Writerland, Chapter 42: Risky Business, Part II
....and so Aretha Franklin, inspired by a riff that came after many trials and interminable errors, begins to sing “I Never Loved a Man,” and the trajectory of her life and career changes, as if in an instant. She has journeyed to Rick Hall’s recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (the story unfolds here at minute 36) where she took a creative risk and found her voice.
Everyone is happy. Emphasis on everyone. Again, Aretha has company in the risk, at least on the commercial side. Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records has assumed some of the risk, as has Rick Hall. Everyone stands to benefit, but only because Aretha, aided by Hall’s wonderful session musicians, took the leap.
But the risk taking cannot stop there, not if a creative person wants her or his work to be seen, and hopefully appreciated and rewarded. Commercial risks can be just as frightening as the creative, as the question shifts from “what if I feel like I failed?” to “what if others tell me I did?”
And that, in turn, leads to questions with which every creative person must grapple: what defines success for me, and what constitutes failure? This is not a binary distinction. Success can come in stages, each of which can make a writer happy. Restless for more, perhaps. But happy enough to press on, perhaps to take on ever greater risks.
The problem with risk, of course, is that it can often lead to disappointment. Of the many obstacles on the path to finding joy in this work, perhaps the most corrosive is disappointment. Disappointment is a part of every writer’s life -- in the work we do that comes up short; and in the reaction to our work from editors, publishers, and readers. We want our work to be loved and when it’s not, when it’s rejected, dismissed, overlooked, unread, unappreciated, we take it personally. How can we not? That’s us on the page and though we try to tell ourselves that those who didn’t love it were foolish and wrong, we still wonder whether they were right.
So how to find joy in a writing life in which disappointment is inevitable? How do you allow yourself to take risks that may well end in rejection, and with it disappointment? I ask this because I believe a writing life without risks -- creative and commercial -- poses arguably the greatest risk of all: regret, which often comes too late to repair.
The difficulty in answering questions about commercial risk is that it requires a writer to perform a dramatic shift. When we’re writing we want to have lofty aspirations for our work, aspirations that can often only be achieved after failing again and again. There is nothing practical about creative risk taking. It is about dreaming big and working to make those dreams come true. And when we’re done we can lean back, look at the screen or page, and know we’ve nailed it.
We have triumphed. We cannot wait for the whole world and maybe the Nobel committee to see it.
I’m suggesting that at the very moment when you’re feeling best about your work you need to interrupt that well-earned euphoria and make that shift by asking two practical questions: Who needs to read my story? And who do I want to read it?
Freelancers ask themselves the first question all the time, especially when they’re pitching. Is this a story for publication A or publication B and how do I frame the pitch so that an editor will see the wisdom in accepting the pitch? Because when an editor says yes, they become what Jerry Wexler and Rick Hall were for Aretha: partners in risk. Just as Aretha sold Wexler and Hall on the upside of taking a risk on her potential, so too does a writer sell an editor on the possibilities of a story that can benefit that editor and publication.
It is the wise and successful freelancer who has a sense of the market, where his or her story has the greatest chance of finding a home. Success begets success and the better known a writer is – the wider their reputation for delivering on time, at length, as pitched, and without too much editing agita – the better the chances of finding more editors willing to share the risk.
The second question is harder, because it means asking yourself what, at a minimum, will make you happy about the reception of your work. I know writers who have set the loftiest aspirations for their work – prizes, recognition by editors who exist in the literary stratosphere – and who end up feeling that anything short of a monumental triumph will constitute failure. This, as they say in poker, is akin to drawing to an inside straight, a bold move that seldom ends in a winning hand.
It is hard to let go of big dreams, and I am not suggesting you do. Instead, I am suggesting that you acknowledge that dream, and begin plotting a path to get there. Because along the way lay seemingly smaller but nonetheless important and satisfying moments. Satisfying, but only if you can accept something less on the way to more.
Writers are romantics. How else to explain the madness of our work. Romantics, bless their hearts, can be disinclined to do what they consider settling because surely there can be more, and more makes the heart soar. Settling suggests compromise, which can feel like a dirty word. I wish I could tell you that you won’t have to make some – in your vision, and at times in what you want to say and how you want to say it, to better the chances of realizing your bigger dreams.
I also wish I could tell you that there will come a point in your career when you will not face rejection any more. As the Nobel Laureate novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once told an interviewer, he still got rejections except now they came through his agent.
By seeing risks as a series of steps, writers can discover that an achievement they might have initially dismissed as not grand enough brings a depth of satisfaction they could not have anticipated because they were so fixated on the big prize.
Every writer who ever showed her or his work to someone has taken a risk. With each new reader comes ever greater risk because someone at some point is not going to like what you’ve written. But each new reader, each new discovery of your work also increases the chances of gaining a companion in the risk, an ally, a fan, and perhaps an ambassador willing to tell someone else, you have to read this story.
Is it the esteemed editor you hope will see your writing?
Might it ever lead to that editor?
Perhaps. Or maybe not.
Will it matter if it never does?
Yes, but maybe not as much as it once might have. After all, you’ve been taking risks all along, and if you allow yourself to look closely, you can find pleasure and satisfaction in that step, that moment, that success even as you keep aspiring for more.