What a delight that you are continuing. Bravo! The quality of the world dipped there for a moment, but now it is leveled up again, thank, goodness. I’ll be sure to do my part to spread the word so that everyone I know can enjoy your column.
On another note, I do want to ask you a few related questions about my writing. Some background: On a deep and sweet level, I am an artist–singing, composing, writing, playing. This artistry was supplanted seven years ago when I discovered the intense pleasure of teaching and facilitating personal growth during a five minute segment I was asked to teach in a personal growth class in which I was assisting. That kind of activism attracted me.
To be part of the solution, rather than a complainer, I wrote a roughly 400-page book six years ago by sitting down every morning, remembering my divine nature and writing what came of that. It was an incandescent journey, saving me while I was going through a total financial meltdown. (Real estate; says it all, doesn’t it?)
To my bafflement and distress, I was unable to pull the book together into one coherent entity. I had 57 short chapters and no single through-line, no simple overarching context.
I tried to cobble the chapters together, writing segues. But each attempt seemed to destroy what I had already written.
I hired an editor. After viewing the first chapter, I decided not to continue. She had no better luck than me; it seemed her efforts, as mine before, were extinguishing the light in a text conceived during, what felt like, illuminated moments. I decided to set the book aside.
Last Wednesday evening, a dear close friend, a horror writer, of all genres (!) suggested I frame the book as a collection of essays. This has sparked a little hope.
I am currently reading an exquisite book, When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams, who is an artist, teacher and writer. This book seems a little outside of the usual and expected in every way. In how she circles back to a theme; that there is more than one; format changes; images of a bird in the margins that “flies” when you let the pages run through your fingers. The non-conformity is subtle but adds up to something unique and genuine, even pure, perhaps.
And here are my questions: If I let myself be encouraged and inspired by Ms. Tempest Williams’ example, being unknown and untried, do I have a candle in the wind’s chance of appealing to a publisher? Would it be tantamount to a pointless labor of love? Should I stick with the recommended approaches that have been suggested in How to Get Published workshops?
And secondly, from your perspective, is wanting to be widely read an “evil” I should shed, or is that a legitimate consideration? As an artist, I feel that the work is its own raison d’être. But as an activist, I don’t see the point in writing something my five closest friends will read.
I am so looking forward to your thoughts.
Writing from the Heart
Dear Writing from the Heart,
Of course you can write and publish a book. Whether you actually do it will depend on whether you are willing to put in the time and effort.
Right now you sound like you are not exactly sure if you want to do it badly enough to devote your life to it. It’s best to assess that possibility now, before undertaking what could be a long and painful journey. It doesn’t take just time and effort. It takes unexpected personal sacrifice. You say you do not want to write the book unless many people are going to read it, but you cannot force people to fall in love with your book and recommend it to their friends. All you can do is devote your life to writing it well and seeing that it is published, and then do everything you can to bring it to people’s attention.
Here are some of the difficulties you may encounter along the way.
You may have to guess, from a sentence or two from a professional editor, what actually has to be done in concrete terms to fix a problem in the manuscript, and then try several different approaches to the same problem — writing the same paragraph, or same chapter, over and over, not knowing when you might hit on the solution. Then, after doing that, you might find that the solution actually lies elsewhere. Such frustrations are common, and there is no clear way to eliminate them, because the material has its own secrets. But if you are willing and able to endure such frustrations, then of course you can publish a book.
You may have to listen to and take advice from people you don’t like, people who seem arrogant and short-tempered and dismissive. The book business has such people, and their knowledge is valuable. If you can learn from them and not dismiss them, then of course you can write and publish a book.
You may need to acquire certain traits, skills, knowledge and sensibility. It might be necessary to spend a few years reading all the books you can find, thinking and taking notes and studying the inner workings of sentences. Yes, sentences. You might have to change in certain fundamental ways how you perceive units of meaning, how you structure your thought. This can be hard, especially after the university years. But if you can do that then of course you can publish a book.
You may discover what you are saying has already been said by geniuses, in clear, evocative, compelling language. How then will you persuade an editor or agent who has read most everything and is not easily amused that what you have written is relevant and important and moving and salable? How will you recast your insights to apply to specific people in our time? Will you be willing to take the time to solve this problem, coming up with flawed solution after flawed solution until you find one that is uniquely suited to your style and your time? If so, then of course you can publish a book.
Experts can point out the flaws in your manuscript, and people like me can cheer you on, but you will eventually meet your own shortcomings, your own darkness, and you will be alone with your insufficiency. Writing and publishing a book may require you to face a kind of spiritual desolation you had not counted on as part of the price. But if you are willing and able to go through those things, then of course you can publish a book.
If your life is such that distractions arise, or if disappointments set you back, or if you do not know how to continue writing after you have lost interest and do not feel inspired, or if you are not able to differentiate between when your sentences are clear and when they are muddied, or if you do not know what kinds of linguistic phenomena offend cultured and sophisticated readers, or how long the average attention span is, or how the brain works when it reads, or how to create tension on the page, then of course it may take longer than expected. But of course you can write and publish a book.
Writing talent is just part of what is required. Can you motivate yourself to learn difficult new skills; can you manage your own emotions over a long period of time; can you bounce back from rejection; can you creatively solve problems; can you find the money to hire professionals when needed?
The difficulties are not insurmountable. They are merely huge.
Assuming you have the resources, you could begin today. You could begin by finding a careful, experienced nonfiction book editor currently in the business who would read the book and tell you all the things you would have to do to make it marketable. You would have to commit to that process. If it was unpleasant hearing these remarks, then you would have to sift through the unpleasantness, seeking to know what was unpleasant because it challenged a false assumption you had, and what was unpleasant because it failed to address your true intent. Having worked through that, you could come up with a plan for how to address each perceived shortcoming in the manuscript.
Then you could hire a coach and/or editor to keep you on track and coach you along the way.
I suggest you spend the next few days or weeks on this one essential question: Is this something that I must do, that I am driven to do, for which I am willing to make any sort of sacrifice?