How My Daughter Became an International Multi-Media Internet Superstar Overnight

We have had a bit of excitement at casa de Hartlaub since my last post. The seed of that excitement was planted several years ago — more on that in a bit — and sprouted in March of this year. Annalisa, my sixteen year old daughter, attends The Ohio State University and during the winter-spring semester took an Intro to Photography class as a bit of a respite from her biology lectures, lab courses, and her work on a pediatric oncology research team. The photography class, taught by the informative and entertaining Shane McGeehan with lectures by Aspen Mays, required the submission of a number of projects. Annalisa fulfilled one of them by photographing a series of portraits of herself representing mainstream and counterculture fashions for each of the past ten decades. She turned the project in, earned an ‘A,’ and posted the project to her Flickr account at the beginning of April.

Strange things began to happen within a couple of weeks. Annalisa’s hit numbers, after growing steadily but modestly at first, inexplicably and suddenly began to jump exponentially, day by day, from 10,000 to 20,000 to 60,000 and so on. Will Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation, re-blogged her page, which was a particular thrill for Annalisa, given that she had a crush on him in those heady days when she was four years old. Hank Green, who is a major YouTube player contributor, did as well. This was exciting enough; the tipping point, however, occurred on April 2, when Annalisa got an email from Sara Roncero-Menendez of The Huffington Post, asking for permission to use the portraits in an article about Annalisa and the project. The answer of course was yes. And we waited.

We had no idea what would happen next. The articleappeared on April 29. The story was picked up by Buzzfeed, Independent Journal Review, Yahoo!, and then by news sites based in Vietnam, Italy, Mumbai, France, and England, among others. A young man in Turkey put together a music video featuring the portraits and a Pentatonix track. And it’s still expanding, even as I sit here typing. This, it has been explained to me, is what as “going viral.” It was never Annalisa’s intent to do so; she just wanted to create the best project she could, and then share it with her friends. Indeed.

So what does all of this have to do with you? Ah. The short version is “(M)y daughter did a class photography project and it went viral.” Here is the long version, tacked onto the beginning of what I have set forth above: Annalisa conceived of the project; spent hours turning her room into a portrait studio; spent days looking at old photographs; experimented with makeup, lighting, and shading; and took hundreds of shots before she got the ones she wanted. What everyone is seeing is but the tail end — and the relatively short end — of all of that work. That’s true of any work of art, be it your favorite book of the week, the new Parquet Courts CD, or TrueDetective; you’re getting the end result, not the weeks and months and yeah, in some cases years of work and failure and self-doubt that comprised the gestation period which ultimately resulted in the finished masterpiece being pushed out into the marketplace. You can read all of James Bell’s columns that you want, and follow that advice to the letter, but —and Jim would be the first to tell you this — you’re not going to squeeze out your masterpiece, best- selling or otherwise, viral or otherwise, in an hour or a few days or even a few weeks. You’re going to write and erase and edit and write some more and lay awake and forget about the butler (as Raymond Chandler so famously did) and erase it all and start all over until, as Will Wheaton’s boss was so fond of saying, you “make it so.”

The title of this piece notwithstanding, overnight success doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the end result of many nights, and days, and weeks of work. For Annalisa, it probably started when she was three years old, and for whatever reason during dinner began taking pictures of her food after each bite, as her parents watched with amusement and dinnertimes extended for two hours. It was worth every minute then, and still is. 



Making Money (or not) in the Book Biz

When considering the dire financial consequences of pursuing a career in fiction — and unfortunately this topic comes to mind every time I look at my bank statements — I sometimes think of the short story “Asleep at the Switch” by the great Kurt Vonnegut. (The story appears as a preface to his 1979 novel Jailbird, and it’s actually credited to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s eccentric alter ego, but never mind all that.) This little tale illuminates the nature of capitalism better than any economics textbook can.

I can’t find my copy of Jailbird now, so I’ll have to tell the story from memory. Albert Einstein goes to heaven and is met at the pearly gates not by St. Peter but by a team of divine accountants. Before being allowed into Paradise, the recently deceased have to sit down with the accountants, who review the financial history of the departed and point out all the business opportunities that God had placed before them during their lifetimes. For example, a teenage gangster who’d been killed in a knife fight is told that every morning of his short life he’d walked past a vacant lot in which a diamond ring was hidden among the garbage. If he’d just taken the time to scour the lot for valuables he would’ve found the ring and earned enough money from its sale to move his family out of their dangerous neighborhood. “So you shouldn’t blame God for your misfortune,” scolds the heavenly accountant. “He gave you the chance to be successful, to make millions. But where were you? You were asleep at the switch.”

Albert Einstein gets the same treatment from the accountants. One of them tells the physicist that he should’ve bought stock in uranium-mining companies as soon as he figured out the secret of the atomic bomb. “You could’ve made billions!” the accountant yells. “But where were you? You were asleep at the switch!” Einstein isn’t perturbed by this scolding — he has no interest in money. All he cares about are physics and his beloved violin. But he notices that the heavenly audits are really upsetting the other poor souls in Paradise. They writhe with agonizing regret when they learn about all their missed opportunities.

So Einstein writes a letter to God. He politely recommends that the Almighty stop the audits because they’re causing so much pain. And because he’s Einstein, he points out a logical problem with the reasoning of the accountants. He notes that if everyone on Earth took advantage of all their financial opportunities and made billions of dollars, then the world would be flooded with so much money that it would lose all its value.

And here is God’s reply to Einstein’s letter: “Stop complaining, or I’ll take away your violin.”

Vonnegut’s story touches a nerve. Doesn’t our society seem to judge everyone based on how much money he or she makes? And don’t we often judge ourselves using the same standard? But it’s a terrible standard to use, because the game is rigged. Everyone is encouraged to dream of becoming a billionaire, and yet the system would collapse if everyone actually got rich.

I think the same lesson applies to writers. We all want to be bestselling authors, but perhaps that’s an unrealistic expectation. Do you really need hundreds of thousands of readers to call yourself a successful writer? Can’t you be happy with just 5,000 or 10,000 readers? That’s still a lot of people.

Anyway, that’s my moment of Zen for today. I’m trying to lessen my suffering by reining in my desires. But I still feel bad when I look at my bank account.
On a happier note, I discovered a way to connect to new readers through the Huffington Post. The website makes it easy to post essays on the site. I contributed a piece that was mostly about science but a little about fiction. You can read it here.