Octavia Butler's Word of Encouragement to Herself

Sometimes, you have to encourage yourself. With 2016 coming to a close, take a page out of Octavia E. Butler’s discovered notebook, and write down your dreams for your writing career. Believe they will come true. “See to it!”
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On Validation

0849772fdfc614ba5b0fd66d5b9ef808_400x400I co-lead a monthly writers group as part of the Center for Faith and Work, and before we break off into small groups to workshop our pieces, one of the members leads us in a discussion on a topic centered around the writing life. Last month, Brooke Obie, author of Book of Addis: Cradled Embers (Vol 1), led a talk on validation, a subject that has been coming up for me from a few different directions as I wait for word from my agent on a new manuscript, my birthday approaches, and I take a procrastination break from a new piece I’m working on to write this post.

A few weeks ago, during a Saturday cable watching marathon I stumbled on the movie 5 to 7. The film, about a young writer’s affair with a married French woman nine years his senior, ended with a comment I’ve been pondering since: “Your favorite story, whatever it might be, was written for one reader.” The writer’s reader was his now former lover, and the point he was making was that whoever the writer’s reader is, it is her or his validation that matters most.

As I noted in a previous post about this quote, my reader often changes. Sometimes it’s a client, a boss, an editor, an agent, social media followers. Sometimes my reader is me. And for the purposes of the piece I am pushing out into the world for this reader, their validation is everything.

Brooke directed us to unpack validation itself and how it shapes what and why we write. Here are the questions she invited us to ask ourselves:

  • What role does validation play in your writing?
  • Who are you seeking validation from?
  • How has/does rejection impact(ed) your feelings of validity as a writer?
  • How do you determine which criticism is valid?
  • What are your goals as a writer? (What and who shaped these goals?)
  • When do you feel most validated as a writer?
  • Have you ever felt the presence of God when you’re writing, or felt that you’re “in the zone” when you’re writing? Does this feeling validate your writing/make you feel valid as a writer?
  • What fears do you have that undermine your feelings of validation? How do you deal with these fears?
  • What are your intentions for your writing? What do you hope to achieve? If you achieved it would you feel validated as a writer?

Is it possible to ever feel validated as a writer? Is validation-seeking in and of itself a trap–an indication of a hole that can’t be filled with the expected markers?

Both J.K. Rowling and Elizabeth Gilbert have remarked that validation in the form of bestselling status doesn’t quell the desire to write, or the hope for validation that’s stripped from the expectations, jealousy, and effusive praise that can come with success. And recently, the author of In Her Shoes and other bestselling books Jennifer Weiner bared her heart and admitted her jealousy in a now deleted Facebook post when another writer’s book  was chosen over hers for Oprah’s Book Club–a validation that has eluded her for now.

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, also a bestselling author, has written about finding validation in the work itself. In a poignant post on her blog, she expressed the importance of maintaining perspective on the accomplishment that completing a piece of writing is: “…I’d internalized so much shame about how my books had performed, that I’d completely forgotten to be proud of the fact that I’d written and published two books in the first place.”

Validation is such a personal quest, determined by ever-shifting internal and external factors, that even trying to unpack it feels bottomless. I think that’s why I appreciate having the above-noted questions handy–a way to spot-check when the insecurities rise, and a reminder to focus on why I write in the first place. I hope the questions are helpful to you too.

Remembering Why We Write

Angela Flournoy on remembering-why-we-write - peoplewhowrite

Angela Flournoy’s debut novel The Turner House has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2015 First Novel Prize and longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award. Most recently, Flournoy was named to the National Book Foundation’s annual 5 under 35 list.

Read Angela Flournoy’s full conversation with Tayari Jones on BarnesandNoble.com.

A Word of Encouragement: No, You Shouldn't "Just Give Up" on Your Writing

Been toiling for years without “breaking through” and feeling mighty mediocre? The writer behind New York Magazine‘s “Ask Polly” column has some thoughts on that. Here’s a snippet of the response she gave a writer struggling to decide if she should just give up on her writing:

Don't give up on your writing because Oprah hasn't come calling. Be grateful for your gift and use it with honesty, responsibility, and integrity, while you have breath and sound mind_peoplewhowrite

In other words, don’t give up on your writing because Oprah, or anyone, hasn’t come calling. Be grateful for your gift and use it with honesty, responsibility, and integrity while you have breath and sound mind.

Rejection Letter: My Author *Might* Write a Book Like This, So . . .

rejection letter_my author might write a book like that so..._peoplewhowrite
Beginning today, I will be posting rejection letters past and present, some personal and some from writers who care/dare to share because they are as much a part of the experience of people who write as the hours we put in to sharpen our craft, develop a story or character, and promote our work. If you have a rejection letter you want to share, email it to peoplewhowrite@gmail.com. All identifying info will be redacted.

Every writer gets rejected at one point or another, and though we accept rejection letters as part of the process, on our worst days they trigger not-so-latent insecurities, plunge us to the depths of a well of despair, and inspire petty and valid evaluations of the writers who do have agents, those who are published, and the fewer still who are hailed. On our best days, they sting like a colony of hornets.

This said, and personally experienced, what I’ve come to learn about rejections, is they are not only necessary to sharpening your work–if multiple agents/editors share the same opinion about a narrative choice, you might want to reexamine and decide whether it is as vital to your story as you originally believed–but they also reveal a lot about the rejector. Sometimes, the agent is saying ‘no’ because s/he doesn’t have the relationships or know-how to sell your work. Sometimes, the editor passes because s/he knows, for a host of professional and personal reasons, s/he won’t be able to gain the necessary consensus from her/his colleagues and superiors. Sometimes, the agent/editor is unable to “connect” with the story because it is alien from his/her own.

Regarding the connection issue, Lauren A. Rivera’s recent New York Times op-ed unpacks why people may not relate to each other using the lens of “cultural fit” in hiring scenarios. Rivera explains, “To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. …Discovering shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own.” As a result, of course, “Selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low.” I believe, to a large extent, the same thing is going on, in addition to a litany of factors, when a cultural gatekeeper makes the call to acquire or pass on a manuscript.

Here’s a rejection I received several years ago, when I was first pitching my first novel Powder Necklace to agents.

If you have a rejection letter you want to share, email it to peoplewhowrite@gmail.com. All identifying info will be redacted.