Recently on Facebook I shared the excitement of trying to write my first blurb (an endorsement for another author’s book that is cited on its cover). The effort invoked for me the trouble I’d had getting blurbs from women authors I knew or who had stated they’d look at the work, or who inhabited a tiny, shared topic-field with me. It was pretty vulnerable stuff, as you’ll see below. The various ways it happened felt like knives I didn’t see coming, implanted in my back.
Ensuing comments were graced by feedback from the author I blurbed, lovely support from friends, and counterpoint by a busy writer vexed by requests for endorsements. She stated she had no idea why I was upset as she counseled not to take things personally in life. I try to live my life not telling people how to feel, so I found this shallow and imperious although, I must admit, I have no grasp of her needs or experiences.
Our decisions are made from priorities we take very personally. “Busyness” as a true or cover excuse might be based on 7 possible motivations, says the author of Sloww. You owe it to yourself to check out his astute observations about why we are so busy nowadays—and how not long ago it was the abundance of Leisure that designated once as successful. As for my too-busy dissenter’s comment, I suspect that #1 is operative in her huff against other authors wanting her attention for free. (But blurbs aren’t something writers charge for; you either say yes or no to a publisher’s request for one. “Health problems,” for example, seems to be a common way to politely decline.)
It’s also cool as a cucumber to situate oneself above “taking things personally.” The implication being that pesky out of control emotions have no place in the business of writing. No one probably cares to remember how, when they were first starting out, they might have been a bundle of nerves over the reactions of others. Or they might have wallowed in feelings of rejection when they were ignored. Yes, so much easier not to take things personally once you’ve arrived.
Another angle: they might have been helped by a generous phrase from a respected expert—I was blown away when a luminary I practically idolized said this about my first book. Or in the beginning they might have marveled at the unexpected gift from writers simply sent the book out of the blue—see these gems for The Land Erotic that warmed me for weeks. My highest self knows to cherish these that were based on the writing itself, not arm-twisting or gladhanding. Then why am I fussing?
It’s such an intricate, layered problem. I could just say “meh,” and beat myself down for hyper-sensitivity. But I promise you: I write to do more than vent my individual spleen—I wish to be seen as tracking down a truth that resonates widely and helps us all grow. Bear with me.
Many are called to write and don’t for fear of criticism, rejection, indifference. My mother, whose career was English teacher/librarian, wanted to keep a journal for decades but didn’t . . . I thought. After her death, I found a few pages in the notebook I’d given her. She was already in her eighties and disgusted with a self-proclaimed “boring” life, but I cherished everything in that brief reportage—the spare handwriting, the shaky arthritic loops to the letters, even her anguish so plainly stated. I wish you could have seen the flash of joy and love in my brother’s eyes when I gave the slim volume to him.
There’s so much more to this—and it goes beyond capacity of ego-strength. Artists/writers/creatives must slog it out in competition to be noticed, considered, and engaged. Society barely values the arts, as is obvious by the star system and hence, the starving artist. Blurbs of each other’s work, as I stated in my post, create spontaneous solidarity with the aim of easing the way for others of our kind, and boost the right for all to be heard (without trying to sell courses on writing—yet another thing starving writers, who’d rather be writing, are forced to do in order not to starve).
Human beings remain stubbornly attached to the need for beauty and story that elevate and provide meaning. Now we are circling closer to what I really want to explore here. But first, a recap of the Facebook post:
Here’s the post.
“When my new book, The Land Erotic: Acres, Ecstasy, and Marriage in Midlife and Beyond was being prepped for print, my publisher reached out to authors whose names I provided to ask for a blurb (endorsement). Most were personally known to me and had even praised my writing and/or topic; a couple were luminaries in a tiny field we shared and I thought they might be curious; one charged me a hefty fee for work I didn’t ask her to do on the manuscript but did rave personally to me about the book. All of these women refused to blurb. Except for the one hired to do so, they refused to even look at the book at all, to consider its content before signaling yay or nay.
