The most beneficial thing for me about living in an all-women’s residence hall in college was the sharing: I’ve never done that either! / Yeah, I did that too. Facepalm. / That happened to me too!
I’d thought I was the only one.
I’ve witnessed the same experiences at writers’ conferences and retreats and in writing classes and groups. You queried how many times? / You’re on what number revision?/ Your first book didn’t sell either?
I’d thought I was the only one.
Sharing lifts shame. It creates camaraderie and trust. It creates hope.
Eleven years later, this scene from the film Walk The Line still echoes from the corners of my mind –
Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash is auditioning for a spot on the record label of Sam Phillips played by Dallas Roberts. Phillips challenges Cash’s choice of song and the obvious incongruity between the spiritual lyrics and the state of Cash’s actual spirit: “One song that would sum you up… Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.”
My first agented novel was well-received but didn’t sell for a few funny-sounding marketing reasons. I’d thought I was the only one. Guess what? The more that fact comes up, the more other well-published authors tell me that their first book didn’t sell either. I will not divulge their names because they are their truths to tell, but I will confide that six of them are current New York Times bestsellers. Two of them with films made based on their books. My takeaway was: This is not a game ender. It will work out. Keep going.
Before Nicholas Sparks got his big Warner deal for The Notebook, he’d been a query rejection collector like the rest of us. In fact, the only agent who’d (wisely) offered him representation was a young woman with no sales experience. When I was querying, I relished every story of a successful author who’d queried many (the more, the better) times before finding his or her dream agent. My takeaway was: This is not a game ender. It will work out. Keep going.
But truth doesn’t always give us an injection of hope, does it?
When I read Stephenie Meyer’s story wherein she had a dream and then proceeded to write her first ever novel in three short months whilst potty training a child, a novel that hit the NYT bestseller list in its first week, I’m not sure I felt hopeful.
When I read Nicholas Sparks’ story of being a young, newbie author with a young, newbie agent and Warner Brothers buying The Notebook for a million dollars within days of it being pitched, I’m not sure I felt hopeful.
Happy for these people, yes, of course. But are that these the kinds of truths that save us from our fears and doubts? Or do they seem to indicate that we are dependent on some extraordinary measure we can’t predict or rely on? A fantastic nighttime dream? An unprecedented deal for a debut during a market that no longer exists?
What about when we are at our most vulnerable and someone shares their depressing stories? Worse is when he or she looks at you with an appreciative gaze that means, “We’re in the same sinking ship. Sucks, right?” Do you feel hopeful after that?
What is the difference between truth that sets us free and truth that sinks our ship?
There are two.
Is the truth being shared present tense or past tense? Is it a complaint or a war story? War stories are gifts to people in the trenches. What’s happening to us has happened to others. And they survived. Their survival gives us hope. Their advice arms us for the fight.
Complaints, on the other hand, drag a person down. I’d argue that they drag both of us down. Empathy without hope is toxic to our tender creativity.
Share your truth only when you are on the other side of the difficulty and ready to express it in a way that offers constructive advice and hope.
Sharing stories from the trenches while we are still down there (which resemble complaints, but are very different) can be helpful if the perspective is a positive one.
If one self-published author was turned down by Publishers Weekly for a review of their book, and another author has the same experience, it could go one of two ways. Either they could empathize with their mutual disappointment and brainstorm next steps. I call this productive camaraderie. Or they could empathize with their mutual disappointment and end there. Which one is more helpful to achieving our goals? Which one is better for our tender creativity?
Writers’ groups, like Women Writers Women’s Books, are excellent examples of keeping a healthy perspective while in the trenches. Members have not achieved their goals yet, whether it be completing or perfecting a manuscript, securing representation, or getting published. However, their perspective is an actively positive, constructive one. They are emotionally supportive of one another’s struggles and they keep their eyes on the prize. They help each other get better.
Often writers who fought in the trenches together win the battle in eventual succession. Their truth-sharing evolves into war stories.
Another example is authors who are promoting their books at the same time. They have a common struggle and pull each other through it with shared strategies, marketing, and contacts.
The Creativity Trinity.
Even if it’s possible to become a successful professional writer alone, it’s immeasurably more enjoyable (and expedient) to do it within a tribe such as ours. We tell our truths. We empathize. We extend hope borne of experience and perspective.
MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and offers query letter coaching and developmental editing as The Query Quill. She leads WWWB’s Interviews and Agents’ Corner segments. Her women’s fiction is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association 2016 Rising Star writing contest for unpublished authors.
Her work has appeared in national and regional publications, including skirt! magazine. When she isn’t editing her novel, #LOVEIN140, you can find her belting out Broadway tunes (off key and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), building or fixing household things, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day.