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.

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The Mystery of the Muse

Where does inspiration come from? Elizabeth Gilbert shared her theory in her 2009 TED Talk:

“[C]enturies ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific, right? But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. And I know you know what I’m talking about, because I know you’ve all seen, at some point in your life, a performance like this. It was like time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn’t doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.

“And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God.” That’s God, you know. Curious historical footnote: when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them and the pronunciation changed over the centuries from “Allah, Allah, Allah,” to “Olé, olé, olé,” which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances. In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, ‘Allah, olé, olé, Allah, magnificent, bravo,’ incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God.”

Adichie, Catton, Kushner, & Tartt on Baileys Longlist

Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers, has been longlisted for the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction - peoplewhowrite

Rachel Kushner

The longlist for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has been announced and it boasts Donna Tartt whose novel The Goldfinch has sat atop pretty much every “Best of 2013” list, Man Booker Prizewinner Eleanor Catton, and Chimamanda Adichie whose third novel Americanah has been right there with Tartt’s on the love lists and enjoyed a bump in attention and sales when Beyonce sampled the author’s TEDx speech on feminism. Also in contention are Pulitzer Prizewinner Elizabeth Strout, Rachel Kushner, and Elizabeth Gilbert who has tirelessly promoted her latest novel The Signature of All Things with a focus on bringing along the legion of readers who made her memoir Eat, Pray, Love a juggernaut success.

The Prize’s five judges–“Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, writer Denise Mina, Times columnist, author and screenwriter, Caitlin Moran and BBC broadcaster and journalist, Sophie Raworth…chaired by former Managing Director of Penguin Books UK and Chief Executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, Helen Fraser”–will cull the 20 books listed below to six, before the winner is announced on June 4, 2014.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto
The Bear by Claire Cameron
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson
Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Elizabeth Gilbert Calls 2013 "The Year of the Woman Writer"

"Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert declares 2013 "The Year of the Woman Writer" - peoplewhowrite

Elizabeth Gilbert

“2013 = THE YEAR OF THE WOMAN WRITER!” Elizabeth Gilbert posted on her Facebook page last month, adding, “…what a year 2013 has been for female authors!”

Citing Alice Munro’s Nobel win as the cap on a year of stellar writing by women, Gilbert listed Donna Tarrt, Jesmyn Ward, and Rayya Elias, among a list of the authors of her favorite 2013 books. “Somewhere in the vast library of heaven,” she continued, “George Eliot, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton and a bunch of other fantastic female phantasms are having a celebratory bottle of champagne, smiling proudly over of us.”

Her declaration seems especially timely not only because of the preponderance of acclaimed female authors that received recognition this year (see Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton and the illustrious literary ladies that shared the shortlist of six with her: NoViolet Buluwayo, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ruth Ozeki, for example), but also because of the sheer volume of column inches and internet bandwidth given to issues directly related to women. This year, it seemed pop culture was particularly obsessed with the challenges impacting women’s lives from how decisions regarding marriage and fertility impact workplace ascendancy, to questions of sexual objectification.

It started with Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In, released in March. The Facebook COO’s book reignited the “woman’s place” debate for a new generation, adding to the ongoing viral discussion sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s June 2012 article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It seemed every outlet had to weigh in with the Wall Street Journal‘s Nikki Waller quipping “We are in a bull market for think pieces about Sheryl Sandberg,” in a post rounding up coverage of the book from Cosmo to Forbes.

Miley Cyrus’ infamous twerking episode at MTV’s VMAs poured gas on the conversation, eliciting fiery back and forth across the web. The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica advised Cyrus’ detractors to “Get Back, and Just Let Miley Cyrus Grow Up” while Entertainment Weekly ran  Sinead O’Connor’s open letter to the young star in which she warned Cyrus: “you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping.” Then there is all the grousing going on about Beyonce’s decision to sample writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” on her surprise December album.

