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.