“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
When I begin a new manuscript, especially one that will require a major commitment of time, I pause to consider whether what I want to write will be marketable. I count on income from my writing to buy my groceries and pay my rent, so marketability is a question I can’t avoid. Nonetheless, unless my checkbook is exceptionally thin, having asked the question I put it aside—even if the answer is a rather obvious “No!”—and I proceed to write out of the inner necessity Jung speaks of.
I write what I need to write. I write to explore ideas that intrigue me. I write to celebrate this world I love. And I write to make sense of my own life.
Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins was a perfect example of the writing-to-make-sense sort. I knew when I began that collection of semi-autobiographical young adult short stories that I was taking a big risk. I didn’t have to run a survey to know that there are few—if any—folks out in the world who are as fascinated by my personal history as I am. And I’m not enough of a name to be able to count on the voyeurism factor to give my revelations a boost.
Moreover, I found myself needing to tell my story from a perspective long forbidden to juvenile fiction, as an adult narrator looking back, and that wasn’t going to help the book’s chances of success, either. Nor was any of this aided by the range of the stories. They begin with Claire, the main character, at 11, playing dolls, and end with her at 16, having an orgasm. Inevitably, the gatekeepers would assume that 16-year-olds wouldn’t put up with the doll play, albeit in a highly charged racial situation, and that 11-year-olds weren’t ready for the orgasm. So where did the book fit? There is challenging religious material, too, and occasional graphic language that fits the stories but not the average classroom. So, to put it mildly, the book was awkward to place anywhere in the juvenile market. (It probably should have been sold as an adult book where none of those factors would have mattered, but finding my way to a new market would have been a challenge.)
As a young-adult piece there were two ways Killing Miss Kitty could have gone out there in the world. Either it might catch attention and fly because it was unique. Or its unorthodoxy would disturb and shock—not the young but the adults who make decisions for the young—and it would be shunned. In the months coming up to Killing Miss Kitty’s official publication date, the book set off lots of buzz and received nice reviews. My editor and I were both hopeful that unique would win out. Something like 5,000 copies flew out the door before the book was even launched. But it didn’t take long following the publication date for those copies to come sailing back through the very same door. (I have a friend who says of one of her books that more copies were returned to the publisher than ever went out, and it’s tempting to borrow her description for my own experience.)
And so . . . this book, the closest to my heart of any I’d written up to that time, was my biggest failure. At least it was so if success or failure is to be measured in sales. And to some extent it has to be. Groceries and rent again!
It’s been seven years since Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins came out, seven years in which it has pretty much disappeared from view. And yet it remains in my heart. I haven’t reread it recently, but in the first year or so I returned to it many times, something I don’t usually do with my published work. I needed to assure myself that, despite the book’s trajectory out there in the world, I had done what I most wanted to do. I had found a core of truth in my own childhood and turned it into stories. And on each reading I was satisfied that I had. (I don’t imagine the publisher was as satisfied as I, but that’s another story entirely.)
I came across an interview with Jane Pauley in the January 20th edition of Time Magazine, and this is one of the things she said:
“The Jane Pauley Show was a failure, but it’s the thing I am proudest of. My psyche doesn’t know that I’m supposed to be embarrassed by it, because my psyche is proud that I had the courage to try.”
Inner necessity called her to play with own truth, and she had the courage to do it. Now Jane Pauley and a much more obscure Marion Dane Bauer move on to discover more objects to love . . . and to play with them to our hearts’ content.