That very night I read aloud to a group of people from chapter one at the University of Washington bookstore. Everyone who showed up, it seemed, wanted me to sign their copy. Not just sign it. Personalize it.
A few days previous I had bought Jump Start Your Novel from Mark Teppo at the Rainforest retreat. The book he gave me was already autographed, so I asked him to personalize it.
"To Sonia," he wrote.
"No, wait," I said, laughing. "That's only my name." I handed it back. "I want something personal. Just write something. Anything you like."
It seemed perfectly reasonable to me. After all, how hard could it be to write a quick note to someone you've talked to for hours over the course of a few days? Heck, we were practically friends.
Some ten minutes later, I got the book back from him, with a few sentences scrawled in a barely legible hand. Good enough, I decided, and thought nothing more of it.
Back to the night of my reading, where a growing number of people want me to sign their book. Fast, because the store is closing in mere minutes.
And, in addition to their name, could I personalize it? Write something? Anything I like.
My mind, ever the stalwart companion, goes utterly blank.
What is this close friend's name again?
Oh, how very different all this looks from the other side of the line.
As a reader I think I'm being all agreeable and easy-going by saying, just write what you like. But the catch is that we readers don't mean that. We want something unique, something that reflects our connection to the author and this special moment we're sharing together.
This moment in which the author is signing as fast as they can and horrified to discover that she can't remember your name.
You know what the author really truly wants to write in your book? I'll tell you: whatever will make you happy, as long as you spell it out for her, word by word.
"Just tell me," I beg a woman with what I hope is a charming smile but is probably a stressed, maniacal grin. I try not to look past her to the growing line of people, many clutching multiple copies.
She gives me a confused look. Which I understand. As a reader, I expect the author can write something easily. Just a line or two. Small, but witty. About that one time we went camping together, maybe. Or that joke we shared. Remember? Come on, I'm not some stranger. You know me!
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, the store is about to close, and the only clever thing I can think to write is: "Thanks for all the fish," and that's not okay.
I had no idea it would be this hard, being on the other side of the table. My mind has never been so clean.
I'm not complaining, you understand. This is the best possible outcome for a book launch, to have lots of people want a signed copy. It's an honor, and truly, I do love this. I just want more than a few seconds per person to do it right. A lot more time. A week per autograph ought to do it.
I muddle through. I come up with what I hope are a few slightly witty things, and I make liberal use of the phrase "remind me how you spell your name again?" and hope it's not "M-A-R-K." (Sorry, Mark.)
The line shrinks. The clock strikes the hour. After a few more minutes, it's over.
Later, over a much-appreciated glass of red wine, I reflect on the evening. That's when my exchange with Mr. Teppo comes back to me. I wince, remembering what I said to him.
I send him an abject apology, explaining that I didn't know what it was like.
He writes back: "Delighted that you had a line of people, and I appreciate that you now understand the complete terror that comes with 'oh, write whatever you like!'"
Boy, do I ever.
So the next time I'm the reader, standing in line to get an autograph -- especially from a new author like myself -- I'm going to tell them exactly what I want them to write. Word for word. I will not say, "whatever you like," or "make it personal -- you know me!"
And then, even if I've known them for twenty years, I will say my name. Because now I know what it looks like from the other side.
I'll even spell it for them.