Tuesday, April 28, 2009

And the Lesson of the Susan Boyle Story Is . . . ?

Not what you might think.

That is, not what you might think -- if you are an author or will-be author.

You've most likely heard of Susan Boyle, the Scottish singer whose jaw-dropping performance has inspired adoration worldwide.

She appeared on Britain's Got Talent, an English program similar to American Idol, the famous amateur talent venue, on April 11.

Since her televised audition, millions upon millions (120 million, so far) have watched Susan Boyle sing "I Dreamed a Dream" on the video-sharing site, YouTube. And many of those millions have watched her video again and again, and yet again.

. . . Watched the awkward first moments on stage . . . her unlikely physical appearance . . . the smirks and snickers from the audience . . . the smarmy questions from Simon Cowell, well-known as the verbally bruising judge on American Idol.

And then the moment comes when she sings. Her voice is beautiful and strong and hopeful. It is professionally trained and disarmingly real -- sounding a bit like Julie Andrews, or Judy Garland.

In mere seconds, the audience is on its feet, clapping and cheering. Even Cowell's face transforms, and the smile he wears as he gazes up at her, stage microphone in her hand, is sweetly beatific.

This is Susan Boyle's miracle. She inspires "the better angels of our nature" in those first seconds when the contrast -- between our expectations of her and what she actually delivers -- cracks open our hearts like walnuts.

Her sweetness and soaring talent force us to find our own sweetness. We can't help it, really. We go there willingly, overjoyed at her triumph.

All around the world, people have the same response -- only too happy to clap, tear-up, and cheer. National differences dissolve. They mean nothing. For her audience has become humanity.

Of course, the sheer magnitude of our response to Susan Boyle is not because of our unbridled interest in a talent contest video.

It's because Susan Boyle is completely . . . herself. The self who is immensely talented. And the self who contradicts all expectations about appropriate self-presentation for very public consumption.

Beautiful on the inside, she forces us to see our superficial standards as silly and empty. Honest and guileless, she forces us to see their opposites -- qualities our celebrities so often express -- as, again, silly and empty.

Not that we actually think these things.

Watching her performance, we absorb her meaning instantly. Beyond any capacity for thought, there's something about Susan Boyle that we just "get." Even the Simon Cowells among us do.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Now here's the question. What is the lesson of the Susan Boyle story for authors?

There are, actually, many lessons, but they all begin with this. By embodying the dream that authors so often have -- the dream of achieving a breakthrough triumph -- she both raises and answers the question of how such an achievement is possible.

So here is how it's possible. How she did it.

Susan Boyle has been singing since she was twelve years old. Her talent surfaced early, so she performed locally many times. In her thirties, she took weekly voice lessons for several years (acting lessons, as well), and, in between working and caring for her elderly mother, performed whenever she could.

From this part of her story, the lesson for authors might be that the cultivation of even a very obvious talent requires support -- teachers, venues, and the encouraging applause of a community -- in order to grow and develop, over time.

Then, there is the element of timing. Susan Boyle has said that she's ready now, whereas she wasn't before (there was one disastrous audition when she was so nervous she could barely sing). And since her mother passed away two years ago, at ninety-five, she no longer has her former primary-caretaker preoccupation.

For authors, the lesson is not that your life needs to be empty of responsibilities. Rather, that by giving yourself all the time and training you need to strengthen your talent and psyche -- so you can accept public attention without wilting -- you are respecting your own proper timing for the unfolding of your gift.

Still another aspect of Susan Boyle's life was crucial for her success. She was deeply motivated by a desire to make her mother's wish come true. They had watched Britain's Got Talent on television together, and, Susan said, "She thought I'd win, if I entered."

To posthumously please her mother, she did. And whether she wins the final round of BGT or not, she has won millions of fans, worldwide.

For authors, the lesson may be that the single most important reason for cultivating your talent, beyond your joy in expressing it, needs to be something larger than yourself. You need to have some vision for your work, a purpose beyond yourself -- if not someone you love and want to please.

One last aspect of the Susan Boyle story stands out: Her strength of character. Apart from her gracious and forthright answers for reporters, her response to the unimaginable pressure of sudden global fame and adulation has been very instructive. It confirms what we see in her -- that she is genuine, through and through.

Asked whether she'd consider a "makeover," she has repeatedly said no, not right now. And though she has acknowledged that, in her own words, she "looks like a garage," she has also said: "I look like Susan Boyle. What's wrong with that?" Indeed.

For authors, the lesson might be that the positive estimation of the world is nothing -- is, in fact, worse than nothing -- without solid self-worth. Sometimes, authors think success will give them a pumped-up value, at least the outside kind. But it doesn't work that way. The more you value yourself, the more likely it is that the world will, too.

Look at it this way: a person whose self-esteem rested solely upon the opinion of others would never have taken the stage as Susan Boyle.

And so, from this gifted woman's story, we can discern six immediate lessons (though many others exist) that are helpful to authors.

Writing talent may be a gift, but it needs to be cultivated, expressed, and celebrated -- a gift is also a responsibility.

Nurturing your talent through training strengthens and develops it, so it is ready to be shared.

The support of family and community is helpful, and maybe critical, to the unfolding of your talent -- from its modest first emergence to its full flowering, over time.

The issue of timing when sharing your gift with the larger world may be individual and tricky, but it can determine the eventual outcome. Have respect for your own proper timing when deciding whether it is time to seek publication.

Your character -- your emotional maturity -- will determine how you handle success, whether badly, or well.

Finally, what you need as a gifted writer is an additional spark, a reason to succeed that is larger than yourself alone.

Susan Boyle's spark seemed to come from her relationship with her mother. The unwavering belief of someone so important, someone she loved, inspired her to audition once more. And her mother was right.

Beliefs, like dreams, come true.


  1. Ah, that's an absolutely gorgeous entry. I love your thoughts, they ring so true! I love that you used such a wonderfully quirky role model as an inspiration. Thanks so much for this blog entry -- I really needed to read it today!

  2. Laurel, you never stop inspiring me. This post, like the personal notes you email to me at regular intervals always seem to do, arrived at a perfect time. Overwhelmed with work and school, I keep pushing my writing to the bottom of my to-do list. How unfair to myself and to those who might benefit from what I have to say. Thanks for the thought-provoking kick in the pants.

  3. Laurel,
    You have really captured the essence of what Susan Boyle represents for so many of us and for the collective. Your beautiful description of the contest itself takes me right back to that moment when I felt so moved--by Susan, by the audience, by the comments of the judges and by the perfection of it all in helping all of us see our own humanity. Your author's tips are right on. Thanks so much!

  4. You are a treasure, Laurel Marshfield! Such a heart-felt analogy, so much fuel for us will-be (I love this term so much more than wannabe) writers, especially this one. I'm still struggling with believing in myself; however, each of your posts brings be nearer and nearer to realizing that my belief isn't nearly so important as my doing. Make sense? As always, I love your "instruction"! Thanks!