Wednesday

What We Can Learn From the Success of Sh*t My Dad Says



By Chris Stewart

I'm always running from trends, so while I initially enjoyed Justin's posts on Twitter (I lurked a bit once I heard about it - I don't tweet and personally hope the practice dies a quick death soon, once people overload on being too visible and having too many devices and sites to check in with), it quickly grew old and I dropped the practice of checking it once in a while.

Clearly, however, millions of people are loving it still, and buying the hardcover book as well as downloading it on Kindle, because I received this happy little news item in one of the (too) many newsletters I subscribe to (Media Bistro):

"Sh*t My Dad Says is the 377th most highlighted book on Kindle, loaded with foul-mouthed quotes from blogger Justin Halpern and cursing parents. This profane title has dominated the NY Times' nonfiction hardcover bestseller list for weeks."

Maybe some of you love this book so much you sleep with it or your Kindle under your pillow so you can read from it each morning as it if were some rude horoscope to start your day. If so, this is not the post for you.

For the rest of you, I can hear you now:

I'll show you some cursing you struggling writers are out there saying to yourselves. This kid just writes down the b.s. his dad says and lands in the NYT list while I sweat and cry and bleed for my art and reap no reward?

Well...yes. Let's get past that bitter pill and get on to the silver lining. (And please ignore that mixed metaphor as well.)

I agree. It's a sad state of affairs when a book that is destined to end up in everyone's bathroom next to Richard Carlson's Don't Sweat the Small Stuff is #2 on the NYT list alongside - well, never mind. I just checked the list and I wouldn't say it's all that impressive. There are some good ones on there (you decide: 9/2010 NYT List). Don't get mad at me, I'm so over books for adults that lately I've been reading my 9 year old nephew's books so I can enjoy reading again).

What I mean is - it doesn't say much for America's intellectual powers, does it? Probably all that tweeting to blame - people's brains are mush so they can't handle anything beyond little snippets of swearing.

I suppose one could make the case for SMDS being a sort of Potty Mouth Book of Zen ("Leap and the sh*t pile will appear"), but I'm not going for it.

What I am going for is the lesson here. Aside from the obvious, what makes this book such a success?

It's REAL people. Justin didn't sit around plotting how he could publish something and make tons of money and be on that dumb list.

He focused on something real that made him laugh (or cry, perhaps. I can't imagine that it's sometimes not a painful experience to be around that negativity, however funny, all the time), that he was interested in and meant something to him, something clearly wacky and original, and he shared it.

He also didn't embellish it. He didn't set up every post. He didn't comment on them or explain them or turn them into a story. He stepped aside and let them through. He didn't try to turn them into something they weren't.

He also got very very very lucky. But we all know that's a factor, right? It's part of the game.

THE TAKE AWAY:

Truth is stranger than fiction. We often don't take advantage of this enough. Some crazy thing gets handed to us and instead of going with it, we change it into what we think is a good hook instead of exploring the original possibilities.

I need to warn you here, though, to not get so mired in the truth you can't step off the path if it's better for your fiction. That's also a trap.

It's a fine line. But, at first, don't think about that. Don't think/care about what anyone else thinks. Explore the idea as it is, for what it is.

If you're between projects - look around. Who or what is coming at you that has you shaking your head? That makes your brain tingle? Or other parts? Follow that. Tune in to your passion for it.

Forget the NYT list. Yes - eyes on the prize - if that's your prize - but if that's all you're doing, you're spending too much time dreaming and not enough time doing. It's the doing that will get you there.

So 'take a page' (or a screen - ??) out of Justin's book.

P.S. Actually - if you're looking for a writing exercise - do just that. Pick one of his father's sayings and use that to start a dialogue between characters, or as the title of a poem. See where it takes you.

Chris Stewart is program director for literary arts with the Maryland State Arts Council. Join her Facebook page The Real Writer or find her at www.therealwriter.com.