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ASK THE EDITOR Keeper of the Flame: It's All About Believing

by Susan Malone

January 2003

Sometimes life ain’t fair. We all know this to be true. And you can take the qualifier (sometimes) out of that cliche, then multiply what’s left by, oh, I dunno, ten bazillion, and you have the publishing business.

It’s ruthless. It’s brutal. Only a fraction of writers ever “make it” to become authors, and only a fraction of those are successful. Pretty dismal odds, huh. And sometimes you just want to sit in the dusty road and quit.

You know those times. You’ve written. Had your work slashed by writer’s groups, agents, editors, etc. So you dove back in and learned more about your craft. Listened and heard and applied the new knowledge—wrote some more—only to have your work slashed again. So you learned some more, and revised and revised. Finally, you got it right. The book, story, essay, etc., well, it’s just as good as it can be, and truly worth publishing. You’ve snagged an agent, who also loves your work. It should sell. Hope abounds. Then rejections pour in. Perhaps they say similar things; perhaps they don’t. Perhaps the editors love your book, but they’re just not buying, have just bought something similar, have too many Southern, Midwestern, West Coast, etc., (pick one) authors right now. Your heart shatters.

And, that can happen at any point on the above spectrum. Whether you’re a newbie or a published author, this business can demoralize you to the point of giving up.

That’s one choice. And it’s a choice I know a lot of folks make every day. It’s one I’ve thought of making, oh, about those bazillion times. Wouldn’t it just be easier to go sell paint or walnuts or coconuts on the beach in St. Thomas? Work at the dry cleaners or ride race colts and forget all about this? Wouldn’t it?

Yep. And those choices will always be easier. Always.

The crux of it inevitably depends upon what you can live with, and what you can’t live without. And for most artists of any ilk, living without the art is a soul-killer.

Whether to throw in the towel revolves time and again around that question Rilke posed: “Ask yourself, in the darkness of your night, must I write?” If you’re reading this column, I can pretty much wager what your answer will be. Because when we burn away all of the layers regarding our work, all the reasons why we do what we do, the very essence is: I write because I must. Way down in the core of your DNA is encoded a belief that you have something to say, which only you can put into words. No one knows your Truth the way you do; no one else can convey it. If not you, then who?

Which brings me back to our starting place. In light of how brutalizing all of this can be, how in God’s name do we get through, with at least some of our dignity, self-worth, and psyche in tact?

It all comes back to that core belief: you must believe in what you do. You know, you don’t even have to believe in yourself (although that makes the road infinitely easier). So many of the writers I know have more self doubts and flagellation than the gollum from Lord of the Rings. In fact, I often walk my writers through the process of dealing with that particular demon. And many of our greatest authors never believed in themselves, even long after publication.

Oddly, however, they believed in the work itself. And that’s where you must always return: there’s a reason I’m doing this. I might not know what it is, and it might never turn out the way I thought, the results may never appear as I envisioned, but I’m supposed to do it.

Carl Jung had a dream once. It came at a time when he was questioning everything he was doing. He was writing groundbreaking psychological work, and being ridiculed for it. His very philosophy was 180 degrees from what his teacher, Sigmund Freud, had espoused. Jung was in the midst of great self-doubt. And having trouble in his marriage. (Now, can’t we all relate to that! How often does it seem as though right in the middle of some creative crisis, trouble brews with the spouse/significant other/family members, etc.?) In his dream, he was trudging through darkness and terrible cold, a bitter wind cutting into his face, demons biting at his heels. He didn’t think he could go on. Then he felt something warm in his palm, and looked down to see a tiny flame nestled there. Upon awakening, he knew that the dream meant he was not to look back, was to do whatever it took to trudge forward, because he was the keeper of that flame.

Of course, he went on to finish and publish what revolutionized psychology as we know it. What if he had quit?

Though his faith in himself wavered, though the going was unholy and rough, he kept his belief in WHAT he was doing. He kept on keeping on.

Sometimes it takes only the slightest of sparks to keep us going. Just a hair of encouragement; just the tiniest knowing that what we’re doing is making a difference; that it counts somewhere, in the great cosmic calculator. If only to the frightened girl next door . . .

Besides, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY’s own Astrologer, Susan Miller, says 2003 will be a boom year for publishing (publishersweekly.com, 12-11). Heck, I’ll buy it. In such a climate new writers will emerge, and established ones surpass even their fondest fantasies. That spark alone can lead me through a few dark nights.

So go—go keep your own flame. Go do what only YOU can do. If not you, then who? If not now, when? Go, and make 2003 usher in the realization of all of your publishing hopes and dreams.

About Susan Mary Malone

Author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; Five Keys for Understanding MenFifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! She is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com