Shortly after I signed my book deal with Crown back in February, I received a long document of questions from my editor, running from the mundane (name, address) to the philosophical (“What is your book about?”) to everything in between. When I double-clicked, I was filled with the same dread I remembered feeling back in 2003 when I encountered my first Author Questionnaire… What I felt, as I began to think about the Questionnaire this time around, despite my joy at having sold Bittersweet, despite a renewed belief in my career, was deep shame. The bad sales of my second book, Set Me Free, especially, had been (and still was) such a heartbreak…
Then she gets to the root of the shame:
I realized that most of why I’d been feeling so much shame about the last time I did all this is that I love it so much that I was terrified I would never get to do it again. Until I sold Bittersweet, I had believed that my career was, in fact, over.
I can relate! My first book Powder Necklace came out in 2010 and, in many ways, I’m at square one again: looking for an agent and a publisher for my second novel. I’m writing on faith right now.
As writers, we invest so much heart trying to get work published, frozen with fear that the thing we were meant to do will never be done or acknowledged. Then, if we are so blessed to be published, we lay our hearts beating on physical and virtual book shelves and on book tables at festivals, palpitating at the very real possibility we’ll never be published again if our work doesn’t perform.
Beverly-Whittemore says she had to remind herself to dissociate the performance of her book from the impressive fact of her other performance–completing a second novel. “I’d completely forgotten to be proud of the fact that I’d written and published two books in the first place.”
The irony is, the fear and shame don’t go away even when you perform on both levels.
At Elizabeth Gilbert’s Google Hangout, the multi-million copy selling author of Eat, Pray, Love pointed out to a downcast aspirant, “Even when you do get published, then you… have to have people say that you’re washed up”–another threat to being able to do it again.
J.K. Rowling offers a strong case for relishing the making of quality work more than sales performance. With zillions of book sales and endless tie-ins associated with the Harry Potter franchise she created, pretty much any book with Rowling’s name on it will become a bestseller, yet she dared to give that up by releasing her latest book under a fake name–Robert Galbraith.
“I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre,” she wrote in the FAQs section of the Robert Galbraith website, “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback.”
The double irony is that great sales don’t guarantee great reception, and vice versa. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey almost singlehandedly rescued Random House from the red in 2012, yet the writer gets no love for her writing ability. Conversely, book award winners don’t necessarily break sales records.
Gilbert told her audience, “You must have another reason to do the work besides the result. You must do the work because of love, because of devotion, because of passion. Because there’s something that you feel you were put here to do that you would like to accomplish before you die, something that if you don’t do, part of your soul will be injured. That’s the reason that you do it.”
If you’ve been writing, and trying to get published for a while now, you’ve likely heard this all before. In your beating, breaking heart, you know this. But as you field yet another rejection letter, another fellowship or residency you didn’t get, it helps to hear it again.