‘Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.’ ~Salman Rushdie
Gratuitously successful souls aside, there are few authors who will tell you that they don’t look back on their unpublished years with a sort of soft, fond, remembrance. I think back on my childhood and can still smell fresh cut grass in the southern summer heat, see the fleeting glow of lightning bugs in the darkened wood line, feel the warmth of the earth beneath my bare feet, and I suppose that writing isn’t too unlike this.
The days first spent with my husband, the love of my life, also remind me of this sweetness—this time of ‘not knowing’. We’ve been married for almost 9 years. We’ll never have the sort of, inexperienced, fumbling only granted to first time lovers still getting used to each other’s movements. The love of writing, like any other love, grows and swells with time, into a solid, unmovable force that anchors, if allowed.
Some authors fear being published, like some fear getting married. The machinations of editors and publishers alike have made many an otherwise sensible author suddenly feel murderous. Yet, this is not always the case. In fact, I’d bet that more often than not the opposite is true. Good news never makes the news, right? Personally, I’ve had a wonderful experience so far. I’m learning, I’m being stretched beyond boundaries I didn’t think I’d ever reach, let alone pass by. Do I miss the days and nights where I was alone with my writing? Sure. I miss, at times, the juvenile, almost callow sense of perfection that accompanies most beginners in their prose, where only the story holds weight and nothing else. Sort of like a woman who, upon learning that she is pregnant, carries that secret for a bit—just to revel in its glory on her own (along with the new life growing within her), so too did I revel in this story as it was harbored in my breast. I felt like I had this grand, unfurling thing that would come bursting out of my chest at any moment. When I met people, though I’d rarely ever tell them I was an author, I would think it: I held it like a superpower, ready to spring it into action at a moment’s notice. Ridiculous, certainly, but aren’t all children? I was a child at heart then (perhaps I still am).
Another reason writers fear publication, and rightly so, is criticism and the staggering dearth of good advice on how to deal with it. What have I to say on the matter? Well, why do children fear growing up? For all the same reasons. There isn’t anything you can tell a child about life as an adult that would be fair or even relevant aside from assuring them that they can stay up late and eat all of the gummy worms they can afford. Yeah, I’m being a little cavalier here. Truth is, you can’t prepare someone for the unknown. There are more clichés on this subject than anything else that deals with writing as a whole; “behave, take time to really look at and learn from the critique, mind your manners in return, be professional, keep your chin up, thicken your skin.” You might as well recite the alphabet. It makes more sense in this context and is equally useful in its application.
The problem with all of the usual advice, is that it gives this looming sense of failure if you can’t “grow” from the criticism, or don’t understand how to, or have the ability to. Yeah, sure, they say “leave the rest” but what does that really mean? This is all double talk. I grow from reading both books for pleasure and books for technique (actual, here’s-how-to-form-coherent-sentences type stuff). I can’t learn from someone else’s opinion unless I know their definitions, where they are coming from and most importantly, their bias. What do they actually mean by “poor plotting” or “flat affect” etc? Those are the types of things I always hear from writers as the bits they’ve paid attention to when criticized. That isn’t sage advice, that’s a reviewer pressed for time. A character may be flat…but to who and how many whos? Twilight as an example: Stephanie Meyer has a tremendously loyal fan base who adores Bella Swan. If she listened to the majority she’d crush the few who matter the most and in turn, her own creative work. She wrote Bella the way she saw her and didn’t go asking for outside input beforehand. Thus, she represents someone to me who stays true to their craft and isn’t interested in group productions just for the sake of a sale. She clearly benefits from it.
We tell children lies all of the time; you can be anything you want; if you wish upon a star your dreams will come true; think good thoughts and good things will come to you; behave yourself and you’ll avoid getting into trouble. All of it, in retrospect, is crap. Same with everything that’s said to beginning authors…yet there is this sacred, hushed, climate about all of it. Why pretend? Criticism from a reader hurts like hell. Reviews, particularly when they’re well worded, are even worse. The only way to thicken your skin is to admit it. There is power in telling the truth as it really is, instead of sheltering it, trying to make something positive out of it. Bottom line is, not everything can be made into a paper mache flower. Period.
So, enjoy it if you’re reveling in the ‘not knowing’. Breathe in deeply, don’t worry about the rest. There will be plenty of time for that later. For now, just for now, feel the grass beneath your feet, feel the awkwardness of that first kiss, stumble around with outstretched arms in the dark. The light will come on soon enough.