I was paid for short stories when they were accepted to magazines or anthologies. Later in my life I was paid for writing non-fiction articles for newspapers and magazines. Even later, I had publishing contracts for non-fiction books and eventually for two fiction books. Through all of these publishing years, I always had another job—what writers call their “day job.” In social situations, or even with family, everyone expected and knew that my day job was what made the money. When I was writing short stories I averaged $250-$300 per story. When I had three non-fiction books out I was making between $4,000 and $7,000 per year—even when they were bestsellers in their category (publishers take 85-90% of the profit). But it didn’t matter to me what I was making because I had another job, a “real” job that paid well.
In 2011 I started self-publishing in fiction, as I made a decision to test the difference in the income I received from my two fiction publishing contracts versus the income I could receive from indie publishing. The income was markedly different in favor of indie publishing. By 2013 I no longer had any book contracts. I still do occasionally publish short stories on contract, but not often.
Now here is where the “perception” comes in. Because I’ve published a lot of books, more than twenty, the perception is that I make a lot of money. Because I’ve consistently stated that the money I make indie publishing is three times what I made with fiction contracts, people assume some amount from about $100,000 and up. Of course, a lot of money is different for each person. I know that what most people think I make is significantly more than reality. I’ve had more than one fan ask me to always send her free print books because she was poor. In exchange, she would tell her friends about my book. Her assumption was that I was rich and could afford to do so. I suggested she go ask her local library to get the book for her. Then she could get it free and all her friends could too.
I once had an author say during a Q&A portion of my presentation that he knew what I made. He said, “I know you are making at least $100,000 per year because you have so many books.” And you travel and do presentations, and you still get income off your non-fiction books so it is probably even way above that number.” I laughed and said: “I wish.” I told him I was not making that much, not even half as much. But I also refused to share what my income was when he asked out right.
Now, if this choice was out of a belief that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation—I certainly didn’t owe this particular person an explanation—it would be a heroic choice. However, the truth is that I don’t share that information except among select author friends, out of a fear that my opportunities will be limited. If I told you I only made $30,000 per year on my books would you think less of my work? What about if I said $20,000? What about $10,000? What about $100?
Be honest, at what amount would you think my books are not worthwhile? You see, I know people who make less than $100 per year on their novel. But I’ve read their novel and I think they are amazing, quality writers. In one case I think that writer is significantly better than me. But the book is in a niche market, and she hasn’t invested any time at all in getting the word out beyond her small circle of friends and family. The fact she only makes $100 per year or less on that book does not make the book less worthy of notice, awards, or significantly better sales.
In every profession there are hierarchies of success and writing/publishing is no different. From awards, to titles like “bestseller” and to sales and income people make value judgments of another person’s worth. As human beings we want to have a quick shorthand for judging someone’s value. We want a quick and easy way to answer the question, is that person or that book worth my time? Some of us do that with reviews. Others do that with bestseller status or awards. And others do that with money. That is why so many authors (particularly in nonfiction) put up front that they are million dollar authors.
So why is it the money thing with me? Why is it that is such sticking point? I’m pretty honest about most everything else. I suspect it is probably because my career before I became a full-time writer paid well. I made good money (ranging from $80-$120,000 per year). I am comparing my writer income to that and won’t be satisfied until I make that same amount. I don’t need to make that same amount to live decently. I’ve downsized, we live modestly. Yet, it is a mark I set for myself. In my mind, success is at that income level AFTER expenses. It is very frustrating!
I also suspect it has something to do with what I perceive is the reputation I’ve built for being an author who knows what to do to indie publish well. After all I teach workshops about it. Other people who have taken my workshops are making that kind of money. The reality is I DO know how to indie publish well. I believe I do it well. But doing it well doesn’t always mean you are going to become a six-figure author. Many people are doing it well and not making good money. But this brings us back to that question. Is the fact that I don’t make $100,000 per year make my instruction less valuable? In many people’s eyes it does. At what point does my income impact an author’s decision as to if it is worth paying any money to listen to me? What if I’m making $50,000? $25,000? $10,000? Why does it matter?
It’s the shorthand for making decisions on who we trust or don’t trust. We don’t have time to give everyone a try. We have limited money to spend and want to pick the person who will give us the most bang for our buck. Somehow, we intrinsically believe that someone who makes a million dollars every year off their books has more important tips to share than someone who has only made $50,000. I do understand, I’ve paid for some of those classes from people who make big bucks. A couple of them were amazing and worth every cent. They were great teachers and honest, sharing not only what their gross was but also their expenses. Another couple of presenters were not that great and, in my opinion, overpriced for the value I received. But it’s hard to know, isn’t it?
So, in this situation I am not making a heroic choice except to select people. I am not being true to myself. And yes, I do feel bad about that –somewhat. Did I tell you I majored in rationalization? A+ by the way. 🙂 I share this, not to get your pity, but to make that point that most of us can’t be heroes every minute of every day. Most of us can’t make every choice be a heroic choice. Most of us have to consciously choose what to reveal and what not to reveal and to who. Is knowing what’s safe and choosing to protect ourselves a heroic choice? No. It’s not. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice either. On this topic, I’m tired of my spaghetti noodle self-flagellation so I’ll just be honest. That’s my choice—heroic or not. Will I make a different choice in the future? Probably–probably sometime before I make $100,000 but after I reach some point that I feel comfortable in doing so.
Now, have I become less of a hero to ya’ll? Not to me. I’m not perfect and I never will be. Sharing my imperfections IS being true to myself.
I do know this. I put everything I have into every book. It is my story, my voice to the world, and my way of sharing the lives of people who are making heroic choices, in spite of their imperfections and challenges. But they are all doing the best they can. They are all living the life they know how and trying to improve. For me, the secret of getting up every morning and shooting for success is putting my heart, mind, and soul into every step in my day–whether that is writing, being on social media, visiting with family, making a new friend, or just being. That is the biggest success. I know this deep in my soul. And it keeps me getting up every morning.
Throughout April, every Monday I’m going to be posting quick examples of heroic choices from every day people in my social media accounts. I hope you will also post ones you see and will let me know if you think my posting matches your values or not. If I like your posts, I’ll share them. If you like mine, I hope you share them. Let’s get a conversation going–whether it is in brief tweets or longer responses here on my blog or yours.
What heroic choices have you made? I’d love to hear about them. I think if we all would start sharing parts of our true selves and make those small heroic choices, we’d be really powerful together. Do your choices keep you getting up every morning?
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