(A big thanks to participants in the Book Binders’ Salon for a stimulating conversation last night about rejection. I’m indebted to you for most of this post!)
“Rejections slips,” wrote Isaac Asimov, “however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.”
The hard reality for every writer is that we face rejection prior to publication—from grantors, contests, agents, and publishers—and after publication, in the form of bad reviews (if we’re lucky enough to have our work reviewed), readers’ scorn, and sales numbers. These “lacerations of the soul” are a given. We fear their sting long before we feel it. Once we’re rejected, and rejected repeatedly, it’s impossible not to be affected. We believe the rejections, we form a thick skin, we reject our writing prematurely so others don’t have to do it for us, we despair, we rebel and self-publish, we lash out at the publishing industry, and (hopefully) we return to our desks to continue writing.
It’s so easy to get thrown off kilter. (more…)
I’m in the marketing trenches now, preparing to launch Hannah, which means, strangely, that I’m reading books like Seth Godin’s All Marketers are Liars and I now actually know what The Long Tail is. The majority of writers reading this will probably think, “Marketing?! I’m not there yet. I’m still in the private stages of writing.” You’re absolutely right to protect your tender, beloved process. I’m with Rilke when he told the young poet:
“You ask whether your verses are good… You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now…I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.” –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
What has surprised me about marketing a book this time around is how often I’ve had to “go into myself” and “search the reason that bids me write” as a key part of an effective book launch.
Here’s one example. Seth Godin says you need to wrap a story around your product; you need to sell the story. When I launched On the Threshold, I did what publishers have always done: I said to the world, “Here’s a collection of essays about the spiritual dimensions of making a house a home.” I described the story. Now I know I must create a story about the story for potential readers. (You can see my story for Hannah below.) Just summarizing the product isn’t effective. So I had to “go into myself”, back to that quiet space of deep listening. I had to identify the book’s heartbeat—it’s life force, which is also, in part, my own. Then I had to articulate it in a way (hopefully) links it to others’ hearts.
Here’s another interesting example, again from Godin:
“If a consumer figures something out or discovers it on her own, she’s a thousand times more likely to believe it than if it’s just something you claim. … But then you have to tell a story, not give a lecture. You have to hint at the facts, not announce them. … The process of discovery is more powerful than being told the right answer—because of course there is no right answer, and because even if there were, the consumer wouldn’t believe you!” –Seth Godin, All Marketers are Liars
Doesn’t this sound like the creative writing advice, “Show, don’t tell”? And anyone with experience showing knows that it’s a process packed with surprise for the writer. So the writer’s surprise—and personal growth—continues beyond the bounds of the book into the terrain of marketing.
I’m beginning to believe that effective outreach, be it commercial or humanitarian, begins in the heart and lands in another heart. So the quiet, soul-searching work that happens while we draft and revise a work isn’t over when the book hits the stores. It can continue, if we’re willing.
photo credit: Thomas Geiregger via photopin cc
Whenever I get swept up in the competitive, audience-seeking dimension of the writing life, I turn to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as an antidote. Rilke returns me to my essential, life-giving reasons for writing.
What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.
Art-making both awakens and fulfills basic spiritual needs, Rilke says, and that this role is ultimately sufficient.
A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.
Out of the cacophony of writing advice out there, Rilke stands alone in emphasizing love as the central creative force in our work. We must love our doubt, love our solitude, love the questions, love our subject, and make love our subject. Even suffering in the creative process is worthy of love:
Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?
To Rilke the soul of a creative project is tender, solitary, and full of potential. Only those readers who treat it with love are worth listening to.
Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.
At the heart of Rilke’s letters is unabashed faith in the writer’s inner world. Who else treats that silent life with such respect?
I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.
Who among us doesn’t benefit from this reminder? We each have within us a potent, generative life-force that feeds our creative work, and attending this is the foundation of all art-making. That said, I’ll sign off to enter that lovely private sphere.
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew