The Story about the Story Revisited

large__11336221185I’m in the marketing trenches now, preparing to launch Hannah, which means, strangely, that I’m reading books like Seth Godin’s All Marketers are Liars and I now actually know what The Long Tail is.  The majority of writers reading this will probably think, “Marketing?!  I’m not there yet.  I’m still in the private stages of writing.”  You’re absolutely right to protect your tender, beloved process.  I’m with Rilke when he told the young poet:

“You ask whether your verses are good… You send them to magazines.  You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts.  Now…I beg you to give up all that.  You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now.  Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody.  There is only one single way.  Go into yourself.  Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.”  –Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What has surprised me about marketing a book this time around is how often I’ve had to “go into myself” and “search the reason that bids me write” as a key part of an effective book launch.

Here’s one example.  Seth Godin says you need to wrap a story around your product; you need to sell the story.  When I launched On the Threshold, I did what publishers have always done:  I said to the world, “Here’s a collection of essays about the spiritual dimensions of making a house a home.”  I described the story.  Now I know I must create a story about the story for potential readers.  (You can see my story for Hannah below.)  Just summarizing the product isn’t effective.  So I had to “go into myself”, back to that quiet space of deep listening.  I had to identify the book’s heartbeat—it’s life force, which is also, in part, my own.  Then I had to articulate it in a way (hopefully) links it to others’ hearts.

Here’s another interesting example, again from Godin:

“If a consumer figures something out or discovers it on her own, she’s a thousand times more likely to believe it than if it’s just something you claim. … But then you have to tell a story, not give a lecture.  You have to hint at the facts, not announce them.  … The process of discovery is more powerful than being told the right answer—because of course there is no right answer, and because even if there were, the consumer wouldn’t believe you!”  –Seth Godin, All Marketers are Liars

Doesn’t this sound like the creative writing advice, “Show, don’t tell”?  And anyone with experience showing knows that it’s a process packed with surprise for the writer.  So the writer’s surprise—and personal growth—continues beyond the bounds of the book into the terrain of marketing.

I’m beginning to believe that effective outreach, be it commercial or humanitarian, begins in the heart and lands in another heart.  So the quiet, soul-searching work that happens while we draft and revise a work isn’t over when the book hits the stores.  It can continue, if we’re willing.

photo credit: Thomas Geiregger via photopin cc

A Writer’s Polar Vortex

medium_3020250442Here is one of the secret ironies of being a published author:  As you move toward launching a book, your writing life is decimated.  Those quiet, searching hours of half-starts and rambling experiments, those blessed days of research and play and discovery, those driving weeks of inspiration—as well as months of paralyzing self-doubt that this mess of words you’re accumulating will ever amount to anything—are replaced with two-hour conversations with your copyeditor about the proper formatting of ellipses and coaching sessions on how to use Pinterest to market your new book and the seemingly exciting but actually grueling work of setting up readings.

I could whine about all this, but instead I want to make a point:  It’s hard to stay balanced—it’s hard to keep writing—when you’re also publishing.  Launching a book is its own creative endeavor, as I’ve explored in earlier posts, but it is not writing.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in writing classes who don’t really want to write, they just want to be published.  I understand this; having a book in the world communicates something essential about yourself and gives that self credibility and influence.  I like creating something beautiful of my questions, memories, and imaginings and then getting a chance to be in thoughtful conversation with readers.  I really like being published.  I, too, want to be an author who participates in our culture with my work.

But what makes me a writer is not any of these recognizable successes.  What makes me a writer is that I like writing.  And right now, being an author is getting in the way of being a writer.

My attempts to stay balanced include a daily dose of journaling, and maintaining (barely—this is 11 days late!) my two blogs.  I read a bit of theology each week, which is my way of fueling my creative life.  And I hold onto the hope—I try to have faith—that my beautiful, uncomfortable, language-saturated time will return.  It will.  The writing life has its seasons.  For me now, the author side of my world is turned toward the sun and the writer side is enduring a polar vortex.  But the world is still spinning.

photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc

The Story about the Story

I’ve known for a while and repeatedly told my students that writing continues to offer us invitations to spiritual and personal growth even after we’re finished.  Publishing and publicity can become opportunities to deepen our integrity, expand our communities, and understand the world more accurately.

Of course in the mess of book production and the exhaustion of marketing, it’s easy to lose sight of this.  That’s why I keep returning to Seth Godin, who manages to stay steady, full of integrity, and intent on doing good in the world.

The idea of his I’ve been chewing on lately is that marketers do best to create a story around their product, and to connect that story with the community that most needs it and is most willing to talk about it.  We authors usually flinch when someone refers to our work as a product, but, hey—once a book is in the bookstores, that’s what it is, at least until a beloved reader cracks it open and is swept into our created world of words.  Applying Godin’s idea to books, authors and their publishers must create a story around the book, a much simpler and shorter and more compelling story than what’s told in the book, and this second story is what then interacts with potential readers in brief but crucial encounters.

In other words, we’re not done creating when we send in the final proofs.  Alone or with a publicity team, we have to create a story about the story using cover images, text, blurbs, summaries, web pages, tweets, Facebook posts…  Under normal circumstances the work of marketing makes me want to run for the hills, but framed as yet another story, I find myself curious.  How can I tell a brand new story about my novel that nonetheless points accurately and honestly to the novel’s contents?  What sort of story might not just survive but thrive in the overly crowded world of attention seekers?

I find myself needing to hunker down yet again in why I wrote Hannah, Delivered, and why I believe Hannah’s story is important right now.  Rather than straining outward to identify what audiences want, I have to ask what longings my book fulfills and then find the communities who share those longings.  I have to locate that thread of integrity that connects my heart to the heart of my book to the hearts of readers.  And then I need to give that thread a good yank.

