I got a friendly, helpful note back from an agent this week. While she declined to take me on, she did tell me she found my story line intriguing, however it started off too slow.
Zing! I knew she was right. I moved the manuscript into Scrivener and started re-arranging scenes in Corkboard. Moving the scenes around allowed interesting gaps to develop—gaps that sparkled. As I was rearranging, part of my brain delighted in this freedom and part of it was aghast. “You can’t do that!” it said, “no one will look at it if you do that.” Well, let’s be honest, no one is really looking at it yet anyway, as far as I know. And besides, at 56 years old, at least two thirds of my life is over, so what is there to be afraid of? I’ve already experienced rejection and lived through it. I’ve already taken chances and succeeded or failed—and lived through it.
Fiction writing is a fairly new skill for me and I’m learning the craft daily. Even when I think I’ve written something lovely and amazing that really ought to win the National Book Award, or even better, a MacArthur grant, I remember how it was when I first started making baskets. I loved them too—those first ones—every crooked, sad, little lump of them. Then I got more polished and more polished still. And when I looked back at the first ones, I liked their gallantry, but let’s face it, they weren’t salable.
I think the same thing will happen with my writing. I am persistent. My stories will get more and more polished and one day my turn will come and I’ll get what I think I most want right now—a published book.
Even as I think this, though, I remind myself of something that I intuit is true: that the thrill of publication will never equal the satisfaction of the days I have now—of trying, failing, discovering and polishing—in a word, living.
Earlier this week I researched female education in the late 17th — early 18th centuries in Massachusetts for an essay I’m writing for my local historical society and I can honestly say that I really, really love research. I love finding little snippets that seem like gold, the piecing together of bits to make a story. I love the quiet and the books in the reading room of the research library. I love the sheer amount of potential that surrounds me–the potential of learning, of discovering, of finding interests, of creating.
On the drive home my friend and I were discussing our new life changes—a new career for me and retirement for her and she said how the funny thing about retirement is that people tell you what it is like, but what they really mean is what it is like for them. That resonated, because that’s how I feel about this nascent career of mine in writing children’s books. People tell me how hard it is to get published and make a living and then ask me what I’m working on. If I say a picture book, they tell me I should really be writing a chapter book because that’s what’s popular now. If I say a young adult novel in verse, they say verse doesn’t sell.
But, as with my friend’s experience with retirement, these people are telling me what it is like in their sphere of knowledge, based on their experience, in their own life. Which is, when you pick it down to its bones like that, a pretty limited viewpoint.
All of our viewpoints are limited. They can’t be anything but because they are necessarily based solely on our own experience. Which is not going to be someone else’s experience or the next person’s experience either.
So here’s my idea–instead of giving people advice “for their own good” (which is almost never why it is given) how about we all just encourage the heck out of each other. Let’s all admit that we don’t know the first thing about someone else’s potential and so the best thing we can do for them is to trust that they are onto something and tell them to go for if that’s what they feel like doing.
What we are really doing when we encourage another person is telling them that we believe in their belief in themselves. We are supporting their belief in their own potential–and that, to my mind, is the truest ‘advice’ we can give.
Depression is anger turned inward, so they say. And just as outer anger reminds me to go deeper within myself to find the boundary that is being challenged, likewise a feeling of depression is a red flag to alert me to inward turning anger. I think of the process as our bodies nudging us to health. Since all health—emotional, physical and spiritual—is intertwined, excavating what we can helps uncover beliefs that encourage our well being.
The other day after a workshop, I was feeling low. Not just sad, but the low that warns me to pay attention or risk the slide down the slippery slope. So I went inward to explore. The way I do this is to tell myself words that may be triggers to what precipitated this feeling. In this case, the word that resonated through me when I unearthed it was “value.” Something about the idea of value jump-started an anger that I turned inward—a self-anger that I refused to see consciously––until my low mood keyed me into it.
Value, says my dictionary is “the importance or preciousness of something.” It also says value is “the usefulness of something held in respect of a particular purpose.”
Within these two definitions, a truth lay ensnared in the thicket of my low mood. Teasing it apart, I realized I had unconsciously held the belief that my value was determined by my usefulness, or to put it another way, my contribution to pleasing others. Did I make my parents proud? My teachers proud? My friends happy? If yes, I had value. Don’t get me wrong, this belief has its good points—it keeps me motivated to push myself and to do my best. But because I did not hold the other–and I think perhaps more important definition of value—that of “the importance or preciousness of something” I was only half, not whole. And my inner being was pushing me to be whole.
Once I realized that both definitions of value must necessarily be held in my consciousness for me to be healthy, the thicket was cleared and the self-anger released. (And I felt a lot better.)
So now I know this: We all have intrinsic value. We all hold a value that is separate and inviolate from our usefulness.