Hope shouldn't be a 4-letter word (and yet it is) by Laurie Faria Stolarz
The topic for this month is hope. I actually think hope is one of the very best things we have. When all seems lost, hope can be that tiny glimmer in an otherwise dark room. For this reason, hope can be fragile too, especially when the room is so dark no light can be seen.
Recently, a former creative writing student of mine sent me a series of texts. It was after midnight. I was up finishing a project, and my student was sitting in her “dark room” – so to speak.
For the sake of this story, I’ll call her Sam. Sam is a beautiful writer. She's a perfectionist with her words and doesn’t like to share them with just anyone, including me.
But she did share - with an established agent - and the feedback she got put her in that dark, dark place.
From the outside, Sam seems to have a full and fabulous life – a flexible job that enables her time to write, a loving husband, a supportive circle of friends, and helpful family members nearby…
But here was Sam, after midnight, texting me that she’d run out of hope.
She'd recently paid to have a literary agent read and critique the first fifty pages of her novel, something she’s been working on for more than five years now.
She texted me pictures of the agent’s comments. Here’s a brief sampling:
“I feel NOTHING for your main character.”
“Yes, you’ve told this to me already, but I’m still not interested.”
“Just no. No, no, no.”
“Yes, I get it already, but still nothing’s happening.”
“Your opener has nothing to do with the action here. You need to start someplace else.”
“The voice doesn’t work for me. This falls flat. I'm bored.”
Sam felt foolish for sharing her work, for hoping this agent would be so impressed with her pages that she’d ask for the entire manuscript…
She told me she’d lost hope of ever be published – of being good enough to do so.
I spent a long time talking her through, reminding her of my bumpy road to publication, as well as the stories of those I know. But, no matter how many stories I shared, I knew I couldn’t magically return that sense of hope. That would take time and reflection.
I guess my point in sharing this story is to acknowledge the fragility of hope. While it’s true that some vocations require a thicker skin, no amount of thickness would likely prepare someone for feedback that leans more toward belittling than constructive. In a time when social media creates an “environment” of spontaneous (and sometimes thoughtless) response, we need to remember that our words, however unintended, can and do have impact.
Do I think that agent should have sugar-coated or been disingenuous in her response to Sam’s work? No, but I do think feedback can and should be constructive while also encouraging. As I told Sam, one of my bestsellers was rejected over a hundred times before it finally sold. No one really knows what will hit until it actually does (unless we’re talking about the work of a celebrity and/or someone with a significant platform of followers).
Also, as someone who gives feedback quite regularly – for both students and aspiring published writers – I know that that constructive feedback should never feel soul-crushing (plus, I’m just one point-of-view).
Now, back to hope... What do I hope for the coming months and year? That I’ll continue to find meaning and purpose in what I do. I hope that I’ll get more sleep and that I’ll remember to practice kindness (including to myself). I hope to be a safe and supportive landing place for those around me, that I'll continue to maintain my health, and that I'll remember to be mindful of my place in the universe (I'm just a tiny speck, after all.)
I remember the crushing feeling when I got my first rejection letter from an agent. That was more than twenty years ago. I'm still writing and a lot more confident/comfortable in my skin. Any criticism needs to be accompanied by suggestions for how to make something better. Soul-crushing is just plain mean.ReplyDelete
I waded through over 1,000 rejections on several books before selling my first. Last year, I went on sub for a book that went nowhere. I'm going to revise and resubmit this year. There's never a dead-end on a book. Never.ReplyDelete