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.

The People Who Write Questionnaire: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore author of NYT Bestseller Bittersweet_peoplewhowrite

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is the author of three novels including New York Times bestseller Bittersweet

If your life (so far) were a book, what would the title be?
Too many titles to pick just one! A sampling: I Never Give Up; Toubabindingho; Love Is The Most Important Thing In The World (which is something my son said recently); I Love To Sleep.

What is the greatest story ever told?
The story a mother tells her child in order to calm him to sleep.

Who is the greatest literary character ever created?
I can only tell you who I love the most, and today, that’s Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Which living or dead writer would you most like to share a meal with?
Virginia Woolf, although she probably wouldn’t be much for chatty conversation.

What is your favorite word right now?

What word has always looked or sounded strange to you?

How many words have you written today?
489 (creative; so far) plus emails

Where have you had your most exhilarating writing experience?
In the Vassar College library my senior year of college, when I realized that what I was writing was a novel and that I was actually going to do it.

What is the thing about writing that you most deplore?
How long it takes to write what you imagined you were writing all along.

What is the thing about writing that you most love?
Feeling a story flow out of me onto the page.

What stereotype about writers have you found to be true?
I haven’t met a writer who isn’t a little bit neurotic.

What’s the biggest misconception about writers/writing?
I know plenty of writers who have perfectly lovely home lives.

What’s the one thing no one would ever guess about you from reading your writing?
I’m very, very silly at home — funny voices, dances, songs. Ask my five year old. He will gladly tell you that I’m the craziest member of the family.

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is the author of three novels: New York Times bestseller Bittersweet (Crown Publishing, 2014), The Effects of Light (Warner Books, 2005) and Set Me Free (Warner Books, 2007), which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best book of fiction by an American woman published in 2007. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, she lives and writes in Brooklyn and Vermont. You can find her on her website, the Bittersweet Booklaunch Blog, and FriendStories.com.

Do Writing Outlines Scare You?

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s writing outline

For lots of writers (myself included), the idea of plotting out a story before you write it is not only as overwhelming as writing the book itself, but it seems to disabuse the romantic notion of letting the characters and story reveal themselves over time. Three-time author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, whose highly praised novel Bittersweet comes out May 13, 2014, insists “thinking about all of [your book’s] elements in a calculated way in advance of writing it” can be fun.

Beverly-Whittemore says John Truby’s book The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller was particularly helpful to her as she put together the outline for her next book. In a post on Truby’s website, she explains that carefully imagining every aspect of the world she was creating beforehand made the actual writing process less daunting. She explains:

By the time I get to the outline phase in a novel, round about Chapter Eight or so of Truby, I’ve already got a thick notebook of what I’ve discovered by working with him. Here’s what I know:

My premise- what my novel is “about,” specifically what its moral argument is, and how every moment/character in the novel works in consort with that argument

My characters- their weaknesses, their desires (what they think they want), their needs (what they need to learn), how they work in connection with all the other characters in the novel, and much more.

My setting- how place and time influences every major moment in the novel

My novel’s basic arc- who is battling whom for what, where they’re doing it, why they’re doing it, and how it’s going to end.

See how much I didn’t know I knew? This is when I feel a little thrill! I didn’t know I knew so much, and I’m chomping at the bit to start writing.

Check out the full post here.

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.