Writer Lauren Sandler waded into the wider conversation alleging female authors might do better with just one child — drawing instant clap back from authors Zadie Smith and Aimee Phan among others who also happen to be mothers. Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling (who opted not to write under her name Joanne because “her publisher, Barry Cunningham…thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman”) released a new book under a more explicitly male-sounding pen name “Robert Galbraith.”

Though Rowling was clear her reason for publishing her latest bestseller The Cuckoo’s Calling as Galbraith was because she “wanted totally unvarnished feedback,” it’s hard not to wonder why she didn’t choose a female pseudonym. Does she feel adult male readers would also be wary of a book written by a woman — just as George Eliot née Mary Anne Evans did when she was writing in the 1800s? If so, Rowling might not be wrong.

This summer, sci-fi writer Ann Aguirre expressed deep frustration and anger at sexist attitudes aimed at her by both male readers and male writers. Likewise, VidaWeb.org noted that, in 2012, male reviewers (the gender of most literary reviewers) disproportionately reviewed books written by men. Author Jodi Picoult tweeted about the phenomenon this summer: “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”

So, yes, 2013 was a great year as far as stellar writing and bestsellers by women — just as 2012 was, but it’s obvious our culture has a lot more growing up to with respect to women’s stories. We’ve always had talented female writers. If there is a celebration going on in heaven, I’d like to believe Phyllis Wheatley and Christina Rosetti, are also clinking glasses with the heroines of prose Gilbert mentioned. Here’s hoping the male readers and reviewers who might be just a little bit wary will catch up in 2014. And here’s looking to a day when the next Mary Anne Evans and Joanne Rowling won’t have to worry about their gender detracting them from being taken seriously either way; when our literary mothers, sisters and daughters can toast to something else.

Elizabeth Gilbert: "Done is Better than Good"

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things, live chatted with readers and fans on People.com - peoplewhowritePeople.com hosted a live chat with Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things) and it was full of writing advice gems for aspiring and grinding writers. Here, the best of the session:

Marybelle asked: Hi Liz! Just finished SOAT, and the aspect that really stuck with me at the end was how Alma, held back by her own perfectionism, failed to publish before Darwin. This is an issue that you have addressed before, and one that tends to haunt my own life. How, oh how, did you find the initial courage to put your work out into the world?
Gilbert answered: You are so right, Marybelle, that perfectionism is the demon of all good things — and a theme in SOAT. I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who taught me that “done is better than good” — which has gotten me through SO much. There is no such thing as perfect, and so the pursuit of it is only setting you up to be disappointed. Also, I think women struggle with this more than men (gee, maybe because we are taught that we aren’t perfect??) But at some point you have to ask your perfectionism to step aside so that your creativity can shine through…

Linda Anderson: I believe your ability to be vulnerable endears you to us readers. How did you get the courage that allows such baring of the soul?
Gilbert: I think there are so many different kinds of courage. And there are so many kinds of courage that I DON’T have. (For instance, I always wish I was more physically brave and also more ethically brave: I admire people who spend their lives fighting for others…) But I have always had a certain emotional courage in that I am not afraid to look weak, or to share my truths. I don’t know where that comes from, other than maybe a sense of shared humanity (don’t we all fail, feel weak, feel confused?) I would rather be vulnerable and human than bulletproof and robotic.

Winnie: How do you feel when people criticize your work, especially when what you write is so personal?
Gilbert: Hi Winnie! Well, being criticized sucks, actually. Nobody likes it, but we all must find ways to handle it because there is no way to put work into the world that is beyond criticism, and being criticized is the tax you pay for getting live a creative, inventive life. I like to think of the old adage that “a fly may sting a noble horse, but one is a fly and the other is a horse.” In other words, I would rather be the horse (the creator) than the fly (the critic) any day!

Betsy: Hi Elizabeth, Congratulations on the new book, first of all. I’m really curious, how has your extraordinary success changed you, if at all?
Gilbert: Thank you, Betsy! I like to think I haven’t changed THAT much, but I will admit to two very important and life-altering transformations that success has brought me: 1) Business class plane tickets, and 2) more seriously — complete creative freedom. I can now take on any projects I want, and fund them myself. Even something as risky and possibly uncommercial as a 500 page novel about a 19th century spinster who studies moss!

