What To Do? What To Do?
I had a phone chat recently with a writer friend of mine. We both have books coming out this spring and are both dealing with the pre-publication jitters. His editor called him to say a blurb for the book had come in and it was a really nice blurb, but the ‘blurbist’ had suggested “a couple” of editorial changes. The ‘blurbist’ in question is a pretty well-known author and has a history with my friend so he was second-guessing himself.
Writers are pretty insecure folks (who isn’t?), and since the book business is SO subjective, it’s easy to be sent into an utter flap by such last minute ‘suggestions.’
I had a similar experience a couple of years ago when a publisher said he would publish the Canadian version of OUR DAILY BREAD if I “took out all the women and the religious stuff.” If you don’t know what OUR DAILY BREAD is about you can find out more about it here, but those of you who’ve read it would, I think, agree that wasn’t helpful advice. Had I written it the way the publisher suggested . . .well. . . I would have re-written Deliverance and nobody wants that. He told me if I published it as is, I’d be . . . ahem. . . sorry. The book has, as it happens, done pretty darn well.
Sometimes people will project onto you (and your writing) what they’d do in your position. That doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for you. Then again . . . maybe it is . . .
So the question is, not only in writing, but in pretty much all areas of life — when do we take someone’s (no doubt well-intended) advice, and when do we say how deeply grateful we are they’ve taken the time to offer it, but no thanks?
In other words: How do we know the right thing to do?
Well, I guess I’m lucky in this regard — because I’m one of those people who don’t drink alcohol one day at a time (read: big whacking drunk who hasn’t had a drink for seventeen years), I’ve had a lot of experience taking advice from people I trust, and learning some tools for discerning what’s right for me. One of the questions I’m often asked, both by writers and by other people trying to stay sober is: How do I know what the right thing is to do? Some people phrase is: How do I know what the God-of-my-understanding’s will is for me.
I tell them what other, wiser, people told me — here are a few tips for finding out:
1) Pray and meditate. Have a chat with the god of your understanding. Maybe that’s God in the traditional Judeo-Christian-Muslim sense; or maybe it’s the Creator, in the First Nations sense; or Nature/biofeedback in the scientific sense . . . but whatever it is . . . phrase the question and sit with it for a while. Do some writing in your journal. Listen for answers. You’d be surprised what kind of guidance you can get this way if it becomes part of your regular practice.
2) Do a little research. Read and know your stuff. I can’t think of a subject on which there are no books, no body of knowledge that might add to your own understanding. Find a source and do a bit of learnin’. On more than one occasion I’ve been shocked to learn how little I knew, and grateful to find that out before it was too late.
3) Ask a trust adviser. I think it’s a great idea to cultivate smart friends, emotionally and mentally healthy friends, a good therapist or priest or agony aunt — somebody you trust to have your best interests at heart. In fact, have as many of these people in your life as you can. You never know when you’re going to need them. Someone who will tell you straight, who will tell you the unvarnished truth and who you know is, at the same time, completely in your corner . . . they’re invaluable.
4) Perhaps this is the most important bit, although it’s hardly original (none of this stuff is): to thine own self be true. In order to do that, of course, you have to know thine own self, you have to understand your motivations, you have to be aware of all that shadow-side stuff — the insecurities, the defense mechanisms, the pockets of resistance — we all have. But once you know yourself, warts and all, you are much less likely to be thrown by the opinions of others. You may feel a little crink way down deep inside that means you’re just not comfortable with this suggestion or that. Or, you may feel a lovely warm glow, a kind of relaxation of the soul if you will, that tells you this is the answer you’ve been searching for.
And, if in the end you regret your decision, whatever it may be, at least it will be your decision to regret. In my experience that’s always better than feeling like an ass for letting someone steer you away from what you felt was the right path for you.
What did my writer friend decide to do? He decided to go with his gut and publish the book as he intended it to be. Was that the right decision? From a fame-and-fortune standpoint, only time will tell. But he tells me he is at peace, which he certainly wasn’t before, and that to me is the most important thing of all.
