The Writer's Book of Hope

Getting from Frustration to Publication

Ralph Keyes

Holt Paperbacks

WRITER'S BOOK OF HOPE
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LOOKING IN
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The Essential Ingredient
Call him John. Even though John's job paid well enough, he found it boring and unsatisfying. John dreamed of becoming a writer. Eventually, he decided to stop dreaming and start writing. This meant getting up at five every morning so he could go to work early and scribble fiction on a yellow legal pad. At night John would squeeze out another page or two on an old Smith-Corona word processor resting on a board wedged between the washer and dryer in the laundry room of a three-bedroom ranch home he shared with his wife and infant son. This made for slow going. John thought often about giving up on writing as an impossible dream. He didn't, however, and after three years of early morning and late night writing had a book-length manuscript.
John sent his manuscript to dozens of literary agents and publishers whose names he got from a guidebook. All sent it back. An agent finally agreed to take him on, one not considered particularly prestigious in the status-conscious world of publishing. After several more rejections, this agent sold John's novel to an obscure publisher in Connecticut. That publisher paid a modest advance, then sold very few of the 5,000 copiesof John's book that it had printed. In the meantime he'd completed a second novel. His agent had trouble selling that one too. John saw little room for hope and wondered whether it was finally time to throw in the towel. Until--but I get ahead of my story. Let's come back to it later.
Does John's story sound familiar? Like your own in certain respects? If so, you are not alone. Frustration is the natural habitat of writers at every level. I've felt it. So did John. So does anyone who aspires to write.
I've noticed this especially while speaking at writers' courses and conferences. Antsiness fills the air like ions before a thunderstorm. Participants worry about lacking talent. Their submissions get rejected. Inspiration wanes. It all seems so futile. Why keep going?
Without being Pollyannish, I try to reassure these fledgling writers. Hang in there, I say. You'd be surprised by how many successful writers were once discouraged ones. Did you know that Samuel Beckett's first novel was rejected by forty-two publishers? That a dozen agents chose not to represent J. K. Rowling? That Beatrix Potter had to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit?
These are good grounds for hope. There are many more.
Is Hope Necessary?
Any writer has a legitimate, valid need to hear that it isn't all for naught. This may sound self-evident, but it isn't to everyone. Some of my colleagues even try to discourage new writers, on the theory that anyone who can be driven out of the business this way shouldn't be there in the first place. They seem to feel that admitting a need for encouragement suggests one is too wimpy to be a writer. Writing isn't for sissies, they say. If you can't stand the grief, get out of the profession. Even Anne Lamott--whose delightful book Bird by Bird touched onwriting despair--once despaired herself that addressing a writers' conference meant offering "hope-to-the-hopeless."
Gee. That's awfully harsh. I've been involved with such a conference--the Antioch Writers' Workshop--for nearly two decades. Every year at least one of our graduates has sold a book to the likes of Knopf, HarperCollins, Warner, and Gray-wolf. Others have had scripts produced, stories anthologized, and articles published. The help we give these authors-in-the-making lies less in the realm of metaphors or marketing tactics than the simple idea that it's possible to write and get published. You can be a writer, we tell them. That message alone is worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, the most daunting problems writers face are seldom considered at courses and conferences. These gatherings usually emphasize basic principles of good writing: show, don't tell; use active verbs; be sparing with adjectives and adverbs; make effective use of detail. Students learn about story structure and pacing and transitions and point of view. Advice is given on how to approach publishers. Such lessons are valuable, even invaluable. But mastering the elements of style can't produce the will to keep writing. The hardest part of being a writer is not getting your commas in the right place but getting your head in the right place. Where help is really needed is in the area of countering anxiety, frustration, and despair.
