Hello, dedicated author of great worth. Yes, you.
I already know these things about you—I know many things about you, actually. I know that you have a story to tell—lots of them, most likely. I know that you care passionately about your craft. I know that you love words, and language, and the magic of creating new worlds and new people who didn’t exist anywhere outside your head until you gave them the spark of life and brought them into the world. I also know that you care about other people, and part of wanting to share your stories with readers is because these ideas that live so vividly in your head entertain and affect and move you, and you want to share those experiences with others, to connect through the holy, transformative medium of story.
I know these things because you are reading a blog like this. Because when you aren’t immersing yourself in all things writerly, you are writing, or thinking about writing, or maybe just dreaming about writing, a bass note of longing that underlies the melodies of all your days. I know it because you carve out time from your already packed schedule to sit alone in a room or a coffee shop or a hidden corner of your house and you painstakingly put words on the page, looking to give voice to all the ideas and pictures and populace teeming in your head, to actualize your magnificent vision. I know it because most days you probably feel as if somehow you’ve fallen short, that what appears on the page lacks the depth and scope and impact of your grand mental version. But you try again, and again, and again, and some days you even marvel at what you have wrought, thinking you are finally getting the hang of this ephemeral art. Until you reread those same pages the next day and wonder who the hell you were kidding, thinking you had something to say and the talent to say it.
If I—a total stranger to many of you—already know all these things about you, then surely you must know them at an unshakable soul-deep level that nourishes and sustains you in the endless vicissitudes of the creative life—the ups and downs, the voluminous rejections, the painful silences of being lost in the slush pile, the long wait for an agent or publication or the sales of your dreams. Yes?
You have chosen a difficult road—the path of the creative always is. Your confidence and self-esteem will probably travel a violent sine wave of highs and lows. You’ll struggle with motivation. Well-meaning family and friends may ask you why you put yourself through so much suffering for a pursuit where you have such a minuscule chance of “success,” as they (and perhaps you) define it. Beta readers and crit partners may slam on your beautiful baby and make your pride in your work feel foolish. Your editor may return your finally-anointed, soon-to-be-published manuscript with pages of notes and daunting stacks of comments in Track Changes. Even in the industries that reap great rewards from artists’ output, with a few headline-catching exceptions the person with the least influence and the least direct benefit from it is the creator.
This business can be so harsh--you can create the most magnificent piece on the planet and still not find a publishing home for it (some of the best and most original stories I’ve ever worked on were ultimately rejected by agents and publishers). The industry is driven almost entirely by marketing departments these days, and what they believe will sell doesn't always have any bearing on what's great storytelling and writing.
In exchange for digging deep into your most vulnerable soul and bravely sharing what you may find there, you will receive countless painful rejection letters (which you probably have counted, actually) or perhaps worse, indifference; you will endure long stretches of waiting to be chosen: by an agent, by a publisher, by review sites and publications, by the readers who can put you on the coveted New York Times bestseller list.
Here is the open secret that somehow doesn’t often register with artists as they wait to be chosen so their “real careers” can begin: When you get the “yes” it is utterly random.
You hit the right editor on the right day in the right market. Or an agent plowing diligently through her slush pile stumbled onto your manuscript at the very moment she was in the right frame of mind and the right mood looking for your very genre. Or some constellation of coincidence and luck and perhaps contacts got you the right review in the right publication that made your book take off.
So much of all of this is arbitrary, friends. Your writing has no more nor less worth on the day after all that magic happens than it did on the day before. That’s not to denigrate your talent, your hard work, your originality, the scintillating power of the gorgeous story you created. But it could’ve been you—or it could have been a thousand other authors and manuscripts, depending on a myriad of utterly random factors over which none of us has any control.
Considering that perhaps depressing reality, how is a writer supposed to carry on?
You have a superpower. In all of this, there is in fact a magical wellspring to which you can perpetually return, a holy font of fortitude—a single constant, one source of inspiration and support and dauntlessness: you, worthy author. You choose you.
Choose yourself and your craft—every single day, every single moment. Surround yourself with what helps nourish and strengthen you for the difficult moments—that same eternally fertile seedbed you draw on when your child is devastated or defeated, when your significant other or your dearest friends or family face crises and self-doubts and pain. Hold yourself, as the yogis say, in the highest possible regard. You don’t need to wait for validation: you have arrived already. Every day you dedicate time to your creative art, you have added something precious and unique to the world: your story, your voice, your “right effort,” to quote the Buddhists.
Find ways to stoke your own creative fires even when they begin to bank. I promise you that your writing has worth—you have worth. If you have kids (or pets!), sometimes it can help to think of your writing as a child—you'd never give up on that kid, even if everyone else on earth kept rejecting her. You'd always believe in her.
I'm not trying to make this sound easier than it is—I know firsthand how it feels when your self-worth flags and you wonder what the hell you were thinking trying to have a career with words. But this is the most normal thing I know about writing—the most universal, sadly: that writers seesaw between utter delight in the craft and their efforts and utter despair. I think it's the price of getting to live a creative life. So for what it's worth, if it helps, what you may be feeling is very, very normal. You are normal, cherished author.
Surround yourself with your people—creative souls like you who understand the capriciousness of inspiration and conviction. Find the “helpers,” as Mr. Rogers says—those people who believe in you and remind you to do the same when your resolve flags.
But more than that, find the champion, the warrior, inside you—the one person who will always, always be there for you. Read Jennifer Weiner's story about getting her first novel, Good in Bed, published—every publisher either passed because her heroine was overweight or asked her to make her skinny—and Weiner refused, knowing there was a readership for a plus-size heroine. And she started a whole movement in books. Read Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which addresses the challenges of creative life in such a lovely and inspirational way. Read Brenda Ueland's beautiful paean to creativity, If You Want to Write. Books like these will nourish your creative core. Watch Waiting for my Real Life to Begin, the documentary about former Men at Work frontman Colin Hay, a moving portrait of artistic self-sustenance even in the face of failure. Listen to these uplifting lyrics from James Taylor! The chorus fills my soul.
I often ask writers this question: If someone told you right now that you would never, ever be published, that what you were doing with your writing now was all you would ever do, would you stop?
I hope you get your random “yes,” author friend. I hope the picture of your success that you’ve cherished for years comes to pass just as you always dreamed. But if…! If it doesn’t, here’s my most heartfelt hope for you: that you will come to the end of your days with nothing but fulfillment and gratitude for your life because you were brave enough, true enough to your deepest soul to follow a creative path, rocky and uneven and even solitary as it may have been. Not everyone holds on to that holy creative spark we’re all born with, and what an inestimable loss that is for our spirit.
Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry, she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers and award winners as well as newer authors. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications.