Pure Junk or the Great American Novel?

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

I find it interesting and a bit amusing, entirely understandable, too, that I seem to get the strongest responses from my readers out there when I use this blog to talk about my own failures, the places I trip up, the projects I struggle with, the manuscripts that, after all that struggle, still get turned down.

I understand.  Of course.  Especially I understand how difficult the journey is for those of you out there who have been writing with all your hearts, often for years, and have yet to be published.  Or were published once or twice, perhaps more, and can’t seem to make it happen again.

It would be consoling to know that even someone with a long-established career can share the experience of being turned down.  But the consolation is more than misery loves company, even though misery does.  It’s recognizing that failing—or at least failing to get the reception we need—is just part of a complex and very nuanced process.  An inevitable part, especially if we are taking risks with our work.

The hardest thing about staking our lives on creative work is the difficulty of knowing, truly knowing when we are hitting the mark.  I remember so clearly how it felt to write my first novel. I didn’t have a clue whether the words I put down on paper day after day were pure junk or the great American novel.

The feedback that followed publication soon let me know that my novel was neither.  But if my work had never been published, the question would still be out there.

Writing is very much like singing.  If you’re singing in the shower—or anywhere else for your own pleasure—others’ opinions about the sounds you’re making don’t matter very much.  (Unless you are disrupting your housemates too badly.)  But professional singers have vocal coaches, because they must please an audience, and none of us can hear the sounds we are making accurately from inside their own heads.

Writers need reader coaches.

Recently I happened to tell a non-writer friend about the great number of readers I have had for the novel I’m just finishing.  And she said, “I’ve never thought of writing as a group activity.”  I was surprised at the term “group activity” applied to this solitary process of mine.  But the more I thought about it, the more accurate that description seemed.

It isn’t just my agent and editor I depend upon . . . and reviewers once a book makes its way into the world.  I depend on other readers, usually writer/readers, who can look at my work half formed and see both possibility and impediment.

Writing is a little bit like living.  None of us can truly do it alone.

I’m better at judging what I’m writing while I’m writing it now than I was when I waded into the cold water of that first novel.  But every time I try something significantly different from what I’ve done before, my “better” isn’t so great.  Pure junk or the great American novel?  The question arises again.

And sometimes I can feel great confidence in a piece only to have my agent say, gently, “I think we’ll put this one aside” or to have the intended editor say, “Try again.”

I once had an editor call me after I’d delivered an already-under-contract manuscript for a novel and ask, “Marion, are you all right?”

That one took a lot of revision!

The lesson here?  We may work alone, but we cannot survive without one another.  To go on creating, year after year, we must surround ourselves with those who have judgment and honesty . . . and a whole lot of compassion.

2 thoughts on “Pure Junk or the Great American Novel?

  1. sandra214

    Amen to all you’ve said, Marion. We writers need each other. I recently had a writer friend catch some missed errors in a self-published book. Her kindness allowed me to go in and correct the errors before another copy was sold.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      Self publishing must be a bit terrifying if you don’t have a very solid editor looking over your shoulder. I can’t imagine what would get through in my texts without that . . . and the friends who have seen it long before any editor!


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