For the past 2+ weeks, I've been sick with pneumonia, and not the "walking" kind. This is the full-force, 104-temperature-in-the-dead-of-night, rag-doll-weakness, feels-like-a-concrete-slab-is-sitting-on-my-chest-suffocating-me, so-dizzy-that-I-dive-to-the-floor-where-my-dog-rushes-at-me-and-puts-his-nose-on-my-nose kind of pneumonia.
And that has nothing to do with freelance writing ... except that this unexpected battle with illness brought along an incident with my mother ... which, in turn, triggered a spiderweb of thought about marketing my writing business.
But let's dial back a couple of days, to when my mother mercifully drove to my house to do some grocery shopping for me. (I haven't been behind the wheel of a car since my doctor's appointment two weeks ago.)
She magically produced a pen and paper and commanded, "Tell me what you want." (If you've ever watched, "The Gilmore Girls," my mother is the epitome of Emily Gilmore, so just envision Emily Gilmore sitting on the edge of your bed while you hack up half of a lung.)
I went through the basics -- dog food, popcorn for my kid's nightly snacks, orange juice, etc. And then I said, "But I'll tell you what I'm really craving." She looked up from the paper. "I would like a Marie Callender's Chicken Pot Pie, the kind with mushrooms and broccoli."
She didn't write that down. Then in her all-knowing Emily Gilmore voice she said, "I don't see why you'd want Marie Callender's. Wouldn't you rather have Swanson's? Or even the generic Kroger brand?"
"No. But thank you. I would like Marie Callender's."
She stared at me.
"Write that down."
"Why? Why would you want Marie Callender's, over all of these other chicken pot pies?"
(cue the theme song from "Gilmore Girls" .... "If you are all alone ... feeling like your mother is crazy...." wait, wrong words, but those should be the lyrics ...)
She put her pencil down. "Because Marie Callender's gravy is thick! It's not nearly as good as Swanson's. And are you sure you want the one with mushrooms? What if I can't find the one with mushrooms? Are carrots and peas acceptable?"
"Yes, Mom, I want Marie Callender's. I like the thick gravy. And I like mushrooms. But if you can't find the one with the mushrooms, carrots and peas are great. Thank you."
She scrunched her nose as if I had just ordered her to buy beets, sardines and liver, and we proceeded with the shopping list.
After she left for the grocery store, I churned about this -- not about my mother pushing back about the pot pies (we have more of these conversations than I can count, and after a while, they're just static noise).
No -- I thought to myself, "Why did I actually insist on the Marie Callender's brand?"
Because, truth be told, there really wasn't much of a difference between the chicken pot pie brands. In fact, she probably was right. The Swanson's is a good pot pie, and even the Kroger generic brand is pretty decent. There was nothing extra special about the Marie Callender's brand, except for the mushrooms (which I like a lot). But when all was said and done, I knew in my heart of hearts that I didn't actually prefer the taste of one pot pie over the others.
And then in a flash, probably a nano-second, it all clicked together:
I wasn't attached to the Marie Callender's chicken pot pie brand because it was a culinary masterpiece.
I was attached to it because of a memory.
Suddenly, I was back in time at age 23, in 1989, in a little hole-in-the-wall grungy Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. I was a cub reporter for a very tiny newspaper (now defunct) called The Coatesville Record. And I had been assigned to do a feature story about a spaghetti fundraising dinner that the World War 2 veterans were holding. (Yes, in those days, there were still World War 2 veterans, who were in their 70s and 80s).
I was sitting at a long table, surrounded on either elbow and across the table by old guys, all of whom were joking and laughing and making me feel like I'd just discovered a cadre of surrogate Italian grandpas. (Maybe they weren't looking at me like that, but that's how I felt at the time.) I conjured the scene in "The Godfather," where Michael Corleone is watching Clemenza stirring the sauce. Clemenza imparts wisdom about the tomatoes. My group of "Clemenzas" were all very entertaining. I felt warm and happy. Safe. They had thoroughly charmed me like a group of pied pipers.
I had a plate of noodles in front of me, when one of the veterans came up behind me and said, "Would you like some gravy on that?"