It hurt me, a lot. They were either too “busy,” didn’t know me personally, or said No by standing on a principle that mystified those who knew the book world—or they ghosted the request completely. Mentioning they were women seems like I’m falling to the trope of how we should stick together and support each other, some form of “lean in” and all that. Clearly, a bad book shouldn’t get praise; but I repeat, they wouldn’t even take a gander to weigh its merits, and each had a prior connection to me or the topic.
Coincidentally I happened on a scathing comment by the legendary Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) that said, in effect, “don’t ask me to stop everything and look at your work, I’m too busy with my own!” I thought a lot about this—women are asked to give and give and give to others, and what an affirmative move it is to rein in our boundaries and give to the self. Later I found a poem she’d written, “No to Book Blurbs” where she nails it. “I would like to be useful; God knows, as a girl/I was well taught to help and to share.” But most of the poem persistently addresses the nameless editor about how she’s too old for that now, and the sheer amount of requests for blurbs she gets these days is overwhelming.
There is a tsunami of writers out there begging to be heard—just in case you’ve been on a social-media diet and haven’t noticed. Self-pub and hybrid pub gave the finger to the haughty publishing world with a democratic burst of voices, but still, it’s a lot of voices! Let’s just say those I approached for endorsement haven’t reached the Margaret Atwood level. Some could even be called “local.” My publisher felt they were being snooty, big fishes in their rather small pond. He said that blurbing is just what authors do. Obviously, it gets their names and work out there too, even if modestly. Locally.
Then a few weeks later he emailed with this subject line. “You knew this was coming!” This: he asked me to blurb a new book that was slated for his spring list. I cringe to say that my first, visceral reaction was, “Hell no, why should I?”
It really is a truism that one treats others the way one’s been treated. We want to pass on the hurt, I guess, as if it would divest us of our pain at rejection. Maybe in some twisted way, I felt that if I acted like the Mean Girls, I could secretly be part of their club? After all, they must be such better writers than me, since I didn’t make their cut for even a quick skim of my book.
Ultimately, because the “blurb-ee” and I shared such a great writing/publishing coach and book-birther, I said Yes quickly. I also was fascinated to see how hard it might be—could I endorse the upcoming author with words true to my heart?
Giving Suzanne Eder’s concepts a close read turned out to be a labor I enjoyed. Partly because I felt like a real writer doing a real-writer thing, blurbing. But also, I could relate to the vulnerability of putting yourself way out there to ask another, “What do you think of this, is it worthy to be seen?”
Trying to cull my points of enthusiasm for Suzanne’s thoughts exercised some new muscles in mind and soul. But hey, I’m not on a mission here to paint myself holier than those who refused to blurb me. There’s a different angle on this that seems worth sharing.
I didn’t know Suzanne personally but she poured herself into her book with a relentlessly positive and meticulously crafted message, and I wished for her success. Yet the day a published copy arrived in the mail with my endorsement included among others, I finally got what this blurb thing is all about.
I love good books, period. I believe they show off the best of human vision, brilliance, and courage. To grasp that my blurb could possibly nudge a reader toward a book of worthy ideas went beyond ego inflation about my own nifty comments. It was like standing in a river of creative flow that carries all of us who write. That river cries out, “Read! Be moved! Take these words for comfort or change. Consider the holy marrow of a human being strong enough and vulnerable enough to give voice to her deepest knowings as she perceives them.”
That was an exhilaration I didn’t see coming. Only after I read my words in print praising someone else’s book could I realize how much I meant every word. It raised me above my personal hurts on the blurbing matter. Thank you, Suzanne!
