Of Making Many Books There Is No End, Dear Me . . .

Last month I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference & Book Fair in Boston. With over 11,000 writers in attendance, over 500 readings and sessions on everything from teaching creative writing to getting published, and over 650 exhibitors at the book fair, the AWP is easily the biggest literary conference in North America.

This is the third year I’ve attended. I bring home lots of book fair goodies for my students—writing contest announcements, literary magazine samples, little notebooks and buttons and koozies and USBs with literary slogans on them—and I always learn lots about both teaching writing and the business of writing.

Nevertheless, by day two of the four-day conference—though I’m still looking forward to the panel sessions and readings I’ve highlighted in my AWP planner—I’m impatient for it to be over with. It’s not just my usual introverted person’s conference malaise. It’s the feeling I have every time I enter Barnes & Noble, only 11,000+ times worse. Being in the company of that many fellow writers makes me feel so hopeless.

So many authors. So many books. Sleeping_at_the_bookshop_cropWho in the world will ever read all of them? I ask myself. And even in the privacy of my own mind, I don’t allow myself to ask the logical next question: What can I add to the billions of books already on the shelves, the eleven-thou-drillions of books yet to be published? And why bother?

Whenever I am overcome with one of these fits of writerly despair, I reluctantly remember the Wise Teacher’s remark at the end of his book of the Bible: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 NRSV). The passage is often preached as a disparagement of all writing but the Bible. As the Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible explains, the “many books” in question are books “of mere human composition . . . as opposed to . . . these inspired writings,” and it is the study of these “mere human books” which “wearies the body, without profiting the soul.” What could be more discouraging to a Christian writer?

In any case, in hope of uncovering some trace of writerly optimism in the Teacher’s words, I went to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the passage. Here it is in context:

Besides being wise himself, the Quester also taught others knowledge. He weighed, examined, and arranged many proverbs. The Quester did his best to find the right words and write the plain truth.

The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.
They are given by God, the one Shepherd.

But regarding anything beyond this, dear friend, go easy. There’s no end to the publishing of books, and constant study wears you out so you’re no good for anything else. The last and final word is this:

Fear God.
Do what he tells you.

And that’s it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it’s good or evil.
(Ecclesiastes 9-14 )

The Teacher—or, the Quester, as Peterson calls him—starts out by describing to his “dear friend” his own writing process: a weighing and examining and arranging not unlike the “orderly account” based on “investigating everything carefully” that Luke tells his own dear friend was his method in writing his gospel (Luke 1:3 NRSV).

Like any good writer, the Teacher seeks to tell the plain truth in just the right words. That, in any case, is what I keep telling my writing students should be their goal as writers.

Beyond that, the Teacher seems to be saying in Peterson’s version, don’t stress about it. Just strive to do what God wants you to do and trust that God will make of it what he wants.

And that, today, is my comfort as a writer, and my prayer: that my hidden intents will be found worthy and that God will make of my efforts what he will.

7 Writing Revelations (and a Couple of Prophecies): What Blogging Daily throughout Lent Is Teaching Me about Writing

Patty pictures 026 - Copy

Having published five books and taught writing for more years than I want to tot up at this moment, I had no idea I had so much to learn about writing until I undertook, for Lent, to post daily to my blog about following God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:7, which is about talking about scripture all the time: when you lie down and get up, when you walk down the road and when you sit in front of the computer.

It’s been tough going some days. One night, nigh on midnight, my brother—who has correspondingly committed to responding to my daily posts—sent me an email reminding me that I still hadn’t posted that day. Mostly, though, blogging about the Bible daily has proved a blessed Lenten entertainment—much more fun than giving something up—and taught me much about writing discipline.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  1. It is possible to write daily.

Or, so far it is, anyway. Previously I had doubted this.

I had the same revelation once about dieting and lost thirty pounds. The sad news is that, as with most of my spiritual revelations, I forgot what I had learned and gained a lot of it back.

(Note to self: After Lent, instead of blogging daily, you need to track what you eat.)

  1. One key to discipline in writing is writing on a set schedule.

I’ve found I have the best chance of getting my blogwork done if I do it first thing in the morning, before the day has the chance to talk me out of it. It’s the same way with my running: I either do it in the morning or I don’t do it at all. Similarly as with my twenty-one miles per week running commitment, the once-a-day blogging mandate has a sort of built-in incentive: incremental progress toward success. When I get done with my day’s post or run, accomplishment surges through my veins and arteries. Yes! I tell myself.

