When Will It End?

I can’t count the number of times I have heard writers working to get their careers started express something the effect of: Just let me get an agent. Which will soon turn into: Just let me get published. Which may also turn into: Just let met get onto the bestseller list.

You see how it goes. The idea that once something happens we will be fine is as alluring as it untrue. It is understandable, however. Clearly, it would be better if you had an agent than if you didn’t, just as it would be better if your work had been published than if it hadn’t. Unfortunately, writers who have agents, and who have been published, and have even had bestsellers, continue to face challenges, and these writers complain as loud and as long about these challenges as the writers who are still looking for their first agent.

The writer still looking for her first agent often does not want to hear about this. “Are you telling me,” she asks, “that life isn’t going to get any better when I sell my first book?” Happily, yes, that is precisely what I am saying. Life never gets any better; it remains exactly, enduringly the same. What we make of it, however, changes daily, sometimes hourly.

The “successful” writer experiences challenges and suffers with those challenges for exactly the same reason the writer still looking for an agent is challenged and suffers: because they both wish to move forward. In fact, life, that thing which won’t get any better, compels all of us ineluctably, unceasingly forward. For one writer, forward means an agent; for another writer, forward means a bigger advance, or bending genres, or writing a memoir instead of fiction. Regardless, the way ahead is as unknown to one as to the other.

So wherever you are on this journey, rejoice. It never gets any better, and it never gets any worse. If I have seen any significant difference between the established authors I have interviewed and befriended, and the beginning writers I have counseled and befriended, it is that the established writer has perhaps more fully accepted the nature of the challenge. They don’t always know any better how to answer these challenges, but they are no longer waiting for the challenges to end.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Unbroken

It was one of those days. What kind of day? The kind of day where you concede that the novel on which you have already written some 900 pages needs to be scrapped. That was the sort of day it was.

Did I panic? I am happy to report I did not. The first reason I did not panic was that I know there is no such thing as wasted work. The last novel I finished, which clocked it at a slim 234 pages, was distilled from well over 1,000 pages. I may understand economy of language, but not of drafts. Yet none of those unused pages were wasted. Some taught me which way not to go, some gave me a sentence, some a paragraph or even a scene, and some showed me clues about the characters that I used later in some other fashion.

Second, I saw that I was writing more of an idea than a feeling. Within that idea bubbled feeling here and there, but the story as a whole was not driven by a single, felt, compulsion. In the end it was an idea that appeared appealing from a distance but it could not stay together because it lacked emotional glue.

So out it went. I was absolutely determined not to despair.  To despair would be to succumb to the melodramatic fear that I would never write again. I could not have convinced a jury of twelve Me’s that I would never write again – there was simply too much overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And so, in this way, it was a strangely happy day for me. How much worse could it really get than that? For a writer, not much I would say. Yet the decision came and went, and I remained psychically intact, and I still wanted to write.

I reject the view of life as a series of brutal challenges lined up from birth to death like a Darwinian obstacle course thinning the herd of man. But I have drawn great comfort from my fiercest challenges. I am not proud that I have emerged unbroken, I am not stronger for what hasn’t killed me—rather, I learn anew that that which I have tried to protect is as immune to damage as the river is unharmed to the arrow.

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The Silent Gift

Every kind of work has it’s inherent traps—doctors can begin to see patients as broken machines rather than living organisms; lawyers can forget that winning an argument isn’t actually an end worthy of any means; teachers can come to see children as widgets and not individuals. For writers, the threat of rejection – from agents, publishers, reviewers, readers – can lure one into feeling powerless. After all, so much of your livelihood is dependant on so many other people liking what you have written.

I also believe that everyone chooses their line of work as much for the inherent traps as the inherent joys. That is, we all want to be free, and somewhere in all of us we know exactly what it is we need and wish to be free of. So a lawyer might choose to practice law precisely because he wishes to be free of the idea that he must be right to be happy. A doctor might choose medicine because she fears we are nothing but a ticking time bomb of disease and atrophy.

And writers might choose to write in part because they wish to understand where their actual power lies. Do not believe for a moment you are only writing because you like to tell stories. You are no different than the characters you create. In the best stories, no one ever does anything for only one reason, and you will always be more layered than Hamlet, Madam Bovary, and Jay Gatsby put together.

There is not a more unoriginal thought in the world than the belief that other people are responsible for your happiness. This is the democracy of helplessness. Sometimes it’s the government, sometimes it’s your husband, sometimes it’s a publisher. This is a belief that spans generations, color, nationality, class, and religion. No matter how much money you have someone can rob you; no matter how high your walls, bullets can still kill you.

The silent gift that publishing – not merely writing – offers is the opportunity to dispel this nightmare. Perhaps you have already dispelled this somewhere else in your life, or perhaps the belief simply hasn’t followed you into the world of writing and publishing. But if like so many writers the question of, “How can I be happy when other people control my future?” haunts you some sleepless nights, understand that the moment the question arises is not a threat but a portal. To cross it safely is to see that you came here to this place, to this desk, to answer it once and for all and claim back that which you gave away long ago.

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Your Challenge

It doesn’t matter whether you have just opened your first notebook to begin your first story, or are in the middle of a ten-city tour promoting your sixth novel—the challenge remains the same. The challenge will appear to you in different forms, of course, because the challenge has thousands of disguises to meet the needs of thousands of writers, but do not be fooled. It is always the same challenge.

The moment you choose to put one word onto a piece of clean paper, your relationship to your thoughts and your imagination changes. What had existed only within you now exists outside of you. You have harnessed the abstract, which was all energy and potential, and made it concrete. But as you witness the power of creation, the truth begins to dawn on you: you no longer have any say over what will happen to this thought. Now that you have written it down, it belongs to the world.

There is no way to tell precisely what the world will make of what you have written. Sometimes your books will hit the bestseller list, and sometimes they will not sell-through; sometimes your writing teacher will love your work, and sometimes she will pull it apart in front of the class; sometimes an agent will ask to see more, and sometimes an agent will not respond to a query. Do not think the despair of the published author reading a disappointing royalty statement is discernibly less than an unpublished writer reading a rejection letter. Despair of this kind is all the same: a belief that a single event is somehow the measure of your worth.

Your challenge is to turn the searchlight of your focus where it belongs, to pull it off the rejection letters and royalty statements. Within you is that idea, too large to ever be contained in one story or book, that drove you to write that first word on the first sheet of paper. It is what you want most to share with the world.

That desire is all that you truly have—not your talent, or your training, or sales record—only your desire. It is the only thing no one is allowed to grade, or count, or compare. You know the value of this desire the same way you know you love your children, or your husband, or your mother, or ice cream. It is absolutely unassailable, and it is all you have. No one else’s opinion belongs between you and it. Despair only appears when you measure that desire against the day’s news. The day’s news is nothing; it is the wrapping for tomorrow’s fish and chips. Your desire, however, is everything – it was what drew you into this world and what will lead you out of it.

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