Thick Skin, Tender Heart

Dear Lisa,

Last week I received the revision letter for a novel that will be published in 2016. The notes are far more extensive than I expected. As I scrolled through initially I panicked. It seemed too much to absorb, much less process and apply myself to. This is work I thought I had finished. I’d moved on to different work. I was proud that I’d moved on, that I’d not taken my usual three years to waffle around and wonder if I really wanted to be a writer, which for me is always just a sign of depression and disappointment. It’s not that depression and disappointment were not there for me this time around; it’s just that I chose to work anyway.

The revisions were supposed to have arrived at the first of the year, and I’d cleared my calendar of extra events. I planned to make January through April a devotion to revision, even though I didn’t think it would take that long. I prepared. I feathered my nest, and while I waited I worked on the new novel, managing to start it three separate times without completing even one draft, something I warn my students against, but that I felt was necessary to this work. Finally on the third first draft, I felt the new story jelling under my fingers, the way bread dough starts coming together as you knead it. I was onto something. I’d found the language for this novel that the characters and I could agree on. I’d fallen in love.

And then my past love showed up in the form of the extensive, shocking, melt-down-creating revision letter of the novel I considered only needing a tweak here and there. As I have said, it seemed too much, too insurmountable, a Mount Everest of work requiring oxygen tanks and base camps and strange food cooked on strange little stoves. Before I’d even begun, I wanted a helicopter lift out.

I have picked myself up now and stopped crying. I have stepped back, bucked up, read through all my editor’s comments, had a reassuring talk with her, and gained a better understanding of what it is that she is after.

What it is that she is after requires deeper research. I love research. I was involved in research for the current novel. At first I thought I could juggle two stories and the research required for both the current novel and the under-contract novel. Now I know I can’t. It’s too much to ask of myself. I can’t live in post Civil War Texas and learn about the lives of lesbians in the 1960s at the same time. I don’t have that kind of skill.

It’s one reason that school was such a struggle for me. There were too many subjects, too much shifting of gears, each teacher hammering on her subject like it was the only nail in the cross. In tenth grade I started self-medicating. In eleventh grade I started skipping school. Say what you will about these things, but I believe that both saved my life in their own ways.

Now I am sixty years old. I no longer skip school or self-medicate. Instead I write and read and work for myself so that I am the master of my time as much as possible. And I am published author with a contract for a next book, and this has placed me here, on the shores of revision and focus and having to shift gears whether I want to or not. But I’ve learned some skills, good ones, for dealing with this. I know it’s okay, and even expected to have that initial melt down. I know about picking myself back up and assessing the work to be done. I know about pulling back, becoming unemotional, and getting a tough skin.

Over and over again I hear that writers must have a tough skin, that we must be superhuman in dealing with critiques and reviews and criticism. One of my students pointed out to me that she did not know of any other career in which one had to navigate so many other people’s opinions on your work. I think she might be right, although I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had any other “career.”

There are two things I tell my students when they balk at my comments on their manuscripts: a) This is the work of writing fiction and b) It’s your story. You make the decisions. These are the exact things my editor told me. I am sure that she realized that I knew them already, and that I only needed to be reminded of them, but every writer needs to be soothed now and then.

I think the work of writing does require a thick skin, but also a tender heart. Without the tender heart we can’t have empathy, and without empathy we are merely puppet masters moving our characters around according to our own whims and not their needs and the needs of the story. There are writers who have built careers on this approach. I am not one of them. I don’t go under contract for work that I have not even done yet. I only go under contract when I have the bulk of a book written, when I feel I have done my best with the resources I have. Being under contract does not let me feel that I have the time to get quiet and listen to the voices of characters and story, that I have the time to search for all the puzzle pieces, to write the story the characters want, and not the story the publishing house thinks it wants.

I think this speaks to what you said about being proud of the work you’ve done. That’s what I want to feel, and do feel. My books aren’t perfect. There’s no such thing as a perfect book, and when I look back on my early published work, I see things that I would do differently now. Looking at my earlier work is like viewing the pencil marks in a doorway that mark the growth of a child who’s moved on. There’s a nostalgia wistfulness to visiting my old stories and characters. I remember how much I loved them when we did our work together, where I lived at the time, the little incidents that led to the names of things. In Life Without Water the commune Two Moons got its name from the winding road I lived on at the time. In Home Across the Road the name Abolene came from a dream I had. In The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson the sugar plantation Sweetmore got its name from misspeaking when I meant to tell my husband to have more sweet dreams and instead said sweet more dreams.

Which brings me to play, and the value of it, the need for it, the way that play and moodling time, down time, dreaming time, dreams themselves feed the work of writing. In the making of art one must listen to the subconscious. One must make a bed for the muse. One must not panic. One must learn to quiet oneself and listen for hints and clues about the work. When I am immersed in a work, I take these hints and clues and serendipitous moments as a nod from the greater world of story, from the collective consciousness, from the characters themselves that we are on the right path. They’re like little valentines from a lover dropped across my path.

I must focus hard now, hunker down with revisions and notes and research. Today I cancelled a lunch date, and then I realized that I’m not going to be having one-on-one lunch dates or tea dates until I’ve turned the manuscript in. I’ve got to hunker down. I’ve got to focus. I’ve got to concentrate my energies. But I will never give up play.

A new friend asked me out for tea. I suggested instead that we go swimming in the quarry. She’s agreed. We have a date – it’s not until July – but there it is, shimmering like an oasis on the pages of my calendar. It’s coming, and meanwhile I will work and continue to walk down by the river. The geese have goslings now. I know where the kingfisher’s hole is. I’m pretty sure the beaver’s lodge is on the other side of that island. I’ve found a way to cross the river.

Travel safely this summer – Nancy




This entry was posted in Completing a novel, creativity, critique, Day by day, depression, Drafts, editors, Energy, fiction, Play, Process, Publishing, research, Revision, Starting a new work, Story, The Muse, Uncategorized, what artists need and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Thick Skin, Tender Heart

  1. Ruth Knox says:

    I wish you well on your journey. Don’t forget to come up for air.

  2. Great advice. Like you, I too received extensive notes from an editor of a presumably soon-to-be-published novel for a small press. The letter nearly did me in, and it took enormous amounts of inner strength to keep my sanity and proceed the best way I knew how.
    In my case, I ended up reading the notes and re-writing the entire novel from memory, only to have this version equally, and extensively, annotated by the editors.
    Finally, going over a version the publisher and editors felt was right for them I came to the conclusion (one that I’d freely provided to my writing students) in the end a writer must make the ultimate decision(s) and I decided to not proceed. I asked that my contract with them be void; they agreed.
    I could risk embarrassment, and some temporary disappointment, but I could not destroy my values and creative needs as a writer.
    It was with tough skin I’d submitted the work and with tough skin I’d undergone several rounds of revisions.
    It was my tender heart in the end allowing me to be at peace with the writer I am, not the one others would have me to be.
    Thanks so much for this letter. It felt as if mailed to me personally.
    In July, I’ll remember to float on some water.

    • admin says:

      Hi Anthony – It took incredible strength for you to turn down a publishing deal. It’s so difficult these days to even get one – but I so agree with you. The finished novel has to feel right to the writer. We are the ones that step out into the public arena with this work. We take the heat and we take the reviews (positive and negative) and we field the questions. I’ve always been the writer I want to be, and have sometimes been frustrated with how that has not panned out to mean a fat bank account, and a hired assistant (or even living in something I don’t rent), but I understand now more than ever how important it is to me to feel good about my published work.

      Thank you so much for writing and sharing. You uplifted me as well. Nancy

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