Publishing as Training in Humility

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.                                                     (Philippians 2:3-4)

Antoine Ronzen--Lavement des piedsLast semester, I was wheedled into talking to a group of students in a course that I don’t normally teach, Intro. to Creative Writing. They were students at various levels and from a variety of majors, united only by a shared desire to be published someday, and my assignment was to talk about my own publishing career. At some point I said a bit about a book I have coming out in the spring.

“It’s called Easy Burdens,” I told them. “Or, that’s what I wanted to call it, but it ended up being called The Easy Burden of Pleasing God.”

The students murmured polite agreement that my title choice was better, but one bearded young man in a crocheted slouch hat was outraged.

“I don’t understand,” he ranted. “Why’d you let them call it by anything else?!”

“Well, they’re the marketing experts, not me. Besides, you have to understand that publishing a book is a group undertaking. Not like the writing itself, when you’re pretty much on your own. It’s like making a movie. Lots of people get involved in what it takes to get the book into readers’ hands, and each one is an expert in some part of that process.”

“I would never let somebody change my title,” he insisted.

“That was my attitude in the beginning too,” I admitted. “ I had to grow up and get a lot humbler.”

“I’ll never grow up,” he said. I called him Peter Pan, and we all laughed.

This semester, I’m overseeing a publishing practicum in which students undertake real world publishing projects. Remembering the exchange as I was making my syllabus for the practicum, I listed humility as one of the learning outcomes. (It being a Christian university, it’s okay to have spiritual as well as academic course objectives.)

For the first day of class—actually my only physical meeting with the students, since they learn exclusively by doing in this practicum—I invited a student who’d previously taken the practicum to show off the group-authored discussion guide for a new release that she’d helped write and to talk about a little about her interaction with a real publishing house.

“It was wonderful!” she gushed. “It made me know, this is what I want to do for a career.”

“Did you learn anything in the process that you think might help these students?” I asked.

“You pretty much have to do what they say,” she said right off. “I mean, they’re the ones publishing it, so what they say goes. You might have some really cool idea of how you want it to be, but they might not agree. And they will tell you so. And you have to fix it. It’s humbling.”

Sad to say, Peter Pan’s not in the practicum. He’ll have to learn humility from his own personal publishing experiences, just like the rest of us.

13 Replies to “Publishing as Training in Humility”

  1. Are you talking for both traditional and self-publishing angles? And by self-publishing, I mean where you pay $5,000 up front and sign a contract where they get 50% of the royalties, etc? I’m not published yet as a book author, but I’ve heard that it’s always a group project, especially for books and music.

  2. Dear Professor Kirk,

    I, too, realize that the writing process is entirely humbling. My publishing credits involve magazines. Sometimes my titles are changed and often editors tweak my accepted submissions. The process involves many, resulting in improved articles. Ideally, the hours I spend alone writing are balanced with expert guidance. I appreciate and welcome the help.

    Thank you for your post! Humility certainly is learned.

    I look forward to checking out your books.

    Heather Villa

    1. Hi Heather,
      Yes, magazine publishing is even more humbling than book publishing, I’ve found–given magazine editors’ preoccupation with number of words. While cutting is, for me, part and parcel of revising anything I write, allowing someone else to cut my already slimmed down writing is nothing short of excruciating–and, of course, humbling, especially when I find, as I often do despite my resistance, that their suggestions are good ones.

  3. Oh, poor Peter Pan. I don’t envy him. My own life lessons in humility were painful … and absolutely necessary!!! My first rejection from an agent gave me a B- for my efforts. At first, I didn’t understand. Now, I see the agents was being very generous. I hope my writing displays more of what I’ve learned about the craft since then. But I also know there is so much more to learn! Great post!!!

    1. Hi Connie,
      Here’s to the learning process! Everything I write–and every course I teach–ends up teaching me new things I didn’t know about writing.

    1. You’re welcome, Melinda.
      I’m not sure which metaphor, a crucible or a mortar and pestle, better describes how I feel–and how I know my poor students often feel–when someone rips into my writing. Humbled seems to tame a word for it.

  4. Patti—I always love your posts. You are SOOO right about this, how humbling it all is to submit ourselves to a process that can be frustrating, and to have our golden words discovered to be dross in some places . … Thanks for telling the truth and helping us all move forward!

    1. Glad you liked it, Leslie. As the Spirit would have it, I was just typing your name into my cv at the moment you posted this.

  5. Perfect timing on this post for me, Patti. I’ve been struggling over a book title, and it had me at an impasse. Thanks for the reminder to to let it go (for now) and keep writing! They’ll probably change it anyway, right? Ha!

  6. Thanks for the information on getting published. I’m well into my first novel and it’s exciting (and scary) to think about the process. But I’ll keep what you said at the forefront and plunge on.

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