My grandfather, Arthur Scott Bell, was born in 1890. He grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was an outstanding high school athlete.
He won an athletic scholarship to DePauw University, later transferring to the University of Michigan to play football. He joined the Army in World War I, during which time he met my grandmother, Dorothy Fox. One of the treasure troves I have is the box of love letters he wrote to her from Fort Sheridan, Illinois. My grandmother kept them all, bound with ribbons. When my father was little he’d hear his father call his mother Dot, and he combined that with Mama, so ever after my grandmother was known as Mama Dot. Later on, my dad started calling his father Padre.
And that’s how all his grandkids knew him.
One of Padre’s favorite phrases was, “Go your best.” He said that to me a number of times—when I was off to a new school year, or starting Little League.
During the Great Depression, Padre fed his family as a field salesman for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was a stellar salesman, rising to become one of the top ten in the entire company.
From what Padre and my dad told me about those days, I gather five lessons that apply to writers (and anyone else) trying to peddle their wares.
1. He believed in his product
Padre loved the Britannica. I have a full set from 1947, passed down to me. [NOTE: if you have one, don’t get rid of it. The entries in these volumes are often better and more authoritative than anything you can find today.]
Do you believe in your product? Are you convinced that what you’re writing is the best you can make it? Or are you going out there with something less than that––and still expecting good sales?
2. He believed in self improvement
Padre was a life-long learner. On my shelf I have Padre’s dictionary, the Webster’s New Collegiate, 2d Edition. In the front of the dictionary, on one of the blank pages, Padre had written himself a note on a new word: psycho-cybernetics. That would place this note around 1960, when the book by Maxwell Maltz first came out. Padre was 70 years old then, but still interested in growing his vocabulary.
He was of the Dale Carnegie school of self-improvement. Another treasure I own is the hardcover copy of How to Win Friends and Influence Peoplethat Padre and Mama Dot gave my dad upon his graduation from Hollywood High School. They each inscribed it. Padre wrote:
To have a friend is to be a friend. I am sure you are getting to be an expert at it. Don’t let down!!
And from Mama Dot:
You can do more than strike while the iron is hot. You can make the iron hot by striking.
Are you growing as a writer? Are you spending some part of your week in purposeful study of the craft? Padre and Mama Dot’s generation believed anyone could succeed if they studied and worked hard enough.
3. He concentrated on the best prospects
Padre had a definite strategy when he pulled into a new town. He looked up all the lawyers and doctors. These would be the people most likely to have some disposable income during the Depression. Thus, they would be the most likely to buy.
Simple enough. But when it comes to marketing, how many writers out there are trying to cast a wide net in the hope of snagging some random fish? The difference between 100,000 robo-gathered followers, and 10,000 quality followers, is huge. Don’t try to be all things to all people, but be a value add-on for those who are most likely to want to sample your work.
4. He made people feel good
My grandfather was a natural storyteller. He had a deep, resonant voice. I can hear it now. And when he started spinning a tale you sat mesmerized.
I remember one story he told about a football player at Michigan named Molbach. The fellows called him “Molly.” He was a fullback, a powerhouse runner who just would not be stopped in short yardage situations. Padre told about one tough game where Molly put his head down and ran so hard he kept going over the sideline and ran right into a horse––and knocked the horse down!
Padre’s storytelling made you feel good. Got you into the moment. The legend in the family was that Padre had a story for every occasion.
Does your marketing make people feel good? If someone sees you’re tweeting or Facebooking, will they generally be pleased at what you’ve posted? Or do you depend on a barrage of value-less “buy my book” type messages?
Work at making your social media a pleasure for others to read. “To have a friend is to be a friend.”
5. He could laugh at life
Padre was a man “at home in his own skin.” He’d been through plenty in his life, the Depression not least among them. But he always came out all right in the end.
He had the greatest laugh in the world. It came from deep in his chest and rumbled out in joyous reverberation.
You need to be able to laugh and not stress over outcomes and expectations. If you follow Padre’s lessons, you’ll work hard on yourself and your writing. You’ll be smart about marketing and refuse to let setbacks stop you. You simply won’t worry about the things that are outside your control.
Manage your expectations, don’t let them rule you. Concentrate on what you can do, not what is out of your hands.
Go your best.