Before she suddenly made headlines by saying that women are partly to blame for sexual assault, I was sitting in a coffee shop watching Angela Lansbury apply lotion to her elbows. The video is a sort of health-oriented tutorial called “Positive Moves.” There’s a lot of zooming in. It’s not so much slow motion as it is slow paced, just slow enough that I wonder if someone passing by will think this is vintage porn.
In the video, Angela Lansbury explains how she prepares for each day. She says things like “self-acceptance is vital” and, as she rubs lotion into her face, “I take these few moments to focus on the day ahead. I think about each demand that will present itself in the coming day and I visualize myself meeting it easily and well.” The music sounds like an electronic mouse orchestra.
In the next shot, she is wearing a periwinkle body suit on a deck, opening her arms wide, and I think she might be my Italian grandmother, with whom I used to watch Murder She Wrote, calling out from the dead to remind me to hold my chin up and take myself seriously: “After all, it is the dawn of a new day, and anything is possible.” Angela shows me little tricks for getting in touch with my body: you can do a little dance in the courtyard. Ride your bike for pleasure. Pour some essential oils into a nice bath.
I recently published a book. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who encounters praise with near-pathological mortification. When people say “congratulations” or ask me, “how does it feel?,” some combination of factors causes me to focus all my attention on manifesting the energetic equivalent of a booger on my face to frighten everybody away. For this reason, I’ve found Ms. Lansbury’s influence on my life to be quietly therapeutic.
Lately, I’ve been watching an episode of Murder She Wrote almost every night before bed. In addition to outsmarting fumbling detectives all over the world (PG style and in shoulder pads), Jessica Fletcher consistently and unflappably owns the fact that she’s a writer. In each episode somebody asks after her work and I get new insight into how to stand on my own two feet and be the kind of Leo my horoscopes say I am supposed to be. And you know what? I’m making some progress. Some positive moves.
Here is a handy guide to dismantling your imposter syndrome one episode of Murder She Wrote at a time:
“A Fashionable Way to Die”
Somebody dies during a fashion show. A French detective, who was pretty stern a second ago, is introduced to Jessica and puts two and two together: “You are JD Fletcher? The mystery writer?” She nods and says yes. He tells her the title of his favorite of her books in French and she makes her eyes into giant planets. They talk translation and she softens her eyes a bit. She morphs from humble to haughty to genial and unconcerned. The detective must get back to work solving the mystery. She focuses her attention on another conversation in which people have wildly inventive ideas of what a French accent should sound like and gets to work solving the mystery faster.
The lesson here is clear: when asked if you are a writer, nod and smile gently while offering your hand. If further questions ensue, widen your eyes, then soften them, then refocus your attention to something across the room and begin collecting research for your next book.
“The Way to Dusty Death”
I spent the majority of this episode trying to find out if one of the actresses was related to Melora Hardin, who played Tammy on Transparent. This actress has a killer backward eyeroll in the face of false flattery. Anyway, I don’t think anyone asks Jessica if she is a writer in this one but the episode does begin with a psychic who alludes to Jessica’s impending influence on the plot: “there is something of which you must beware. Or rather, someone, a woman, a very determined woman whose will is even more powerful than yours, Mr. McCormick.”
Lesson: say this quote into the mirror every day for a month.
“If It’s Thursday It Must Be Beverly”
One day, Jessica is at work at her typewriter. The doorbell rings and she opens the door only to see a recent widower who is anxious about becoming a suspect in his late wife’s murder. He fumbles a bit. “You do have a lot of experience writing mysteries, and I was hoping… unless you’re too busy working on another book?” Jessica complains of a crick in her neck and the widower begins to rub her shoulders. “Oh you have the most wonderful hands,” she says, and she is lulled into a bit of a stupor. She suddenly startles, as if realizing something about the fact of her arousal. This sets her in the direction of solving one of the most entertaining plots you could possibly watch if you were curious about the series but not sure where to start.
Lesson: your creativity and your erotic energy are related. Use this knowledge as a tool.
“Doom with a View”
Jessica is visiting her nephew, Grady, in New York. Due to a cockroach situation, they are staying at Grady’s friend’s fancy hotel. When the hotel owner meets Jessica, she says, “I must confess I don’t have time to read your books, or anyone’s books, but I’m delighted you’re staying with us.”
Lesson: when someone feels it necessary to make a big deal of the fact that they have not read your work, they should absolutely be suspected of murder.
How can you tell if the Jessica Fletcher cure is working? I didn’t even realize its impact until I went to give a reading, recently, in San Diego. I drove all the way from Arizona in a red rental car so spunky that the first thing I thought when I saw it was: that thing is going to get me pulled over.
When I arrived in San Diego, I figured out how to park in the infuriatingly complicated parking lot. I barely located the building where the reading was being held, and I was told that I could read with a microphone or without. The shy part of me thought: microphone. But I got up there and I decided that I would try to fill the room with my voice.
I felt myself trying to fold myself away from the audience. But something about the room made me feel emboldened. There weren’t enough seats; people were sitting on the floor. One of the people who introduced me quoted me quoting Basquiat reciting a blessing and I felt the way you feel when you realize that writing is about connection and I started to cry and I realized that what I was feeling was confidence. I let my body wobble as it needed as I stood in front of the room and I read my own words as if I meant to say them. I looked up not because I was supposed to, but because I wanted to see the people with whom I was sharing space. And I actually enjoyed the experience. We had one of the most interesting conversations afterward. About the function of art, this dimension beyond objectivity and subjectivity. Rodney King’s dream life.
If this were an episode of Murder She Wrote, someone at the reading would have been murdered, but as far as I know this did not happen.
On the way back to Tucson, one of those border patrol dogs at a checkpoint lunged at my car as I slowed. I smiled at the agent who asked why I thought the dog might be interested in my car. I considered saying “even my own dogs are racist” but thought better of it.
I was taken off to the side to have my rental car searched. And again, this strange sense of self-assurance kind of gurgled out of me. The agent who was trying to intimidate me was faking alpha. He kept saying things that were meant to demoralize me and I kept responding, though in stutters, with a sense of inner calm. There was an agent playing good cop whom I minded much less, except that he made up an ethnic fusion restaurant in Tucson in what seemed like a test to see if that’s really where I was from. The other guy was letting the dog jump all over the car. He was searching the trunk and I imagined scenarios in which the rental agency used cars to traffic marijuana because well, you saw Breaking Bad.
Bad cop asked me about my name, coughing out each syllable as if it were some kind of ethnically incongruous mad lib. But I didn’t let him diminish me for it. Before he let me go, he said “we’re checking your license to see if you are wanted for anything,” and I am not sure what made me do it, but I said, “just literary readings.” “WHAT?” He barked. And I said it again, but louder. “The only thing I’m wanted for are literary readings. I am a writer.”
Let’s all remember this: at pretty much any point in time, somewhere in the world, on somebody’s television set, Jessica Fletcher is nodding her head. She is turning her beautiful big eyes into planets and teaching those of us who think we are meek to pronounce ourselves boldly. To stare down the cocky sheriff. To maybe even stare down Angela Lansbury herself. To take not one ounce of their shit.
Aisha’s second collection of essays, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, was published by 1913 press in October.