Lately it’s been brought home to me how many opportunities the writing life offers me for growth in virtue.
First along the path comes humility. Each of us has that moment when we come out of the closet with the writing we’ve slaved so hard over and which, despite many misgivings, we really believe at some level is brilliant. Then someone reads it—someone, that is, who cares more for integrity in the work than for our feelings—and we find out how very far from brilliant it actually is. There may be some spark there, but it’s been all but buried in adverbs, clichés, and purple prose. (I never dreamed how many clichés existed in the English language until I began trying to write without them.) As we work to improve, the humbling comes at higher levels—instead of critique partners, we get agents and editors telling us our stuff stinks. Those who have attained the holy grail of publication have the privilege of being humiliated by critics and Amazon reviewers and bookstore customers who shun their signing table as if it were an IRS auditor’s desk. But it’s still the same thing: You’re never as brilliant as you think you are.
After the early lessons in humility comes the really big lesson: patience. It takes months, often years, to finish a novel. Then you have to wait for people to make time in their own full lives to read it and give you feedback, and then you go back and work on it some more. Lather, rinse, repeat until your hair falls out. Finally, you think the book is ready to see the light, and you start sending it to agents. These days, a month seems to be the minimum response time; two to three months is not uncommon, and many agents never respond at all. Even with a book that is absolutely ready for the big-time, finding an agent can easily take a year or more. Then the agent has to find you a publisher—and if agents are tortoises, publishers are giant sloths. If and when the book is finally sold, you may have to wait up to two years before it is published. And let’s not even talk about how long you wait to get paid.
Somewhere along this journey, you may easily stumble over that big rock in the road called “the market.” Maybe your book is the best thing since prepared mustard, but nobody is buying your genre right now. Or your vision seems just a little bit ahead of its time, and no one wants to take a risk on it. Sooner or later, someone—probably an agent or editor—is bound to suggest that you write something a little more salable. This seemingly innocent suggestion is really the Demon of People-Pleasing in disguise. This is where you have to renew the commitment I hope you started out with: You are going to write with integrity, to serve your art, not to please people. If you’re writing to please people, you may as well chuck it all in right now, because people are fickle; what they love today they may hate tomorrow. Some of the greatest artists of all time were not valued in their day. Imagine if Jane Austen had said, “Well, shucks, nobody likes these books I’m writing; maybe I should write Gothic thrillers instead.” She’d be no better known today than Ann Radcliffe, who was all the rage as a writer of Gothic thrillers back then.
And that leads to the last and biggest lesson I’m going to talk about today: letting go. Humility, patience, and integrity are all part of it: Ultimately, you have to let go of the reins of your own writing career and abandon yourself to the will of God, or the universe, or however you regard those forces larger than yourself that make things happen. You can write brilliantly and market your little heart out, but ultimately, success will come when it is meant to come and not one moment sooner.