When the Answer is “No”

sunriseI knew the call was coming. We had planned it that way, my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, and I. I’d decided it was time to get an informed answer about the marketability of the memoir I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. So I’d asked him to read what I had and give me his best judgment. Was it something he thought he could ever place?

It had been at least a year-and-a-half since he had seen any of it. The first time he saw it, those eighteen months ago, it had been entirely in verse, and he’d been impressed. No guarantees, of course, about being able to sell such an oddity, but when I’d said I thought our only hope would be small presses, he disagreed. He would start with the big boys, the places where I publish my children’s books, though the market I’m aiming at with the memoir is definitely not children.

When a long-time children’s writer turns to writing for an adult audience, she doesn’t start at ground zero. She starts at about ten points below ground zero. There is that much prejudice in the world of adult publishing against those whose careers have focused on writing for children. But Rubin was with me, nonetheless. And I went home from that early conversation heartened.

I also went home and after a few more months of work shifted my direction. (Without consultation, I might add.) I retained some of the verse, but I began writing more of the memoir in prose, which allowed me to reach more deeply, to fill in gaps. I wrote and rethought and wrote and rethought, loving the challenge of the work every step of the way. I paused from time to time to write something else, something small that could be marketed, but mostly my days have been filled with the memoir. It has been hard, good work.

I began this project for myself. That’s what I told myself and others. “This is what I need to write just now,” I said. “If it can be published one day, that’s great. If it can’t I will have it for myself and for my family.” And I learned an enormous amount through this writing.

After many months of work, I approached a halfway point of this mostly for-myself project. About a third more remains to be written and about a third of what I had in front of me still needs deep revisions. But I decided it was time to ask the question of the one person I was confident could answer it, the one person I knew would answer it both honestly and gently. Can this be marketed, or I am truly writing only for myself and my family?

As I said at the beginning, Rubin called. And you already know what his answer was, because it was in the title to this piece. “No.” He said all the right things, of course, all the nice things about how well written it was, about how rich the life was it represented. But the manuscript didn’t have, he said, enough of a hook. And besides that, it was out of its time. Some of the content of my life that would have been attention-grabbing twenty years ago, even ten years ago (clergy wife who discovers herself to be a lesbian, for instance) would be old news by 2019 when this might reach an audience.

I listened and knew what I didn’t want to know . . . he was right.

Every writer needs someone in her life who is so objective, so knowledgeable, so kindly right.

So what do I do? I’d said all along I was writing the memoir for myself. Right? But for all the times I’d said that, losing the thought of any potential market felt like letting the air out of a balloon. All the air. With a rude sound.

I went to bed that night, still feeling as though I had stepped off a cliff. I was the one who had asked, after all. I could have just kept on going, kept on doing what I was doing. I woke up in the morning, still with no ground beneath my feet.

But all the while I’d been feeling discouraged, I’d been feeling something else, too. Possibilities. Lots and lots of possibilities. And gradually the possibilities began to sort themselves out.

While I lay in bed in the morning sorting, sorting, two ideas rose with the sun. The first one: I can return to the memoir. I’ll select the childhood material that would work for a young audience. I’ll write that part for the audience I already know, the one that knows me. And I have reason to hope what I produce will be marketable.

Second, I will take the later material, return to the primarily verse form that once distinguished the manuscript, find a single clear hook—living into loss, I think—and a closely defined audience—other seniors like myself, other old ladies like myself—and try again to produce a marketable manuscript.

Not just well written. Not just richly conceived. But a manuscript that has enough to offer those who are strangers to me and my work that a publisher might even want to take a chance on it.

What do you do when the answer is “No”? You listen.

And then you try another way.

32 thoughts on “When the Answer is “No”

  1. Marilyn Boros

    Hello Marion. I found your book, “A ‘Writer’s Story” at one of the library sales yesterday in the metro. It’s arrival, at 62, is quite timely. I was thinking about the death of Prince and how he kept doing his work despite whatever it was that may have held him back. And I wonder how some creatives can keep going and others, like me, at times, get taken away by the ‘stuff of life,’ including some of the ‘no’s. Your post is encouraging.
    Thank you for the book that just arrived in my life. I’m a believer in serendipity.
    Mayr Boros

  2. David LaRochelle

    I’m sorry to hear this, Marion. Those words are difficult to hear (I’ve heard them often enough myself). How wise you are to listen, and then shift course accordingly. No wonder you are such a successful author.

  3. Pam Johnson

    In sales, “no” means “tell me more” so from that prespective you might take your story of self discovery that lead to metamorphosis and tap into how that is a universal experience. Personally I always admired the bravery it took to leave one life behind to be true to yourself. That is a story that resonates for every generation.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Pam. And that’s a story that, from a marketing perspective, would have best been told some years ago. Today it doesn’t have the startle factor that makes for sales. A hard reality, but one that must be accepted.

  4. Norma Gaffron

    “And then you try another way.” That says it all. I wish I had your stictuitivity. I have a stack of wonderful rejection slips, some with encouragement, some two or three pages long with well thought out suggestions from New York editors. These sit in a folder in the basement. If I live long enough (I’m 84) I have thought of re-writing this novel in first person. Obviously I haven’t done it or you’d have seen me waving my Newbery Award…
    How do you keep going, Marion?

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      It helps a lot, Norma, that I have had enough success to be confident that keeping going is worth the effort, but mostly it’s just starting out wanting so much to do the work and do it well. It’s never too late. If you still have the deep desire, then go back to those manuscripts now!

  5. Uma Krishnaswami

    Marion sometimes I wonder if we are crazy to do this work–who else ASKS for discouragement and rejection the way writers do? We practically thrive on it! Still, no one can pick me up off the ground the way you do. This post just sings to me. Thank you.

  6. Laura Kemp

    Reading this triggered the thought that sometimes we write ourselves into being, or into a clarity of being, that then makes other work possible. So writing that doesn’t bring in income directly sometimes does indirectly. I’m glad you are you, Marion.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thank you, Laura. I love that concept, that “sometimes we write ourselves into being, or into a clarity of being, that then makes other work possible.” May I pick up on this thought in another blog and quote you?

  7. nancyboflood

    yes, thank you for describing how hard it is to listen to “no” or “not yet.” and then to take deep courage and try another way. When we believe in a work, we must do this again and again. Thank you, Marion.

  8. Jean Wiley

    Good blog post, Marion. Just so you know, I would most certainly read your memoir, Living into Loss. I hope it is out there one day in the not too distant future.

  9. Carleen M. Tjader

    These words this morning, too, are helpful. Not that your work won’t be published as is (although I had been looking forward to it), but that even much published writers must at times rethink and redo. What a writer you are, and what a teacher of writing!

  10. Patti Kester

    This message could not have come at a better time for me Marion. I came away from a workshop last night feeling so discouraged. I had read a chapter – one I had revised a few times and believed was really getting there, close to polished. I did get some positive feedback. But I also heard how it was lacking, that it needed more, that a part was not convincing. And I thought, so I was not close to polished after all and I have to go back and work harder after working so hard already. Is there never an end? This morning your message helped lift me up. My experience is not the same as yours – not as deep. But you took what you heard and sifted out the gems. I need to do that too. Thanks for your inspiration Marion. You amaze me.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      You are welcome, Patti. And I know how hard your experience is, especially if you haven’t proven yourself yet, are still wondering if you will ever do it. But do keep listening–if you know the advice is good–and keep on writing.

  11. laurakvasnosky

    just gotta say i wd read anything you write. i love the thought and honesty and art that marks everything you craft. i am totally intrigued by your life story.


Leave a comment.