how to be famous

When I flew home last week, my mom reported how many views my TED talk had received and asked me if anyone recognized me on the plane. Ha. When I got back to town and told my chiropractor I had the worst seat on the plane (last row, middle seat–the one that doesn’t recline at all) he said: “Don’t these people know who you are?” Ha ha.

If jokes really are benign violations (this is my favorite theory of humor–a field I wish I’d known existed when I was in school), then I guess the violation is that famous people are sometimes entitled jerks and the thing that makes it benign is that I’m not actually very famous. But here’s the thing I’m struggling with, the part of the joke that doesn’t feel so benign these days: I’m not totally unknown anymore. No, no one has ever recognized me in an airport or on the sidewalk, but I get e-mails from strangers almost daily. Some even use the phrase “I’m a big fan.” (fan!) I now have a public persona that extends beyond my classroom and my friends. And I’ve spent the past month–and the past nine months before that–trying to come to terms with this persona, trying, in short, to figure out how to be just a little bit famous.

In all the years I spent writing without an audience, I developed an idea of who I would be as a writer. I imagined I would publish a book with a small press and it would be read by a few thousand people if I was lucky. In the wildest versions of this fantasy, I would go to conferences and sit on panels with other essayists. (Seriously–this is still a career dream, so if anyone wants an enthiusiastic panelist: call me!)

I imagined that I could keep my writing life and my personal life separate, that I could be honest and fairly unfiltered about the people I wrote about because no one who knew those people would ever read my books. None of this is shaping up to be true.

I got the call that I was going to be featured as the TED talk of the day the same week that my partner and I were trying to decide if we should stay together or split up. I told myself that, even if my relationship was a mess, at least this career thing was going well. But imagine this: 500,000 strangers watching you talk about your choice to love someone while you are at home with the dog watching comedy specials on Netflix to ward off the crying and wondering if it’s time to make a different choice.

I believe in personal agency but I also believe you get what you get from the world and you have to figure out how to live with it. To complain about the things that come with this newfound success would be disingenuous–I like getting e-mails from strangers. I like getting new Twitter followers. I even liked getting trolled (getting trolled is shitty–I do not endorse it–but it felt validating for someone to notice my work enough to loathe it).


But these markers of success also make me uncomfortable. Those e-mails from strangers are sometimes difficult to respond to. People confess the most intimate details of their heartaches to me. Some are moving and some are infuriating and some are just really hard to read. I am so touched that they bothered to write–that something I said or wrote made them feel like they could open up to me. And yet, I don’t know that I can or should give them advice. It’s true that I’ve been wanting to try writing an advice column but there is a difference between crafting a one-time open response Dear Sugar-style and inviting e-mail correspondence with folks who would probably benefit much more from talking with a real therapist.

And there’s this: my book is going to be published by the great folks at Simon and Schuster! Not to overstate it, but this is basically the best news of my life so far. I will have exactly what I said I wanted: “a real hardcover document with an ISBN and an imprint stamped on the spine.” I know this news should get its own blog post because I wrote about submitting the proposal back in July and several people wrote nice comments cheering me on. But I’ve spent the past four weeks trying to figure out how to write a blog post about it and totally failing. I am still kind of embarrassed by all this success.

The thing I’ve found the most useful for thinking all this though is this talk, from Elizabeth Gilbert:

For most of your life, you live out your existence here in the middle of the chain of human experience where everything is normal and reassuring and regular, but failure catapults you abruptly way out over here into the blinding darkness of disappointment. Success catapults you just as abruptly but just as far way out over here into the equally blinding glare of fame and recognition and praise. And one of these fates is objectively seen by the world as bad, and the other one is objectively seen by the world as good, but your subconscious is completely incapable of discerning the difference between bad and good. The only thing that it is capable of feeling is the absolute value of this emotional equation, the exact distance that you have been flung from yourself. And there’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.

My success doesn’t compare to Gilbert’s but I do feel flung. I have spent the past few weeks in “the hinterlands of the psyche.” I feel the same way I felt when I was seventeen and I got a perfect score on my math SATs. At seventeen, all I wanted was for the boy I loved to see that I was special and love me back. And then I got some confirmation that I was special after all–I was in the 99th percentile of math test takers! But that boy never loved me (though for what it’s worth, he pretended to, occasionally, when he was drunk). When she heard about the test my calculus teacher pulled me aside and said, “I just want you to know I expect nothing less from you in this class.” She was robbing me of my right to be bad at something–it infuriated me. The problem with the score was that it just didn’t represent who I thought I was: smart but not that smart, verbal but not mathematical. I tried writing an essay about how uncomfortable that one number made me feel–I didn’t realize it then but I was trying to get at the great disappointments and illusions that so often accompany success. But the the adult who read my essay told me I sounded a bit arrogant–that no one who read it would sympathize with me. I was so embarrassed.