Here’s my endorsement of What You Want Wants You:
“Suzanne Eder has written the thinking person’s guide to the Law of Attraction. Here is theory and practice for honoring desire as the two-way street between the One Source and ourselves. Packed with helpful nitty-gritty for “the out-picturing of our thoughts,” her new book demonstrates how to cut through the haze of “desire imposters” to perfect the question: what do I really, truly, want? She describes how to access your Expanded Self for an answer, and no years of esoteric training necessary! That Self is always with us if we open to it. What You Want Wants You is not just a sharing of useful methods to manifest on target, but a love song to the One Source who yearns—ardently, creatively—to see us receive what we want, so that it may better know itself through us. What a win-win for our lives!”
Seems that I focused on rejection at the hands of women, even going as far as to call them Mean Girls. I got great blurbs from men, and right about now some readers are wanting to admonish me that people are people regardless of gender, so quitcher bitchin! But there’s the rub—same-sex solidarity or lack thereof, even abuse, stands alone in its own hurtfulness or supportiveness. Surely our past traumas trigger current feelings, and I knew as I wrote that Facebook post that my vulnerability would never have answers to what went on in the spectrum of Meanness, but that others could relate to the feeling of being on the receiving end of it. And as with many feelings and triggers that don’t go away, there is always a grain of truth.
Women exhibit internalized oppression—much has been studied and explained about how as our opportunities have expanded, so has the treachery among us and the shit we dole out woman-to-woman. From Forbes, to the Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, the BBC, the Today show, Reddit and Quora to name only a few, everyone wants to know: why are women so nasty to each other? Especially in workplaces or work endeavors, and the making of a book implies publishing which means business, by the time you’re hoping for a blurb.
In social justice theory, internalized oppression is a concept in which an oppressed group accepts the methods and incorporates the oppressive message of the oppressing group against their own best interest.
In other words, individuals within oppressed groups turn on each other in precisely the ways that the oppressor turns on them. This dynamic is not limited to women. Here’s the influential writer and force in the early civil rights movement, James Baldwin, quoted in The Marginalian:
It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do. They think it’s important to be white and you think it’s important to be white; they think it’s a shame to be black and you think it’s a shame to be black. And you have no corroboration around you of any other sense of life.
This is a topic that deserves a longer look but I want to be careful before I dump all relevant eggs in any one basket. The point of this essay is to offer encouragement. If there is snobbery instead of solidarity, legitimate or contrived busyness, internalized oppression, or a lack of empathy (passed-on meanness) in why established authors scorn making endorsements for up and comers—let’s be honest about it. Then move on:
How does a Creative overcome the myriad subtle or blatant criticisms that may have nothing at all to do with the merit of their work?
Let’s talk about family and other early experiences. Let’s talk trolls. And Repressed Creatives. Don’t forget the ruthless critic inside your mind who is fed by these naysayers and others. What on Earth can be done to sidestep their efforts to hold you back, shut you up, steer you sidelong and send you to the grave with the holy urge to create unfulfilled?
The book I battered. Literally.
In the public library I came across Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Reward of Revealing Family. I was deep into revision of The Land Erotic and finding this anthology was a life raft that I clung to until it actually began to fall apart. I mean that I read and re-read the book until it was so beat up the library wouldn’t take it back. The fine was the cost of the book, so I bought it, sheepishly, but so glad because I have it at my elbow right now.
It wasn’t that I physically carried around, plumbed, and photocopied pages from this book to justify what and how I was writing. It was the utter relief that my worries were not unique to me. Every one of the 25 writers that contributed to the book got real about issues of others’ privacy versus their rights to their own authenticity as writers.
Let family members in on revisions or how to relate to them after publication—or keep the matter entirely off the table and suffer the consequences? There was no consensus. But no longer did I feel so alone. Nor did any of the writers vote for ruthlessness. And that has always been the rub—one writer’s ethics can still morph into a family member’s sense of being wronged.
Maybe memoirists are cursed with vivid memory recall beyond the norm. I can still relive the first time it hit me that what I wrote was not going to be the family’s cuppa tea. I was young, not yet twenty one, but I did leave home early to get married and escape from my hated small town in Kansas. I was living in California but traveled back to the grandparents’ for Christmas, a generally well-attended affair. I’d written an essay for my English class on the west coast that semester which was well received, and wanted to share it with my parents.
