When tea became trendy, I gave in and, with a sigh, supplemented my grandmother’s depression glass dishes with a few pieces from the new array of tea service paraphernalia available in gift shops.
When yoga started to become an “in thing,” promoted in slick videos and shops such as the one near my home called “Om Depot” (I’m not kidding), I winced, but continued to do the Salutation to the Sun in my living room every morning.
But I draw the line at cupcakes.
There’s a very real danger that covering anything with the heavy glaze of marketing will obscure its true character.
Now, thanks to the Greater Cupcake Marketing Initiative, you can buy (the operative word here) expensive colorful cupcake pans, artistic paper liners, exotic packages of gourmet mixes in varieties like Red Velvet Elegance (what my grandmother used to call devil’s food), and even little cupcake “feet” should you feel the need to dress yours up for a special occasion.
Or if you don’t have the time or the inclination to bake your own, you can buy oversized, excessively frosted cupcakes at four to five times the usual bake sale price.
I know there are bigger concerns in the world, but I refuse to stand idly by while this staple of the school birthday party crumbles under the weight of Martha Stewart-ism.
How can we, who grew up with Hostess cupakes in our lunch boxes, stand by and let this part of our childhood be divested of its meaning by commercialism? When do we say no to being manipulated by hype?
WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON?
Of course, anytime I get really stirred up about something that is happening in our half-baked popular culture, I know it’s really about something that is going on inside me.
My cupcake outrage can be traced to a decision I made a few weeks ago not to follow the standard recipe for fame and fortune (i.e. an appearance on Oprah) in how I would market my book.
I trusted that the person advising me on this knew what he was talking about when he explained that what the publishing industry wants is a brand, a package, and the newest miracle cure. I also believed he was sincere in his desire to help me make my book “more attractive to a mass audience.” I almost got hooked on that last part. What writer doesn’t want more readers? But the truth is my book isn’t for a mass audience conditioned to look for instant solutions—or as a friend who is a marketing professor says, “prescriptions.”
There is no fast track, no easily-applied ten-step program to becoming authentic in your work life. There is only the often laborious and sometime glorious process of your own development and growth.
Everything suggested to me about how to market my book is true. It just doesn’t fit me, and I’m not willing to risk corrupting what I set out to accomplish by following what has become the standard line of attack for acquiring indiscriminate, media-induced popularity. I balk at going the way of the cupcake.
There’s a very real danger that covering anything with the heavy glaze of marketing will obscure its true character. Marketing by its very nature is designed to divert attention from the actual product to the experience surrounding the product, from the steak to the sizzle, the aroma, and the status of outdoing your neighbor in the barbeque department. Marketing uses our humanness to sell and this has a cost.
Eating a cupcake connects me to my childhood—I see my mother or my grandmother in an apron, I remember licking my fingers as I pull the paper off, I feel the icing on my cheeks. It’s the connection to something real and personal that’s important, but marketing simultaneously uses and ruins this connection. It feeds a different hunger—the insatiable appetite for a new, better experience.
SUCCESS ON YOUR OWN TERMS
My message is individual. The goal of my process is success on your own terms, not success as it is defined by our culture, which usually boils down to money and celebrity.
I became acutely aware of both how pervasive and narrow this definition of making it is when I spoke to the graduating class of a technical school a few years ago.
When I asked them about what they wanted in the future, their resounding response was “to have lots of money,” yet they did not connect wealth with tangible goals such as independence, owning a business, helping others. For them money was an end unto itself, and the good life consisted in having more of it, not in making conscious choices based on a solid sense of their own values.
It’s easy for young people, and the rest of us, who live under the constant blitz of marketing to be taken in by the media’s definition of success and forget that making a big splash is only one end of the achievement spectrum.
There is also the “small ripple” model in which you simply earn the respect and trust of the circle of people around you and let them carry the message of your worth to their family, friends, and colleagues. This is always how I have lived my professional life. Why would I do it differently now?
When I balance the idea of publishing a book with how I feel most comfortable living my life, I know how much is enough and what will be the most satisfying.
The book becomes a small, smooth stone I lightly toss into a nearby pond. With calm satisfaction, I stand and watch the gentle ripples it sends forth.
I would far prefer to sell fewer copies than gain readership at the cost of what I’m all about. I have both the right and the responsibility to define success on my own terms, and in moments when I doubt my decision to remain a “birthday party cupcake,” I will reread one of my favorite entries from Thoreau’s journals (October 28, 1854):
For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so-called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of [my book] “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at the last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon—706 copies out of an edition of 1,000 . . . . They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that which they trace their origin . . . . I have now a library of nearly nine-hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? . . . Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen tonight to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.”