I’m going to tell you a story, but you have to promise not to laugh.
When I was sixteen, I was a finalist in the now-defunct Sassy magazine’s Sassiest Girl in America contest. (Stop that! You promised!) I was flown to New York with five other girls from all corners of the country. We were put up smack of the middle of midtown Manhattan in a $500-a-night hotel, ferried around to ritzy restaurants, taken shopping, made over and photographed for the magazine. We stayed up late and skittered down hotel hallways in our pajamas and flirted with the teenage bellhops and bonded like crazy.
One night, we went to see Grease. Somehow the front office found out who we were, and they invited us up on stage to dance with the cast as they wrapped up the closing number. They rousted us out of the audience and herded us down the aisle, but we stood there in the wings like deer in the headlights. Dance? In public? In front of all those people?
All of us but Sara. She grabbed two of us by the forearms and said, “Look, guys. We’re in New York. They want us to dance with a Broadway cast. WHEN DO YOU THINK THIS IS EVER GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN?”
We all looked at each other. Then we got up on the stage and danced like idiots to We Go Together.
All of it – pedicures and shopping sprees and exceptionally hot photographers named Arthur – all of it was only going to happen once, and those four days flashed by so fast that all I have left of them is a single picture that ran as an afterthought, after Sassy was bought out and the contest scrapped by the new publisher barely a month after we all went home.
I wish I could say that precocious, difficult sixteen-year-old me was aware that she took away something profound from the experience. But I wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t ready to admit that the world was full of lessons. But now as I move through my debut year I keep coming back to this experience, to everything I got out of those four days.
Cynthia’s debut lessons are informed by deep currents of wisdom and a clever, sparkling maturity. Mine are more ramshackle, cobbled together from an unexplored current of singularity and wonder that runs deep and goes back to Sassy and is rooted in this: exceptional experiences teach you exceptional things.
I’m pretty sure that lessons need reflection, but by then they won’t do me any good. By then, the exceptional will be old hand. So here are the lessons I’ve been making up as I go along:
* While everything is going on – and especially when things feel like they’re happening crazyfast – stop and consider the sheer magnitude of what’s happening. Reflect while things are happening. It makes you slow down and feel every beat going by, and you’re not getting any of those back.
* Let things go. There are already things I wish were different about my debut, but as of now they can slip through my fingers like sand.
* Don’t let the debut process consume you so thoroughly that you neglect the other carbon-based life forms that are important to you. Turn off the computer sometimes and prioritize your friends, your spouse, your kids, your cat. Sure, this is only going to happen once – but the people you love will still be there afterward.
* Enjoy yourself. Be giddy and silly. Squee all over the place when good things happen. Celebrate the milestones of your writer friends and cheer their accomplishments. Grab their arms and drag them on stage with you. You won’t remember who’s watching. You’ll only remember dancing.