It was the first time I’d ever written my feelings about their installing me in a mental hospital at the age of fifteen, a full explication of which became included in my book, Lunacy Lost. The crimes that landed me there were smoking marijuana and premarital sex—considered insane in smalltown Kansas circa 1969. I also ran away from home, a scary thing for my parents that I do regret—but was it certifiable? The highways I hitchhiked were full of kids like me doing the same thing: making a statement to their families and their society, while questing for the meaning of life.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the essay. The only line I recall was opening my final paragraph with this volatile summary: “At fifteen, I was the revolution.”
I’d been highly influenced by the leftist politics in California in the early Seventies, and especially the views of psychiatric survivors’ liberation fronts. No doubt there was plenty of bombast and railing against The Establishment in my piece, but I was writing to come to terms, to support and join a movement, and to try to transform the great confusion this action on the part of my parents left in its wake.
Finishing the last page, my mother immediately looked at my dad—directly in front of me, somehow aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins elsewhere—and said, “She hates us!”
No. I was writing about empowerment and liberation and budding progressivism and how I was doing in California. And by the way, trying to bring up the subject of what you did, how come we never talk about it? Writing to you, only in part perhaps, but it wasn’t about you.
Maybe squabbling ensued, maybe I walked away. Maybe it was typical teen trouble-making, and why am I still taking it so personally? Regardless, it was my first lesson that “memoir” was risky business.
Silence is tarnished gild.
I’ve since had a few reactions to shared personal stories and portrayals of family members. They’ve ranged from sputtering rage I couldn’t put in the comments section on my blog, to a parent’s pride in my talent dampened by the immediate rejoinder that they don’t like what I write about. Then there is Pointed Indifference. Silence that is deafening. You know the type. It sets in place a lasting minefield so much more than open skirmish. Italian philosopher Carlo de Blasio writes:
Indifference hurts more than hate. . . It is a condition which does not imply an object. One is indifferent in the middle of nothing and, if one stays indifferent when someone else appears on the scene, it means that someone else is nothing. Because of all these reasons, indifference might often prove very hard to suffer although almost invisible, subtle and inconspicuous. . . . indifference is an Olympic state of superiority.
Said differently by a blogger for the World Youth Alliance:
Indifference is something that hurts those who are already suffering pain, as it is a lack of recognition to their humanity, and therefore, dignity.
In many a memoir, we are hearing from a writer who is “already suffering pain.” Most write to expose secrets about things like sexuality, addiction, estrangement, etc. They do it to heal themselves or their lineage, and to speak for others in similar straits–otherwise it’s sensationalism that only gawkers get off on.
I have a number of family members who take the position of indifference. Only one of them, I’m pretty sure, does it deliberately. It has gone on for so long, and one can see non-response as the modus in other areas of this person’s life, that I never challenge it. This person as well is “already suffering pain.” I can see their shut-down-button-up as a fear response and even though I’d like the insights of their intelligent mind, I don’t want to get into a pointless confrontation that could shatter what may be a crucial defense mechanism they need.
Another profusely shares their art freely in person and on social media, but has never, not ever, said one word about either of my books. This person and I were very close as teens and young adults though the decades pulled us farther apart than either will admit. I visited recently—art was pulled out in quantities onto the dining room table as we conversed at length about their upcoming classes and interests. I had vowed that it was finally time to bring up my concern. But lo and behold, the artist/family-member reaches for a large, coffee table sized book, and says, “Happy birthday!” Astonished, I had never felt so seen.
The book is full of portraits of women writers from Europe and America, with a multicultural section that was no nod to affirmative action, but rather, the crème de la crème to take one’s thought further. I had such a great time reading it that I couldn’t tell how much was influenced by the fact that this family member graced me with encouragement and acknowledgement in a way that was their way. It was a totally spontaneous and serendipitous act of closure.