How can this not be wrenchingly spiritual work?

How can we not emerge changed, however slightly?

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

The New Market–with thanks to Seth Godin

Because I’m gearing up to market my first novel, Hannah, Delivered, in a bit less than a year, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what it means to put creative work into the world.  Most writers I know, myself included, assume their job is to write.  Writing is where we’re creative.  Writing is what we love.  Once done, we “succeed” by landing a publisher, we’re rejected by or we reject the publishers and print it ourselves, or we contentedly or discontentedly stow the manuscript under the bed.

Because I’m gearing up to market my first novel, Hannah, Delivered, in a bit less than a year, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what it means to put creative work into the world.  Most writers I know, myself included, assume their job is to write.  Writing is where we’re creative.  Writing is what we love.  Once done, we “succeed” by landing a publisher, we’re rejected by or we reject the publishers and print it ourselves, or we contentedly or discontentedly stow the manuscript under the bed.

Seth Godin is an internet and marketing guru with a fresh understanding of how the world now works.  “Whether or not you choose to be a marketer,” he told Krista Tippett in an interview, “you are one.”  Two of Godin’s ideas are rolling around in my head, changing my attitude to my upcoming publicity push.

First, Godin is interested in ethical marketing:  “Weaving a story and weaving a tribe and weaving a network that means something.  Doing work that matters.  Because now…everyone has their own printing press.  So what are you going to put on it?”  Most of the writers I work with don’t have any problem writing a story that means something.  We put our hearts into our work.  It matters, to us and, I believe, to others.  Godin links this creative endeavor to the creative work of building a community—something few writers consider, much less do.  What if writers understood launching our books to be an extension of the creative process, only instead of creating with words we create with people?  What would it look like for a writer to build a meaningful community—an audience—around a book?

Second, Godin is interested in the depth rather than the breadth of his work’s impact.  “I’m thrilled that almost everyone I meet has no idea who I am and what I do.  Because I don’t want lots of people showing up and saying, I read this, I read this, I read this.  Can I have your autograph?  That’s not the point.  The point is will someone come up to me and say, based on what I learned from you I taught ten other people to do this, and we made something that mattered.”  In other words, Godin suggests we measure our success not by numbers or fame but by the work’s good impact on the world.

I keep thinking about a story Cheri Register tells.  At a lecture, a prominent New York agent responded to a question from the audience by saying, “There’s no market for adoption stories.  Don’t bother.”  Cheri had written for and spoken to communities of adoptive parents for years; this work had helped her build a writing career; it had been deeply gratifying for her and significant for hundreds of adoptive families.  The agent’s comment revealed only one way (the culturally accepted way) of measuring success.  I like Godin’s advocacy for another.  The internet makes these kinds of “tribes” easy to find:  “You can take someone who hangs out in the East Village…who has 27 tattoos—they go to Amsterdam, they can find someone…who talks their language and acts like them… What the internet has done is meant that we don’t have to get on a plane anymore to meet strangers who like us.”

Now I’ve yet to put these new ideas about marketing into practice.  I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.  But I take heart from Godin’s perspective.  “There’s no such thing as cultural radar anymore,” he says.  “There’s cultural radars.  The New York Times bestseller list is stupid.  They should stop publishing it.  Because it doesn’t mean anything.”  Ha!

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

The VIDA Count and Spiritual Writing

Recently, while reading yet another volume of Philip Zaleski’s Best Spiritual Writing, I grew increasingly annoyed at essay after essay of heady language about grandiose meditations and abstract ethical conundrums.  My spiritual life, lived out as I potty-train my daughter, lift canned tomatoes from a boiling bath, struggle to remain a loving member of my bickering church community—in other words, lived out in details and increments—was absent from this collection.  I thought of the hundreds of times I’ve folded my daughter’s trainer undies, printed with delicate pink roses; I hold their warm cotton to my cheek, imagine them snug on her sweet behind, and my knees go weak with adoration for this life.  Underwear can be holy, too! I wanted to shout at Zaleski.

Fortunately I’d also recently read the 2011 VIDA count (http://www.vidaweb.org/the-2011-count).  VIDA, an online organization serving women in the literary arts, takes an annual survey of how often women are published in our country’s most respected literary journals.  The statistics are not good; women simply aren’t published as much as men.  In Zaleski’s anthologies and the journals they cull from, women’s writing is downright rare.  The major literary journals that publish spiritual writing—Image Magazine, Portland Magazine, The Sun, St. Katherine Review, Riverteeth, The Other Journal—are all edited by men.  Good men, men I admire for their dedication to fine writing about the Spirit, but men with enormous blind spots nonetheless.

No wonder my spiritual life seems underrepresented.  Women’s particular experiences of holiness, shaped by bleeding and childbirth and multitasking and friendship, don’t make it into print.

This fact makes me doubly mad when I consider the population I teach.  I’ve offered spiritual memoir writing classes for almost twenty years now, and the overwhelming majority of my students have been women—eighteen women for every man, I’d estimate.  Men certainly publish work with spiritual content, so I suspect they simply don’t take classes or hire coaches.  Fine.  But what’s happening to the work by all these women?  Do women lack the resolve to push their creations beyond the private sphere?  Do they lack the time it takes to develop their skills or see a project to completion?  Or are all these women banging their heads on a glass ceiling?  Perhaps women face the double-whammy of having their literary sensibilities under-appreciated and their theological insights dismissed.

All this stewing gives fresh direction to my work.  I’m committed to supporting writers in their exploration of the sacred, whatever their gender, but now I feel fresh urgency in my support of underrepresented populations.  When our literature limits holiness to mountain-top experiences or intellectual exercises, we forget the pervasive, earthy, utterly present and thoroughly absent mystery which is God.  We need many voices to name what’s holy and sing its praise.

We need your voice.