When the music stopped—when the library closed and Beacon Natural Market ran out of toilet paper—I had fourteen library books and four rolls of Seventh Generation two-ply. More than a month later, I still have those fourteen books (four of them unread) and—thanks to strategic placement and careful rationing—the same four rolls (albeit greatly diminished in diameter) of toilet paper.
Yes, I’m blessed. But what if I weren’t?
Last week, I ran a poll on Twitter: “You’re in quarantine. You can’t have both. Which do you choose? 1) Books 2) Toilet paper 3) Depends on the books 4) Depends on the toilet paper.”
Three people voted for books; a fourth chose, “Depends on the books.” Just one stuck up for toilet paper.
I know—five people is a small sample. And my Twitter followers may not represent Americans in general. Still, I took this as good news for writers. Authors. Storytellers. Like yours truly.
About six weeks ago, on a Monday in early March, I signed up for an online book marketing course—an “Outreach Intensive”—taught by Sue Campbell of Pages and Platforms in Portland, Oregon. She’d studied with book marketer extraordinaire Tim Grahl, who defines outreach as “moving people from not knowing you exist to knowing you exist” and marketing as “being relentlessly helpful.” I’d found Tim a few years earlier, while launching Mating in Captivity, my 2018 memoir of my five years, post-Harvard, in a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships; he’d gained my trust by preaching not what had worked for him but what he’d seen work, over the years, for many, many authors.
Later that same week, I heard that Harvard was sending its students home, and that the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. By Friday, I was wandering the aisles of Beacon Natural, filling my basket with eggs, dried fruit, canned fish, and teas promising to support the respiratory and immune systems. I would have purchased toilet paper as well, but, alas, I’d come too late to the panic-buying party.
Also by Friday, I was kicking myself for having signed up for—and made a significant financial investment in—a book-marketing course, of all things! Shouldn’t I have been prepping, every spare minute? Installing a chicken coop, and getting chickens? Learning to start fires with a bow drill, or flint? Hadn’t books, all of a sudden, become grossly irrelevant?
No! said Sue. (And not, I assure you, just because she earns part of her keep helping authors sell books.) Storytellers—in this time of crisis—could offer context. Escape. Calls for justice. They could also share new perspectives on what the hell was going on here.
As a reader, I knew this was true: How many times had I responded to personal upheaval by grabbing and devouring a stack of books on related subjects? How often, in dark moments, had I looked to stories to light my way forward?
So I persisted. I showed up for my outreach classes, and did my outreach homework. I researched “influencers”. Followed them on Twitter. Listened to their podcasts. Drafted, edited, and sent emails explaining why I would make a great interviewee. And though I felt strange, at first, pitching a book not directly linked to the day’s most-Googled topic, I eventually got the memo that plenty of those I was writing to were: A) stuck at home, just like me, and B) still obsessed with books and/or cults, just as I was. Plus, I found that some truly appreciated receiving a real message from a real human who had bothered to listen to their voices and find out who they were; yes, I was requesting exposure for my book, via their shows—but I was also opening a space for a relationship. Offering connection. Outreach, it seems, is a broadly applicable art, well worth learning; at root, it’s the act of allowing yourself to be seen by, while truly seeing, another.
Meanwhile, I started hearing other authors—especially those making their debuts—agonizing over “shilling” their books, amidst a rolling catastrophe. To one, who tweeted her embarrassment, I responded, “No! Thou shalt not feel guilty! We need your stories now—perhaps more than we need toilet paper.”
After all, in a pinch, you can always rip out a book’s pages (after you’ve read them!) and use them to wipe—but good luck getting a roll of toilet paper, no matter how recycled, quilted, or multi-plied, to tell you a story.
Helen Zuman—author, chocolatier, reweaver, walker, wife, daughter, sister, and witch—details her first (ill-starred) attempt at villaging in her memoir, Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018). Get in touch via email (email@example.com); read more at helenzuman.com; find her on Twitter @HelenZuman. Use either Federal Reserve Notes or Currents to buy her book!