Pay the troll and pass the repression.
I’m attempting to examine the many potholes on the road to marrying your voice to compatible—even scintillating– words on a page. If you know the potholes are there you obtain higher chances for a smoother ride.
One can’t escape internet trolls who live to squelch other’s visions, emotions, and good intentions made into print. I’ve been tempted to stop myself from posting or blogging material that might bring a random troll lurching forth to puke all over it. But then, I don’t know them, right? They can’t hurt me like apparently family can, right? Why is it that knives that come sailing out of the dark, targeting your back or your consciousness or your creativity from unknown sources, can be just as feared?
The research on trauma will tell you what you already know—scarring experiences are not just remembered, they are actually stored in the body, causing the fight-flight-or-freeze response to even the most seemingly unrelated event. But there you have it. We’re afraid of disembodied nasty voices on the internet because up close and personal, we’ve been through the drill.
Is there any hope for those of us who long to tell our stories?
Here is one way to tame the terrifying troll (and amoral inner critic in our minds). Try seeing them as Repressed Creatives who take things too far. On the psychology of trolling, here’s Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) once again in The Marginalian, talking about what a fearful little girl she was, so much so that when she saw the ocean she begged her parents to tell people not to go into the surf:
The impulse to attack others who have dared to put themselves and their art into the world springs from the same fear-seed. What is trolling after all, if not a concentrated effort to stop others from going into the surf–not because trolls try to protect the rest of the world from the perils of bad art but because they seek to protect themselves from the fear that if they dare plunge into the surf, their own art might wash up ashore lifeless.
The unthinkable manifests. I survived.
Recently I sat with a couple I’ve known for some time. That is, one half of them. We go back over thirty years. A disruption in the field of his marriage had happened because of his autobiography. His wife finally read the whole thing, especially the part about her.
B.’s purpose was dual in the writing and printing a few copies: mainly for his daughters who didn’t know him all those years they were growing up, also because he’s putting things in order in his elderhood. When he wrote about his new significant-other, he thought he pinned things accurately. Even adulatory. Turns out, he got a lot wrong and boy howdy was she pissed.
Why did she take so many years to finally dive into the book? Because my book came out, he read it, she got curious about this book-writing urge. I skirted a guilt that my work was somehow the spur for their travail. She is, B. said over and over again, an extremely private person. But his book was never marketed or intended to be, it was for his descendants. There’s something about a story made concrete in print though.
I wanted to give her a chance to vent, and to acknowledge my book may have been a slight, though accidental catalyst. She let loose.
She had plenty to say about her partner’s book then launched seamlessly into critique of mine. There’s no need for ugliness, she said in disgust, why couldn’t you have written something uplifting?
My mind first went to the land that is the subject of the book, the land in all seasons I honored and loved…”ugly?” Cognitive dissonance left me speechless. I finally replied that I thought I was writing a transformative piece whose narrator chased growth and attained hard-won truths…or something like that. I began to talk about memoir in general when she broke in, “Oh I’ve read memoir—good ones.” (In contrast to my bad book.) “Oooooooooh,” winced B., acknowledging the blow for what it was meant to be, a low one.
It happens. Someone will flat out insult your creative work to your face. “Don’t take it personally” needs revision to: have compassion for their pain and respect for their privacy in the future. But as you can see, I simply couldn’t do the latter. Why? Because if I told this anecdote with no scene-setting or enlarging detail it would be a crashing bore. Let a writer be a writer and use their tools!
At the time though, I bit my tongue in honor of friendship. I took them both out to dinner. I borrowed a vape pen and had a wild night of slam-dunk dreams. After all, a book is not your child . . . ?
