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My daughter and I watched THE KING’S SPEECH the other day. I’d seen it before, but the story captured me all over again. In the film, the Duke of York’s stutter seemed to be a physical manifestation of the desire to hide. No idea if that is accurate or not, medically speaking. It struck me as a powerful metaphor.
[Spoiler alert!] Why would swearing be unaffected by a stutter? I’m guessing it’s because when you swear, you aren’t trying to please anyone anymore. Someone or some situation has pushed you past everything that hems you in.
We are wonderfully made and yet disaster lurks in each one of us. THE KING’S SPEECH made me feel yet again that life is about facing up to our own weaknesses and challenges. Each of us have slightly different ones, but the ones that are unique and personal to us are the ones that lock up our greatest potential. We have the potential to become experts in those particular challenges.
Another example of this kind of courage brought tears to my eyes. The strange syndrome of Tourette’s syndrome makes some sufferers spout obscenities against their will, a vocal manifestation of an uncontrollable muscle tic. THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN gave an amazing talk at the Hartford Public Library about his personal experience with Tourette’s. It seems so mundane to find meaning in our current circumstances, but it makes some sense. Unlike an author, we can’t change our point-of-view character completely. Empathy can only take us so far.
So many of my husband’s relatives are struggling with serious chronic illness right now. When I worked in the health department, I worked conscientiously to help other people improve their health, to “solve” other people’s weaknesses and challenges. Does this work?
The most helpful health department project I evaluated during my time there was a project on breastfeeding. The breastfeeding project was both scientific and personal to me and to the others who worked on it. I applied my personal experience with two children as well as my epidemiology training. The project was effective at increasing rates of breastfeeding without formula supplementation because we applied our own experiences as well as our professional knowledge. Creativity takes all the skill and talent we have.
To really help other people, we need expert knowledge. Writers have to find resonant weaknesses in ourselves to draw a believable villain or a flawed hero in a novel. We need the same kind of imaginative vulnerability to apply knowledge to other challenges in our lives.
Pitches and promises that align the story, the agent, the publisher, the reader and ourselves will make our work visible. Last year, I participated in some writing contests for queries and for pitches and for the first 250 words and 5-page excerpts. Agent feedback surprised me:
“If you use a comp title I love, I will request more, BUT you are more likely to disappoint me, unless you can DELIVER at the level of that comp title. A hook, a comp title, a pitch: these are all promises.”
Alignment seems to be the key to becoming visible. When I write a short story, revision is about combing the story from front to back, looking for unity and reinforcing it when I find it. Making metaphors match word choice match internal character change match story problem. The same process happens in a longer book on a slightly different scale.
“Be yourself,” someone told me when I was writing a query the other day. “It’s the only way to get the right agent.”
The trouble is: we are all writers of fiction. There are so many characters inside us to choose from. How do we choose the one we will still be in 10 years?
It’s not possible. The “marriage” with an agent will have to grow as we do. So, we choose one of the people we are now. Paul Tournier’s THE MEANING OF PERSONS writes about the different personas we all are capable of assuming. This is not lying. How many children know their parents as their peers do? Or vice versa?
So, the process to find the agent who can connect to the publisher who can connect to our ideal readers is not that different from the process we use to create and refine and align our work with itself. I think people used to call this integrity. It might be less intimidating to think of it as alignment. We will certainly fail. We will certainly present ourselves in ways that we regret or that will be misunderstood or both. This is the risk of art.
We can choose to be visible, but we can’t choose to be partially visible. I recently visited the picture book museum in Troisdorf and admired the wonderful paintings of the illustrator, Janosch. A beautifully imagined city street with cobblestones and lampposts and windows that rang delightfully true. Our tour guide pulled another sketch out of her bag that was much more controversial and—dare I say?—ugly. It revealed a side of Janosch’s character that was off-putting and it did it clearly.
If we try to cover up the ugly parts of ourselves, we become cloudy and confuse people. An artist’s talent is about communication and a good artist—like a good teacher—shows his or her quirks because it is unavoidable. In high school, my friends and I used to say that the best teachers were all a little odd. This is because excellence doesn’t come in beige.
This is why we hide, even though it is fruitless. The things that hurt us and keep us from growing are under wraps. If we let them out into the light, we may not conquer them at once. We can recognize them when they ambush us. We can call them by name. We can ask for help. And the people we are asking will be able to hear us because we are not hiding.
If we want to get something across, we have to become visible and risk showing what everyone else probably already knows about us. We think our foibles are hidden, but every child knows what his or her parents can’t quite do. Every spouse knows their partner’s blind spots.
Spending so much time with our work can blind us to its strengths. Alignment might help us find them again. Tracing the chain of related character motivations, images, plot points and our own original inspiration might make the strengths visible to us, and to agents, publishers, and readers. It’s re-vision–a process we all know well–only a little more challenging because we have to re-see ourselves as well as the work.
So what does this philosophy have to do with finding a publisher? It’s the same problem we have when we write a novel. First we set readers’ expectations with the opening hook. Then, after an enjoyable ride, we keep our original promise.
These common questions are about finding connection points for the agent, publisher and reader:
• Why did you write this book?
• Why are you the best person to write this book?
• What inside of you drew you to this topic, this story problem, this main character?
[Thanks to the amazing literary agent, Marietta Zacker, for this insight!]
The connection points must be true of our story. Imagination is a way of knowing, but it needs a corrective. The things we dream at night don’t necessarily work in the world we live in during the day.
There is no one right way to describe a story. It is like choosing the scale for a map or unraveling the threads in a Turkish carpet. There are probably many solutions that work. I’m guessing that the ones that work best have resonance and unity. But maybe the contrast of dissonance makes it richer. We’re back in vulnerability territory.