In his encouraging book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King admitted, "Confidence during the actual writing of this book was a commodity in remarkably short supply. What I was long on was physical pain and self-doubt." Like King, all writers need encouragement, at every step of their career--even those who win the Nobel Prize for literature. If anyone should be beyond the need for validation it's a Nobel laureate like Saul Bellow. Yet, according to Bellow's longtime agent Harriet Wasserman, during the years that she represented him, reassurance wasexactly what he craved--constantly. After each novel, no matter how well received, Bellow was like a fledgling writer, hungry for the least scrap of reassurance. Even after he won the Nobel, every book Bellow wrote was like a maiden effort. As Wasserman put it, "For Saul, every book is his first book, and he is always the first-time writer welcoming reenforcement."
There is not a writer alive who couldn't use a dose of reassurance. This has nothing to do with the quality of their work or the stage of their career. Regardless of how much one may have published, writing--books especially--is such an enervating experience that it is hard to keep the words coming without getting an occasional "You go, girl!" A word or two of encouragement can keep writers at their desks when all seems for naught. At those times, reassurance is far more helpful than marketing tips or style pointers.
This is a point of near-consensus among humane teacher-writers. The evidence can be found in their own careers. While making $6,000 a year as a young freshman composition teacher at Colgate University, Frederick Busch received constant encouragement for a novel in progress from an editor at Atlantic Monthly Press. Even though she didn't accept his novel, late in a successful career Busch still remembered the reassurance he got from this woman when he felt so unsure of himself. In Busch's words, "That sort of encouragement is underrated, usually by the writers who have received it, but it is stupendously important ... . You know it's not all over, you know it is one day going to be wonderful, and you know that someone's caring for you--you are not, in a cruel profession, alone."
Isn't that the real reason we attend those writing conferences and take courses on writing and read books on the subject? To feel less alone with our self-doubt? We're not looking for tips on how to write so much as reasons to keep writing. And we should. How can you write without hope? Hope is the essentialingredient, as crucial to a writer as similes and semicolons. A simple nod of reassurance can keep us going when every nerve ending says, STOP! ENOUGH! I SURRENDER! We can write without a computer, typewriter, desk, pen, or even paper (some excellent writing has been done in prisons on matchbook covers and toilet tissue). The one thing we can't write without is hope. Hope is to writers as oxygen is to scuba divers. No writer can survive without it.
I once talked with veteran writer William Zinsser just after he'd received several pages of suggested manuscript revisions from his longtime editor at HarperCollins. Despite being the author of fourteen books and scores of articles and essays, despite having been executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club and a longtime teacher of writing--as well as the author of two books on the subject, including the much-assigned On Writing Well--Zinsser was taken aback. He searched in vain for any words of reassurance in his editor's commentary. Did this man like the manuscript? That was the first question Zinsser put to his editor, followed by remonstration for not including any encouraging words in his critique. "Don't think just because I've been doing this so long I don't need encouragement," said Zinsser.
The Ethics of Encouragement
Something I've discussed often with colleagues is whether it's honorable to encourage fledgling writers when we know the odds against them are so great, and the path to publication is so torturous. The problem is that we have no idea which ones will complete this marathon. Anyone who works with writers is continually surprised by who reaches the finish line and who doesn't. Our powers of prediction are not that accurate.
When they were senior editors at Doubleday, Loretta Barrett and Betty Prashker tried to get Barrett's assistant to give up herdream of writing fiction. Based on their reading of a novel the young woman had spent a year and a half writing, both felt confident that she had no future as a novelist. The woman ignored them and went on to publish several books, eventually for six-figure advances that Barrett herself--now an agent--negotiated for her former assistant. Her name? Laura Van Wormer, author of the bestselling series featuring reporter Sally Harrington.
"While it may seem disingenuous to encourage a writer who seems to have no native ability," wrote editor-turned-agent Betsy Lerner in her excellent book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, "it is also arrogant to think we know how any given career will develop, or what combination of desire and will may result in a work that will have a profound effect on people even if it is never praised for its beautiful prose."