Guest: Nora Ephron once said that the hardest thing about writing is writing. Do you agree with that sentiment and do you have any advice for writers?
Gilbert: We all love and miss Nora…thanks for sharing this! I have a less than tormented relationship with my work, to be honest. I have learned over the years how to work in collaboration with creativity, rather than at war with it. It’s the same as with anything in life — whatever you fight, fights you back. But whatever you invite gently and with respect will approach you. I find that the more I relax, the easier writing gets.

Lillian: Before you start writing, how do you pick what your next book will be about?
Gilbert: It’s all a matter of instinct plus curiosity…but mostly curiosity. I’ve learned over the years to trust my fascinations…they usually lead me in the right direction! Thanks, Lillian!

On Shame

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, author of Set Me Free, The Effects of Light, and Bittersweet - peoplewhowrite

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore has written a powerful and honest piece on the shame of poor book sales. In a post announcing the launch of her third novel Bittersweet, she shares:

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.

I'm a Bestseller, Now What?

Elizabeth Gilbert, backed by her fans

Elizabeth Gilbert, backed by her fans

As most writers have been told at some point, there can be no story without conflict. In most people’s lives that conflict is, at its most basic, a struggle toward accomplishing a goal, with the vague or clear (depending on the person) intention to be remembered for something. But what happens when you’ve reached your goal, and blown past it?

There are few scribes who don’t dream of topping the bestseller lists, but what are you expected to do after you get there? How do you manage the attendant expectations, the sycophantic chorus, and straight up jealousy?

After receiving mixed reviews for her first foray into adult literature, Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling opted to publish under a male pen name. After she was outed by a tweet from the friend of her lawyer’s wife, Rowling explained why she went to the trouble of concealing the identity she had worked so hard to imbue with equity.

“I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career,” she wrote, “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback. It was a fantastic experience and I only wish it could have gone on a little longer.”

Elizabeth Gilbert tells the New York Times Magazine she certainly felt the pressure of the follow up to her dizzyingly successful 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

“The biggest thing I had to prove was, ‘Is she going to be able to come out of this tsunami and ever do anything again?’ Or am I going to Harper Lee out? Go J. D. Salinger for the rest of my life?”

She responded to the stress by sticking her chin out.

“I threw [2010’s Committed] out into the world like a grenade. I was like, ‘All right, everybody, whatever you have to say about the last book, whatever resentment you’ve built up over the last few years, let’s just catharsis it out and move on.’ And it did that.”

Now, Gilbert is interested in reminding critics that she has also written award-nominated fiction with acclaim from all the right sources–the New York Times, PEN Hemingway, the National Book Awards, and The National Book Critics Circle Award. Like Rowling, she wants the struggle-rush again.

For her upcoming The Signature of All Things, a 500+-pager set in the 1800s with a botanist heroine, Gilbert is prepared hit the road. While a writer of her stature could get away with leaving at a few well-plaved high-profile interviews on Oprah, NPR, and/or New York Times, she will go on what the Times describes as a “mammoth book tour.”

She explains, “I want to bring this book to people and ask if they’ll read it, and I feel like I have to ask them personally. I gotta sell those grinders, man.”

Turns out the grind is a necessity to the human story–even when it’s by choice.

Free Excerpts of New Works by Elizabeth Gilbert, Wally Lamb Now Available

Elizabeth Gilbert releasing new work excerpt in Buzz Books 2013 - peoplewhowrite

Elizabeth Gilbert

Digital industry newsletter Publishers Lunch has released a free ebook called Buzz Books 2013 featuring excerpts of new works from some of the most successful writers in the business. Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan, She’s Come Undone scribe Wally Lamb, and Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame are among the starry names. Actor and writer James Franco is also debuting new fiction in the ebook. BostonHerald.com reports Buzz Books 2013 is now available for download on Kindle, Nook, and other digital devices. Two weeks ago, a site called Obooko.com launched announcing it would offer new and emerging writers’ work for free download.