Recently, in between cleaning, cooking and writing ten minutes a day, I had a chance to sit down with Juan Toobee Phamous, a career counselor, specializing in the pursuit of greatness. Mr. Phamous is a little feeble and far younger than he appears. Apparently, his job is a hard one. This is a transcript of our conversation.
Katharine: Glad you could squeeze me in, what with the post-modern generation’s obsession to be famous and all . . .
Juan: Yeah, you’ve got fifteen minutes. Get it? Fifteen minutes with me and you get fifteen minutes of fame. So, you wanna be a great writer? (eyes me suspiciously) I always ask my clients this first: what does greatness mean to you?
Katharine: You know, great.
Juan: Come on, (rolls eyes) you’re a writer, you have to define greatness in very specific terms or we’ll get nowhere. Do you want great like Ernest Hemingway great or great like John Milton great or greatness like that crazy Scandanavian writer who wrote those “the girl” books.
Katharine: What’s the difference?
Juan: I am SO going to have to put this on my website. Look, the Milton package is nearly impossible. Get over it. The Hemingway package is doable, but it requires vast amounts of whiskey and cigarettes. You don’t look the type. Sorry.
Katharine: Do you have any type of packages for stay at home mothers of five who lean toward the flowers and butterfly side of life?
Juan: Yes, but it really isn’t recommended. Writers generally are tortured souls. I mean, butterflies? Who’s going to take you seriously? We’re finding in the old models that long term greatness has no room for butterflies. But, you look like a nice lady. Look, in our old model we came up with 87 levels of greatness to offer our clients. Levels one through three are for things like writing cute little stories for your kids, a funny story in the church bulletin, you know, butterflies. Flowers.
Katharine: I want to be a little greater than that. I have a blog, see. And I’m on Twitter. And I self-published a quirky romance a reader called “The Anti-50 Shades of Grey”
Juan: Oh please. My goldfish has three thousand followers on Twitter. Unless you’re the Pioneer Woman, you’ll only get to a level four with blogs and Twitter. Now, now. You can be greater with a little help from me. We just need to figure out which level is the best fit for you. Now, has anyone ever complemented you on your writing that was not a blood relative or a small town English teacher?
Juan: Level five! This isn’t so bad, now is it? Have you ever made money off your writing?
Juan: Level six! More than a thousand dollars?
Katharine: Yes. Level seven?
Juan: Yes. See, you are on your way! It’s my job to be extra confident and supportive, to find your perfect number and tell you how to get there. But it’s tricky, see. The hardest part of my job is convincing an obvious seventeen that he has no chance of being an eighty-five. We call them DOGS, in the office.
Juan: Delusions of Grandeur Slugs. Look, I’ve got a meeting with the American Idol people in an hour. We need to speed this along. All of the levels between eighty and eighty-seven are for dieties. You are not a god.
Katharine: That’s not what I tell my children.
Juan: Rolls eyes again. Anything in the seventies is for people whose face has been imprinted on money. The sixties are for world leaders, inventors, and Nobel Peace Prize winners, oh, and Al Gore. The fifties are for your Miltons, Chaucers and writers who are either reclusive or die mysteriously.
Katharine: Okay, how about the forties? That’s it, I’ll settle for the forties
Juan: Honey, you might not have what it takes to be in the forties. That level is saved for writers who have Chicken Soup in the title or write about sparkly vampires. (Takes out iphone and pushes record button) Note to self: Query Chip MacGregor about a Chicken Soup for the Undead Soul. (puts phone away) Look, I’ll be honest with you. You’re probably high twenties, low thirties type of greatness. And this is the thing with my clients. I show them what it takes to hit, I don’t know, say a twenty-six level of greatness and that’s what we agree to, but once they get there, it’s not enough. They want to be thirty-one. The number is more important to them than the work that they’re doing. Don’t get me started on when they find out the romance author across the street picked forty-three.
Katharine: This is complicated.
Juan: Yes. That’s why we came up with a new model. Our R&D department is re-thinking this concept of greatness. The new formula looks less and less like numbers. All that 10,000 hours stuff, that google reader stuff, not what it once was. Our 21st century greatness is far more about relationships. I have to ask you this: How did you get to be a writer anyway? Did you set out to make yourself talented? Or were you given certain skills and desires from the beginning, from somewhere else, let’s say a Grand Designer?
Katharine: I’m going with the Grand Designer answer.
Juan: Okay, if that is the case, then you have a purpose to be used by this Designer. He has a place in this world for butterflies. He’s the one in charge of your talent, you’re just the steward. I mean stewardess. I mean steward. You know what I mean.
Katharine: Okay, I think I know what you mean.
Juan: But, if you had said that all of this was you. Your skills were from you, your talent was from you. You were the beginning and the end of all of this writer-ness, then there isn’t a number high enough for you to be satisfied. It’s sad but true. Your pursuit of greatness isn’t there because you want a higher good, it’s there to stroke your own ego. And this is the thing. People who call me in the first place don’t know what they want. They think they want literary immortality, but all they want is to feel loved and live forever.
Katharine: (rolls eyes) Is that all?
Juan: Look, if you’re of the Grand Designer point of view, there’s a plan for both of those goals. And it’s simpler than you think. But if you’re not, then your pursuit of greatness, at its essence, is narcissistic and sad.
Katharine: So what’s the answer? Big Amazon sales? A platform?
Juan: (Rolls eyes again.) No. I’m talking about being a friend. You have the power of words at your disposal, right? You want to be a communicator right? Then be great in what you say and how you say it. Take truth and package it up beautifully or cleverly and give it to the world. Don’t expect something like fame in return. Look at your readers as friends and family, not at potential buyers or fans or followers on Twitter. If you follow someone on Twitter and your sole purpose is to promote your writing, which is all about truth and goodness and the glory of God, then doesn’t that make you a hypocrite? If you want to be great for the sake of greatness then you’ll never be great. This is the dirty secret of my job. If you want to be great and your definition of greatness is getting a hug from a lady at church who says, “I just really like the way you write. You are fun. You are encouraging.” Then you’re there. You just shot up in the charts. If you read aloud a chapter of your book, which by the way, isn’t guaranteed to be published, and someone is reduced to tears, wanting to restore a relationship, then you have just become great.
Katharine: Oh. But Hemingway . . .
Juan: With all due respect, a lot of high profile writers rarely lifted their readers to noble ideas. In fact, it was often the opposite. You don’t really need a greatness counselor. You just need to do this: work hard. Be excellent. Persist in the goals you’ve set for yourself. Don’t compare yourself to anyone.
Katharine: But what about an agent? A publishing contract? Sales?
Juan: If it comes, it comes. But don’t let it define greatness to you. Look, I’ve seen writers who stand up on their stack of books at Costco and say,”I’m great because of these numbers!” Yet, somehow they’re not, and they know it. It’s not very becoming. Wait. I do have this. (pulls paper out of bag) I can’t believe I forgot to mention it to you. We just got this in recently. You’re going to love it.
Katharine: What is it?
Juan: If you write a book about a predatory whale, see, and it becomes one of the most famous reads among high school English teachers everywhere, you could have a species named after you!
Katharine: (Chin drops to the floor) Now that is greatness.
Juan: (Picks up briefcase.) You know it! Let’s see Hemingway or Al Gore top that.
With that, Mr. Phamous left me to think about what he said. And then I ate some cake.