by Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine Into Gold
The defining characteristic of the living organism is striving. Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche both wrote of this back in the 1800s. Writers get this. Yet we carry on, even though at some point, our eyes open to the fact that writing impactful stories is hard to do. And getting them published? Striving will be a given, often to the nth degree.
We have one powerful partner to help seduce, prod, and even pull us forward: story itself. Our characters spring to life, beckoning us again and again to the page. Their conflicts beg resolution, keeping us up at night as if awaiting the past-curfew return of our own not-quite-adult children. At some point, they become so real we feel obliged to see their stories through. We owe them this whole new level of striving.
But one story, often gone unnoticed, may be holding you back: the story you are telling yourself about your writing life.
It is easy to spin an optimistic story before you enter the publishing fray. In fact, I think rosy idealism is a necessary component in undertaking this particular kind of striving, where the odds of reaching the starting line toward traditional publication—gaining agent representation—will not in any way support optimism.
I belong to a marketing cooperative, the Tall Poppy Writers, comprised of some 45 accomplished women authors, some quite prolific. As each of them has a new release, I arrange the support they need to create the social media rocket fuel for a successful launch. Optimism meets measurable outcomes on release day, when even the most brilliant author’s fingernails are bitten to the quick, Amazon is neurotically refreshed, and the possibility of day drinking while holed up alone is high. It is a privilege to provide them support.
Since I haven’t had a title out in a few years, there have been times when, emotionally, this role felt like watching dozens of my teammates step up to the plate to swing while my failed proposals relegated me to the bench. To stay on the team, I played bat boy.
Somehow, worn down over time, the story I told myself as I launched title after title became a whine: “Ugh. I only have two books.”
Then, as 2018 turned 2019, I hosted Bloom, the Tall Poppy Facebook group for readers, where several members told me they had read and were profoundly moved by my novels. Several others said they were just starting to read them, four and five years post-publication. Such investment exposed the artifice in the story I’d been telling myself while holed up alone in my office.
“Ugh. I only have two books,” became, “You know what? I have written two really good novels.”
The self-condemnation evident in the first story could come to no good.
It’s a new year, I have a new agent and a new manuscript out on submission. Anecdotal evidence about editors who no longer edit, the death of the mid-list writer, and a glut of manuscripts under consideration suggest that my odds of success are not all that great.
Yet I refuse to let statistics tell my story. Instead, I’m focusing on the view the bat boy has, watching and learning from all that brilliance.
Back at the start of my journey toward publication, when querying agents, this was the story I told myself: “Yes, only 1% of submissions are accepted. But I’m working hard and getting better every year. Why couldn’t that 1% include me?”
There is no reason why I should forsake this idealism just because I’ve added a degree from the School of Hard Knocks.
Forsaken idealism shrivels into cynicism. Cynicism may seem like it’s protecting you, but it drains the emotional reserves you need to keep striving. On the flip side, it keeps you from fully steeping in moments of achievement. Your inner cynic will warn you that joy is elusive, too fragile to trust.
If you agree that Darwin and Nietzsche were right, and we writers are going to strive toward publication anyway, why make it harder for ourselves by spinning a tragic story?
Let’s just accept that our publishing life will offer many opportunities for the rush of our idealism to crash against the rocky shore of reality. But consider the nature of a wave: it draws back, gathers strength, and tries again. In doing so, it tells a story of relentless, heroic persistence.
So I’m committing this to writing, and in public: in 2019, I want to tell myself a better story. I am committing myself to circling back. Reclaiming the childlike curiosity and wonder with which I first approached story, as well as the cockeyed optimism and idealism with which I set out on my publishing journey. I will reframe my “frustration” and “disappointment” as “experience” and “wisdom.”
In telling myself a better story, I will empower myself to live a better story.
Who’s with me?
No time? Not enough education? Too old or too young? What story are you telling yourself that is hindering your writing dream?
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.