Highly Sensitive Writers and the Search for Authenticity
I was helping my twelve-year-old son with a book report on a rather quirky book he loves entitled, Hyperbole and a Half. One of the questions was: Do you think this book will stand the test of time? Will it be read and relevant in 2040? With great certainty he said, “No. I don’t think any books written after the year 2000 will stand the test of time and be read beyond 2040.”
People don’t often put much stock into kids’ opinions, especially on the posterity of current literature. But his comment struck me and resonated because I care about books, writing, and the current state of publishing. And my first traditionally published novel, Ophelia’s War: The Secret Story of a Mormon Turned Madam, will be released June 2016. I’m grateful to have found a publisher. So far the experience has been positive.
My journey with writing began long ago. In college, I chose creative writing as a minor because I believed, and still believe, that writing, particularly fiction, can bridge the gap between the conscious and subconscious mind. Publishing and writing professionally were not on my radar. Writing was a tool for healing, exploration, and processing phenomena on a deeper level. It was also discipline for my unruly mind.
Fast forward twenty-five years. My journey as a writer includes pursuing an MFA in fiction; independently publishing my first novel; stacks of stories and poems, journals, notebooks, sticky notes, articles, blog posts etc. Although I’ve spent a lot of time, energy, and money on writing and learning to write, I’m still unable to earn a living through writing.
My MFA years were filled with anxiety, fear, insecurity, and also much growth. Genuine growth is often difficult and sometimes painful. Most MFA and other types of writing programs are great at teaching craft. But they take place in a hierarchy, which delineates the published from unpublished writers. This boosts the egos of the published and reinforces the insecurity of the unpublished. What results is a desperate need for validation and an ego-driven quest to become a published writer. While much emphasis is put on craft, there is little to no emphasis on the writing journey and where this may take us beyond the illusive Holy Grail - publication.
During my post MFA years, after I self-published my first novel, I worked on finishing my second novel. I felt insecure and depressed about my self-published work. There is real and harsh judgment by the literati on writers who self-publish. However, most down-to-earth readers don’t care if you self-publish, as long as you tell a good story.
Someone actually said to me, “Self-publishing is the lowest thing a writer can do.” That was an incredibly hurtful comment. I say the lowest thing a writer can do is not write, or sit on their work for decades waiting for the establishment to accept them, and then criticize people who write and dare to put their work out in the world.
After my second manuscript was finished, I experienced anxiety about finding an agent, and submitting to publishers. People who have been through this process, or are currently going through this process, know how heart-wrenching the countless rejections are. By the way, I was unable to find an agent. Luckily, my current publisher, Five Star Gale-Cengage Learning, allows un-agented submissions.
In 2008, I attended a NYC pitch conference where we were told on the very first day (after they had our money) that we were more likely to be struck by lightning than become published authors. Writers, beware of the vulture industry feeding on your publication dreams.
We are programmed to believe a publishing contract is The Holy Grail.
A publishing contract is not the Holy Grail. It is just a ticket into another level of anxiety. You move from being an unpublished writer to a debut writer. Debut writers with forthcoming publications are so desperate for attention and publicity they’d probably stand naked in Times Square next to the Underwear Cowboy or even fake their own deaths. I’ve tried both of these tactics and no one noticed, so don’t go there.
Fear, insecurity, and anxiety about marketing often keep me from actually writing. I find myself in a paralyzed and paranoid trance about how to brand myself and build a platform. To be honest, I find both of these disingenuous terms cringe-worthy not only because of the high cheese factor, but also because of the images they conjure.
Stick a branding iron into a forge. Burn it into your flesh. The forehead is best, preferably over your third-eye. Now go stand on a platform. Since you’re a western writer, make it a gallows. That’s catchy and dramatic. A beautiful white noose descends from a clear blue sky. Slip it around your neck. Yes, that’s branding. That’s a platform. That should get some attention. Bravo!
For the record, marketing pressure is not coming from my publisher. It is the zeitgeist for authors in a sad era where there are more writers than readers. A disconnected, commodity-driven world forces writers to be inauthentic and self-centered in order to succeed. Can great literature be written in this kind of climate? Yes. Great literature comes from adversity. It doesn’t need to be coddled. Will it be published? I don’t know.
I can hear the responses. “Toughen up lady! You need a thick skin to survive in this world.” All my life, people have been saying this to me. Yet somehow, I’m still here, and my skin is actually getting thinner with age. Ironically, people who write enduring stories with resonance are often sensitive people who don’t have thick skin.
My advice to fellow writers, who are sensitive people (they’re probably the only ones still reading) is to move beyond cultural constructs of success. Publication is not the Holy Grail. Very few writers, even published, are making much money anyway.
Your authentic writing journey is what matters. Writing is the work that brings you home to a deeper life and higher consciousness. Only that will truly survive the test of time. But you probably know this. You just have to remember and keep writing.
*With acknowledgements to Drs. Elaine Aaron and Tracy Cooper. Their pioneering research and publications on Sensory Processing Sensitivity has helped me answer the life-long question, “What is wrong with me?” ~Nothing~