Lerner knew a writing teacher who went out of her way to be supportive of students' work regardless of its apparent prospects. Why? Because over time she'd so often seen students who seemed hopeless at the outset of a writing class produce outstanding work by the end. This is a common discovery among those who teach writing. During his years of working with aspiring writers at the University of Virginia, novelist George Garrett repeatedly saw his best students become unproductive graduates, while ones for whom he held little hope blossomed into publishing authors. That's why, Garrett concluded, "it's not our duty to discourage."
This certainly has been my experience. After decades of working with aspiring writers, I've realized that it's futile (to say nothing of presumptuous) to try to anticipate who should be encouraged and who shouldn't. Since I have no idea which writers will stay the course and which ones won't, I encourage them all. (This is not the same thing as praising mediocre work.) And for good reason.
After a book and author banquet in Charlotte, North Carolina, a television talk show host named Lou Heckler, who had interviewed me earlier that day, introduced me to his wife, Jonellen. She had some writing in the works, Lou told me. Mrs. Heckler looked shyly at the floor as her husband said this. Her manner was demure, soft-spoken, and reserved. Not dynamic. I gave Mrs. Heckler my standard spiel about hoping she'd stay with it, and that eventually I'd see her byline. To my astonishment, I did: in Ladies' Home Journal and other magazines where Jonellen Heckler's short stories and poems began to appear regularly. The next thing I knew, a novel by Jonellen Heckler was in bookstores, followed by a second, a third, and more to come. One of those novels was made into a movie for television. All from a shy aspiring writer whom I'd encouraged because I try--within the boundaries of honesty and credibility--never to be discouraging.
Honest Reassurance
A phrase I like in John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist is "honest reassurance." That's what I hope this book will offer. It is rooted in my own three-plus decades as a writer. This experience has included plenty of frustration and despair. In the process I've discovered realistic grounds for hope, which I'd like to share with you. They are rooted in stories of writers who felt lost at sea but kept rowing long enough to land safely on shore. The point of such stories is to show that it is possible not only to endure but to prevail, as so many writers already have, including some who became well-known authors.
It may not be possible to overcome frustration, but you can learn to live with writing's many aggravations, even make use of them. The implicit message of too many books on writing is: "If only you'd (read more/market better/do affirmations,etc.), you'd become a better writer and conquer your frustration. This one has a different premise. Writing is inherently frustrating. Frustration is part of the literary territory. I won't try to pep-talk you out of feeling discouraged. (Nor would I want to. As we'll see, feeling discouraged can be a positive sign.) Rather, I will suggest informed, realistic reasons to carry on when all seems for naught. I won't pull your leg about success being just over the horizon. I don't have ten surefire ways to get published, or even five. I can tell you what's involved, suggest ways to cope with feelings of frustration, and offer tangible reasons not to put down your pen or turn off your computer--realistic grounds for hope.
This book will not imply that writing is an easy pursuit with a happy outcome likely. It isn't. Nor will it suggest that its author has a formula for publishing success. I don't. Some aspiring writers give the impression that they're looking for a "key," some wisdom known only to insiders on how to write and get published. There is none. The only key is persistence and knowing what you're about. If it's a smooth sail you're looking for, stop writing immediately. When it comes to writing, there's no smooth sailing. The literary seas are all rough. Many writers get needlessly discouraged, however, and for the wrong reasons. Some turn back when they should keep sailing. This book is about reasons to persevere. There is hope.
The Meaning of Hope
What do I mean by hope? As I'll use that term, hope is not synonymous with blind faith. Even though it is rooted in the spirit, hope can have practical legs to stand on. Faith is part of hope, of course, but it needn't be blind. We're better off when it isn't. That's why this book is about both spiritual and practical grounds for not giving up. I've tried to make The Writer's Book ofHope as encouraging as possible, within reason, basing it on tangible grounds for optimism that aren't always evident to writers when they're mired in black lagoons of despair. My goal is to cast light on some of the darker aspects of writing, publication especially, and in the process make them less intimidating.
