The Writing Life: Lessons Learned Along the Way

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Most of the time I feel embarrassed at how long it’s taken me to write my book, and then to find a publisher. Half the time I don’t want to tell people that I started writing my book 20 years ago (in May 1997). I hear about people writing books in one or two, maybe three years, and I think, What’s wrong with me? I can’t be a real writer; real writers write much faster than me, they produce books.

But then I remember the process, all the lessons learned along the way. Memoir writing, at least for me, has been complicated by memory, and the fact that as I’ve aged, and learned, and forgiven, my memory of past events, or at least the meaning I’ve placed on them, has changed, and so the writing needed to change along the way. In a sense, I was constantly playing “catch up” with how I viewed the past, and then trying to integrate those lessons into the very book I was writing in the first place.

There have also been many “lessons learned” about the business of book publishing. I recall Ayn Rand, in her book, The Art of Nonfiction, making the distinction between the subconscious act of writing and the conscious act of editing, reaffirming that the two are very different streams of logic and should not be confused or overlap—we do not use the same parts of our brain for writing as we do for editing, she claimed. Over the years, I’ve found that a similar logic applies to the act of writing a book, and then seeing it through to trade publication. Though intimately connected paths, each has been a very different process for me, presenting separate though interconnected life lessons. Where the former process of actually writing a book has been, out of necessity, a solitary endeavour in which I’ve faced only my own worst critic (me), the latter process of seeing a book through to publication has demanded the best of my social and public persona, as well as finely tuned business skills and enormous self-determination—or, as some might call it, “sheer dog-headedness.” Rejections from literary agents and trade publishers along the way have devastated. In the face of so much harsh criticism, or rejection—or worse: silence—how or why to continue fighting the good fight toward trade publication often became my burning question.

Years ago, friends and even some industry folks told me to maybe think of “self-publishing” my memoir. Wouldn’t it be easier? they’d say. Then I could control everything—no more waiting for publishers or agents; I could do it all myself. I suppose at some point I made a conscious decision not to self-publish, because I knew that a large part of what I dreamed of achieving was the process itself of engaging with the book publishing business. Learning the do’s and the don’t’s of that very business has been long and arduous, and continues, of course, to this day. Initially, I had no idea what was even meant by a “query letter.” What needed to be included in such a letter, and how long should it be? How or where would I find a listing of literary agents, and should I send the same letter to agents as to publishers? What is the best way to track all of their responses? And if they don’t respond to my letter, how long should I wait before following up—a month? four months? a year? ever? What if an agent or editor asks for select chapters, but then requests changes that seem inconsistent with my own personal vision? What then? Do I cave in and do as they want? Do these “experts” always know best?

These (and many more) were only some of the early logistical questions that I asked myself, but then I also learned that I needed to take care of my heart. What happens to my spirit when no one—not one agent or publisher—responds to what I thought was a finely crafted book that I’d spent years of my life “perfecting”? How do I get out of bed each morning (not to mention shop, cook, and feed myself, launder and iron my clothes, pay my bills, even work a day job, etc.) when no one seems to hear or care about what matters most to me? And when I do finally hear back from agents and publishers, maybe six or twenty-six months later, but all they offer is “advice” that seems to just contradict earlier feedback from others, how do I integrate or learn from the best while leaving the rest? What is “the best” kind of feedback? And how do I retain my own sense of integrity while wanting to please the very people that seem to hold the key to my success? When so much of what sells nowadays seems to rely on fad, or fashion, or what’s “hot” in the rapidly changing (fickle) headlines, how do I stay true to myself, my own best instincts, while also trying to appeal to the masses? Should I even care about the masses? Time and again, films and books that were seen as unmarketable suddenly break out and hit the big times. No one could have predicted their success, then a hundred others try and copy their apparent formulas toward even bigger successes, oftentimes failing miserably. Do I follow the tail that wags that dog, or is it my own sense of authenticity I should be following? Who am I anyway, and what about my parents, and their parents? How do they still impact what I think, feel, and write, today? How do I write my most considered, best self, free of cliché and banal sentiment? What is that process all about? And how do I separate my “self” from my “book,” like a parent from its offspring? Who will sit with me, night after long and lonely night, after I send my book out into the world, then suffer through separation anxiety? So, my book is now published, and I am lonely and alone, childless, staring at the blank page, ready and willing to birth another. I can no longer edit or nurture my finished book. Or can I?

What happens after publication?