I’m thinking of the Seinfeld episode where the bunch travels to the Hamptons to see some friends’ new baby. Surprised upon their first look into the crib, they withdraw with grossed-out faces unseen by the smitten mom and dad. OMG, their contorted looks proclaim, that is one ugly baby. The humor involves them dissing the newborn’s appearance on the sly while trying to be supportive of their hosts as parents. Not very funny, huh?
A book is not a baby, though all the rigors of actual birth apply. You sweat and grunt with a range of emotions, attachments, stalled labor and one heroic final push until something finally comes out whole and alive. It talks, page after page, and if ever disseminated, it walks. Then you can’t control who will see ugliness or something more benign.
No matter your intent to beautify or truth-ify, someone will be ruffled or feel the need to bite. So here is the stance I’ve finally come to, perhaps as banal as Don’t Take It Personally. Perhaps, simply a bit more focused: “It Comes With The Territory.”
If you write about your life, you’re on a quest to pull the knives out of your own back. You have legitimate conflicts to explore and expunge. Others might see your take on people and events as unnecessary criticism and assume that the field is wide open to go tit-for-tat. You initiated that, not by wielding knives yourself, but because you took the chance to say your piece. It doesn’t justify name-calling (I thought branding my book “ugly” was a bit harsh) but it could ignite a response.
In the territory known as writing one’s soul, we can only hope that we are not criticized for doing just that. But we might be called to listen to how it lands on the ears of those handled by our words who had no say in the matter.
Zoom out widely.
Go big-picture with me, because it matters, to language and humans throughout history—who gets repressed or censored at large. I’ve been reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Land, land and more land wasn’t all that was stolen. Over 200 languages of the First Nations in this country have gone extinct. There are only 2,000 speakers of Cherokee left, and most of them are over 60. High Country News reports that “for every dollar the U.S. government spent on eradicating Native languages in previous centuries, it spent less than 7 cents on revitalizing them in this one.”
I can’t help wondering how these languages, many of them orally transmitted but chocked with stories, had rules about what can be spoken and what’s too private. Could older languages make this entire discussion moot?
Ella Frances Sanders in ORION magazine ponders how many Irish Gaelic words connote “several beautiful and sometimes seemingly discordant things at once, which to an outsider is like trying to understand poems literally layered or spoken on top of one another.”
What about the natural world, she goes on to inquire—does it invite us to dialogue that we refuse to hear? Considering fluency in terms of landscape, Sanders feels a “smooth blend of dread and love. There is also the dread of not finding the right words, and of words being taken away.”
The planet is more visceral than many of our modern languages care to admit, and the languages that do admit to or search within the depths are often those that have been dried out, or glossed over, or simply dismissed.
Denying a language, and more generally, denying a person access to themselves and their thoughts, is a version of humiliation, of violence. I think about all the things that are specified as should or as should not, about the parameters of comfort and convenience that underpin so much of our lives…How we shy away from complexity, from nuance, from anything that might stretch us beyond our calculated and learned exteriors.
I would rather be fluent in tenderness than in money, and I would rather be fluent in the language of a school of fish than in the language of power. We don’t teach these languages though. We don’t talk about them nearly as much as we could. We don’t practice the vocabulary of the sea or teach children how to understand the grammar of old-growth forests.
If “privacy” is paramount for the written-about in post-industrial, civil-war threatened, decimated landscapes of the Western world, it’s possibly all an individual has left to cling to. I’m sympathetic to this plight, but would ask that we give Story more credit than that. We can’t save ourselves or a dying planet if we don’t tell the pain of the heart, if we can’t stand to hear words cry out.
It’s too big for me to fathom why some of us paint with words while others choose acrylics or espalier. Whether it’s foolhardy or courageous to take to the streets of our innermost selves—something that writing life-stories requires—time won’t tell nor will consensus emerge. If I may offer but one personal note from experience, it’s this: listen to your inborn layers of self and you’ll know when you start to feel the effects of suppression (physical, emotional, spiritual), a tip-off as to whether the moment is begging to hand over a vital truth-serum in the form of words.