A lot of books are available, some of them quite good, on practical ways to become a better writer. Another genre is meant to elevate the spirit, without being practical-minded. This one integrates the two, blending consideration of a writer's inner world with the outer one. It is grounded in the experience of working writers, based on voices of experience, including that of the author--a longtime writer who's known his own despair. I'll speak from my perspective as a writer who has published frequently but whose work has been rejected even more frequently.
Early in my career I decided to keep a log in which I recorded my submissions: where they had been sent, when, and what happened to them--a green check mark for acceptance, a red one for rejection. This log recorded lots of red check marks, and very few green ones. Any behavioral psychologist could have told me that this was a surefire way to demoralize myself. Psychologically speaking, my log-keeping method violated a basic tenet of behavioral conditioning: recognize results you want to reinforce, ignore everything else. That's why I stopped keeping a log.
An aspiring author1 once asked me what trait would help most in her dream of becoming a writer. Without thinking, I responded, "A high tolerance for humiliation." This was not flippant. Like most writers, I've had to endure excruciating lows alternating with exhilarating highs. My publisher had high hopesfor my third book and did a substantial first printing. Sales did not meet expectations, however, and much of that printing was eventually closed out as "remainders." Bookstores were not the only ones to buy them. Several dozen also showed up at the IKEA furniture superstore in Philadelphia where customers looking for chairs and sofas could reflect on why so many copies of an author's book had become ornamental objects in a furniture store's bookcases instead of being for sale in a bookstore.
This was one of many downcast moments when I felt I had little reason to keep going other than the hope that things would get better. And they did. After that low point I published eight more books, including The Courage to Write. That book focused on fear. This one moves along to frustration. Once we've faced our fear and begun to write, we step up to the plateau of frustration. Fear followed by frustration is the essence of writerly despair.
One reason writing is so frustrating is that after we've attended the courses, read the books, and gotten fired up to actually write, we hit the wall of working all alone, then sending what results to cold-eyed editors who couldn't care less about our state of mind. When our writing isn't as good as we hoped it would be (it never is), and editors seem to think our submissions aren't much good at all (they seldom do), how do we keep from succumbing to terminal despair?
Sometimes the only reason to keep writing is "just because." Or as a matter of faith; keeping the faith. "On some days," wrote novelist Gail Godwin in an essay about writing, "keeping faith means simply staying there, when more than anything else I want to get out of that room. It sometimes means going up without hope and without energy and simply acknowledging my barrenness and lighting my incense and turning on my computer. And, at the end of two or three hours, and without hope and without energy, I find that I have indeed written somesentences that wouldn't have been there if I hadn't gone up to write them. And--what is even more surprising--these sentences written without hope or energy often turn out to be just as good as the ones I wrote with hope and energy."
Before turning off your computer and turning on the television in moments of despair, reflect on the experience of authors such as Gail Godwin. Their situation was desperate but far from hopeless. Like yours, perhaps. You might want to consider how many writers have felt almost terminally discouraged but lived to write another day. As we'll see throughout this book, nearly every writer who appears to have it made was once on the brink of collapse.
This chapter began with the story of a struggling novice novelist named John. Here is the rest of his story.
John, as you may have guessed, is John Grisham, the most commercially successful author of modern times. Even as his agent was having trouble selling Grisham's second novel, studio scouts in Hollywood heard about it and began bidding furiously against each other to buy rights to this book. Paramount won, paying $600,000 for the privilege of making it into a movie. That piqued the interest of publishers (to put it mildly), and Doubleday offered Grisham $200,000 for The Firm. The rest, as we say, is history: book sales in the millions, multimillion-dollar advances, a mansion in Mississippi, an estate in Virginia. Grisham has since mused about what his life might have been like if he'd succumbed to despair in the midst of his fledgling efforts, as he almost did.
Few writers will ever enjoy John Grisham's success in the marketplace. But we all can learn from his example of fortitude in the face of anxiety, frustration, and despair. These constitute the sensibility of working writers everywhere, what I call AFD syndrome.
Copyright © 2003 by Ralph Keyes