Seventeen years later I am better equipped to do this. We both still made the choice to love each other–my handsome boyfriend and me–but I still get all tangled up in the relationship between success and love. I still worry–unreasonably–that success will somehow make me less lovable. But I’m practicing getting over that. I go to my new office every day, a coworking space in my neighborhood, and I write. It’s my very own dream life. I make friends in the kitchen and we talk about what we do and I practice saying the thing I’ve always wanted to say: I’m a writer. And it’s cool. It’s thrilling.

12 thoughts on “how to be famous

  1. Well, I love you, with success or without it. But we always knew you’d be a famous writer someday, so I suppose your lovability was never really a factor for me. xoxo.

    • Geez–and I love you, career coach/crisis counselor/best friend. This comment is exactly why you’re the best. (Also: Tell your mom I wrote this with her in mind. I have an unreasonable desire to make sure she likes my blog…)

  2. I’m one of the your new fans Mandy. Thanks for your honesty and sharing your journey. I can relate. I just put out there to my blog readers about my new love interest and the relationship fizzled before it really even started. I recently watched Brene Brown livestreamed from the Emerging Women conference. She talked about how courage is letting everyone know how much you want something and letting people know you care about something when you can’t control the outcome. So thanks for being courageous Mandy. 🙂

    • Thank you, Lorena. Writing about a new love interest is a brave and terrifying thing to do–I’m impressed. And I also think it’s the right thing to do sometimes–because it counters the absurd assumption we often make that not being loved equals not deserving love. So I guess what I’m saying is: likewise.

  3. I’m one of the your new fans Mandy. Thanks for your honesty and sharing your journey. I can relate. I just put out there to my blog readers about my new love interest and the relationship fizzled before it really even started. I recently watched Brene Brown livestreamed from the Emerging Women conference. She talked about how courage is letting everyone know how much you want something and letting people know you care about something when you can’t control the outcome. So thanks for being courageous Mandy. 🙂

  4. Was there something ironic about the Twit who described your talk as ‘self indulgent’? He sees your TED talk and then makes the effort to find your twitter feed and attempt a condescending critique? TED is still full of enough left-brained talks to satisfy the smug pseudo-intellectuals among us (myself included in that put-down). Self-examination may be out of style with some of us, but I thought your TED talk was one of the most emotionally accessible talks yet. So, thank you for what you are doing.

    • Thank you, Paul. I suspect the person who complained about my talk on Twitter just read the title and didn’t watch it. Or this is what I’ve chosen to believe. As my sister said, “You know you’ve really made it when people say mean things about you on the internet.” I thought that was the best way to think about it 🙂

  5. Hi Mandy
    I stumbled across your Ted talk today, found it to be very interesting and well done.
    I respect your honesty and understand your hesitance to admit how much your need for love makes you feel vulnerable.
    I wish the rest of the world could be just as honest as you but most people still seem to feel that lying about their need for love keeps them powerful in their own mind.
    Just coming out of a bad marriage breakup and trying to find that strength to trust love again, your words have me feeling hope that there is people who have the honesty to truely understand love and the honesty it takes to keep the love developing in their lives together.
    Hopefully that honesty can let people end their relationships respectfully when their love is not on the same path as their significant other, instead of disregarding the other persons need for the deep love that they themselves are searching for and cause so much pain to the other when that love leaves their life.
    Thank you for sharing your quest for love and helping others learn about love thru honesty to ones self about the vulnerability of love.
    I will follow up by looking up the 36 question story you refer to.
    Peace and love

    • Hi Paul: Hopefully my reply to this comment is better late than never. I’m sorry to hear you’re going through a separation. I’ve done it and also watched my parents do it and it seems that no matter how kind and dignified and thoughtful you are about it, it’s always hard. In my experience, ending a relationship feels like a kind of death. There is so much to grieve, even if that life change is for the best. Thanks for taking the time to comment! I’m sending lots of good and healing thoughts your way.


  6. You seem to me as being humbly gracious for your success as a writer and that is perfectly okay. Its why you have devoted followers. If you were like rubbing our noses in it (some have done blog posts like that too) you did good and are continuing to do good in your life and that is what living is all about. Can I ask you a question? Are you happy in your life right now? You seem to be content in your personal life and not becoming engrossed in your relationship (my view from outside looking in) and your career seems to be pleasing you. So, I assume the answer will be yes? I just started my blog and have 75 followers. Like wow!!! I started on a cell phone app and now have a laptop for reasons this all just came to me as a tool to reach my very long term goal as to be published just one time. Everything is turning up roses when before my garden was dead. Yes, I am single. And I love it. That’s my basic success and I bet we are pretty equally happy right now. I too would like to put it in words how much of a WOW factor the whole reinventing myself has been. I hate bragging and all! Enough of my babble. Congrats on your book and in your life changes. Positive MOJO sent to you…..Annette

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