Lauren, your essay hit a chord with me as I often struggle to know if I’m choosing the right path when facing a difficult decision. Especially when it involves friends, who might be disappointed. Do you ever get over being affected or influenced by the opinion of others? Jennifer
Hi Jennifer, thanks for the comment. I doubt we ever get over it completely, but perhaps if we give ourselves permission to feel confused and not panic, but just to sit with it for a while, that still small voice inside will find a way to reach us. 😉
Interesting post, thanks. I agree it’s not always easy to know the right thing to do … but I find it difficult to deal wtih friends or family that offer unsolicited advice. It sounds like you’ve had your share of this type of experience – what’s your point of view about how to deal with it?
Hi Julie — that’s why I talked about ‘trusted advisers’, people you’ve enlisted to give you advice and whose opinion you trust — unsolicited advice from the randome friend/relation is often also unwanted, or not very useful advice. (You might be interested in my blog about what one should never ask a writer, https://laurenbdavis.com/2010/01/10-questions-never-to-ask-a-writer/ Just for a laugh.)
People cannot, I’m afraid, be stopped from offering advice. My favorites are: You should write “this” story. It’d be a best seller! or Your book would be great if you’d just write about a totally different character doing totally different things. Sigh.
But what I do is a) thank the person, since rudeness never makes me feel good about myself, b) smile enigmatically, c) maintaining said smile say, “I’ll give that some thought.” No need to tell the person that ‘some’ in this case is probably very little, and d) change the subject by asking them something about themselves. People do love to talk about themselves.
Still, every once in a great while, just as I’m walking away muttering unpleasant things beneath my breath, I’ll realize there was a kernel of something worthwhile in the advice. As unsettling as that is, since I’m always so SURE (snort) of myself, it’s also something I’m grateful for. You just never know.
Setting a boundary, firmly but gently, is probably invaluable. “Thanks very much, but I hope you won’t mind if I ask you not to offer advice. The creative process is so fragile and I’m so easily thrown off, I’m sure you’ll understand if I have to keep my own counsel on this one.” Something like that. Most people get it, and the ones who don’t? Well, I recommend a sense of humor and earplugs.
Found myself with editor’s block and came to your blog for inspiration. And got it. Am also plagued by reader’s block, sleep-through-the-night block and computer and TV screen block occasionally. So I immediately tried for some levity with brevity in form of Brian and his novel and found Fox objected to YouTube’s generous sharing of this piece of wisdom. No match for my cyberspace sleuthing, though. Found it here and it was delightful. Keep up your communiqués. Everyone of them is a worthwhile read.
So, how’s your next book coming along? Any great protagonists? Ahhh, never mind. How’s Rescuepooch?
Petra!! How wonderful to hear from you. So glad you found Brian. He kills me. And glad, too, you found something worthwhile in the blog.
Bailey-the-Rescuepoo is wonderful, more adorable by the day. He waves a paw at you.
And I’ve got a new book coming out in May called THE EMPTY ROOM — there’s a bit more about it on the website, just click on the cover. I’m delighted to say it’s been named in some of the ‘most anticipated’ lists recently. I’ll be up on Toronto at the end of May when it comes out — I have a reading at one of the libraries. Perhaps you’ll come? More about that later.
At any rate — lovely to have you pop up here! Big hug.
thanks for the helpful advice… and I’ll be investing in earplugs!
I buy them by the bushel!
Okay Lauren, I have one question. I have finished and publishe 2 books. I have a third book I’ve been working on since GULP 1982. The other day, while swimming, it hit me forcefully that I was going about it exactly in the wrong way. I saw the ‘right’ way but life is short and writing is long. Ever have something like that happen to you? It’s both good and excruciating. Wendy
These kind of insights don’t arrive until . . . well, they arrive. Einstein didn’t believe in linear time. Don’t worry about how long writing a book takes, or how short life is. Just follow the breadcrumbs. That’s our only responsibility. Frankly, it sounds like a wonderful and exciting moment!
Great post, Lauren – it is so very difficult to learn to trust ourselves sometimes. You have provided some wonderful suggestions for helping the process. And I am so glad you didn’t listen to that publisher! Dorothy was one of my favorite characters, and I suspect if you’d taken out women and religious stuff, she would have had to go.
Thanks, Leslie. And you’re right about Dorothy. As it turns out, readers love her as much as I do, so I’m also thrilled I stuck to my guns. I don’t always, though. It must be said, editors have always made my books better than they were when I first handed them in. And my agent often has great ideas as well, although he’s very good at telling me what he doesn’t think quite works, and then lets me go off and figure out my own solution, rather than suggesting on. That’s INVALUABLE!