"Gravy?" I blanched, thinking he was about to dump thick roast beef gravy that you would normally put on mashed potatoes on top of my spaghetti.
The veteran across the table laughed. "That's what old Italian guys call the sauce," he explained. "We call it, 'gravy.'"
"Oh!" I smiled at the man behind my shoulder, who looked like he was about to drop a steaming vat of tomato sauce all over the floor. "Yes, please. I would like some gravy."
He heaped the sauce and a couple of giant meatballs on my plate.
The aroma, the steam, the robust laughter, the camaraderie, the embellished stories, the food that warmed me to the bones as snowflakes fluttered against a window pane, the cigar smoke, the strong handshakes, the direct eye contact -- all of those mosaic pieces that created a backdrop for my story -- it was a blissful memory.
It all came rushing back to me, 27 years later, in a bed where I had languished for two weeks -- that Italian dinner with those World War 2 veterans.
And what did it have to do with Marie Callender's chicken pot pies?
I then fast forwarded to about 10 years later. I was living in a different part of Pennsylvania, a single career girl working for The Associated Press, but this memory was in a grocery store. I had pulled in there after a 10-hour day covering politics in the state Capitol, scavenging for a quick frozen food meal to take home and eat on my couch next to my cat. (I know, pathetic.)
That's when I saw the Marie Callender's BOX in the freezer case.
I didn't know anything about Marie Callender. I had no idea who she was (I still don't). But I saw what looked like a pencil drawing of an elderly woman in the top left-hand corner. I saw the name -- Marie Callender. I saw the meal -- a spaghetti dinner, with thick red sauce and big meatballs. My mind clicked: "Italian grandmother. Italian name. Italian cook. Italian meal."
And then my mind went one step further: "Oh. I remember those sweet old guys at the VFW in Downingtown, Pennsylvania! That was such a fun story. Those guys were so amazing!"
I flung open the freezer case and bought not one meal, but eight, to last me through the week of late-night story coverage.
Truth be told, the Marie Callender's meals were not much better than any other freezer meal. But every time I grabbed one of those BOXES, I flashed back to Downingtown, either knowingly or unknowingly, and the way I felt on that day, in that moment, surrounded by those old Italian World War 2 veterans.
As I waited for Emily Gilmore to bring back my Marie Callender's chicken pot pie with mushrooms and broccoli, I realized something else, too:
Marketing my writing services has much less to do with my marketing approach and more to do with the feelings that my editors associate with ME when they see my name, see my photo, see my blog, see my website, see my Twitter account, see my LinkedIn profile, see an email from me or see my name flash up on their cell phone's caller ID.
How do I make my editors feel?
Do they associate me with a pleasant person? A writer who meets deadlines? A person of integrity who won't fudge details or quotes? A writer whose copy is consistently clean and needs few edits? A person who enthusiastically accepts work without complaining about tight schedules or asking for more time?
And for those who don't know me yet ... Of course I can't control their own perceptions and how those might affect their initial interactions with me. But I can control my professionalism right out of the gate. How does my professional website look? How many story ideas do I submit when they ask me for one? (I try to average a minimum of 12.) Am I courteous, well-spoken, polite? Do I convey confidence and assurance that if they place trust in me, I will turn in a product that will boost their readership?
The questions are endless, but they are as necessary as asking, "Why do I always go to that particular chicken pot pie, without fail? Why do I always choose that movie theater across town, when another one is closer to my house? Why do I take my dog to that veterinarian instead of the one who I used for five years?"
When you get right down to it, the answer will come down to a feeling that you associate with that person, product or service.
When Emily Gilmore showed up, she had the Marie Callender's chicken pot pie with carrots and peas. (I guess the mushrooms were too much for her to stomach, even though she wasn't the one to be eating it.)
But as I dug into that steaming hunk of pie crust, chicken chunks -- and that thick gravy -- I thought, "This reminds me of those old Italian guys in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, when I was 23 years old, feeling like Michael Corleone listening to Clemenza's wisdom about the perfect tomato sauce."
And I hope my editors feel the same way about me when my name flashes in front of their eyes.