  1. Daily writing is easier if you follow a chronology of some sort.

This is by no means the first time I have tried to force myself to blog regularly, though in the past my goal has been to blog not daily but only (blush) weekly. I have never gotten very far with it. Even with a clear topical focus (which helps), eventually I just lose a sense of forward movement and stop.

This time around, though, I have not only a topic but a predetermined chronology: Jesus’ biographical development as presented in the four accounts of it in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I started—following a more occasional trajectory—back at Christmastime. Something about there being a passage of time in the material I’m reading and responding to flings me forward, I think, by providing me with an unknown element to look forward to. I wake up in the morning curious about what’s going to happen next in Jesus’ life—and how thinking about it might play out in mine.

  1. Blogging is work.

As pleasurable as it has been to read and think about and respond to scripture every morning, not very long after I committed to daily blogging I started to think of it as work. As, that is, something I was supposed to accomplish by the end of the day. A duty. At times a burden. And always, potentially, an additional stressor I don’t need in my life. This is a reality that I can’t afford to ignore.

  1. Time devoted to blogwork takes away from time devoted to other writing.

As with all work, every minute I spend blogging is a minute I’m not working on my other writing projects. This is another reality I can’t afford to ignore.

One of these days publishers will discover how blogging saps writing—or, that is, they will admit it to be true, having tried regular blogging themselves—and they will, I’m certain, start discouraging their authors from regular blogwork. (I am prophesying here.)

Before that happens, however, publishers may cease to exist. (Another prophecy.)

  1. Habitual blogwork on something different from your main writing project can help your creativity.

While blogging has cost me time I need for the novel I’m working on, allowing myself to concentrate on something else for a portion of my designated writing days has also unstopped the writer’s block I tend to have when writing fiction. This is partly so, I think, because I am, in essence, transferring some of the duty and burden of regular writing onto the blog and off of my novel, making the latter more of a place to just have fun.

It is important to note, too, that creativity studies consistently show that turning one’s attention to something else—something unrelated—invariably nurtures creativity.

  1. Having a dependable and responsive reader—or better yet, readers!—is a wonderful incentive to keep the words coming.

As I said at the start, when I committed to read scripture and blog about it daily, my brother committed to read and respond to what I wrote. Not only have these responses proved a lovely opportunity to interact daily with a faraway loved one, but my brother’s insights have grown me. Often, in fact, his responses have triggered the next day’s post. Best of all, we talk to each other daily about scripture, which was the goal of my blog in the first place: to be in conversation with others about scripture all the time.

I’m certain there are more things I will learn from my daily blogging commitment—and probably more things that I have learned already—but seven’s a good number, so I’ll let this be enough for now. I need to get on to daily blogging—and, after that, the novel!

So for now, happy Lent!

Getting Better—As a Writer and As a Person

I am trying to teach the students in my novel workshop how to read as writers. The goal is to learn how novelists do their craft—how they integrate exposition into a scene, how they move in and out of the foundational tense into others, how they make us believe in a character, how they get us interested in a conversations, what they include, what they leave out.

DIN_CR~2“Pay attention to what’s working, some specific thing you like, and then try to articulate that as a more broadly applicable strategy toward some narrative end,” I keep telling them.

It’s slow going. My students can identify what they like, but they struggle to see whatever it is outside the context of that particular novel. Or, as the literary critics they’ve been trained to be in their other English courses, they notice symbols or metaphors or some unusual word and then write in their reading journals, “I want to use more symbols in my writing” or “I want to use more impressive diction,” and I am so seized up in apprehension of the heavy-handed artsyness of their next chapters that I dread reading them.

Every once in a while, though, one or the other of them has an electrifying insight, and everyone sees it and gets it and wants to do whatever it is, and my fears about being a terrible teacher are becalmed.

In class yesterday, we talked about one such insight that Sarah wrote in her reading journal: “STRATEGY: Don’t drag characters from point A to point B. Have changes take time. Have them want to do one thing but back out at the last second. Make them change their mind and turn back around to go right back to where they started.”

“Wow! What a good observation!” I said in class. “Why is a slow change, two steps forward and three steps backward, so much more effective in fiction than an instantaneous change, do you think?”

“Because it’s more believable,” one student offered.

“But why?”

“Because it’s how we change in real life,” someone else said.

That’s certainly how it’s been throughout my spiritual life. Reading scripture or having a conversation or listening in church, I’m confronted with some failing of mine and see, very clearly, how I might address it, and I’m resolved—no, genuinely eager—to take action and become a better person. Two steps forward. Then, months or sometimes weeks or only days later, I find myself failing in precisely the same way, having forgotten all my eager plans for improvement.

Or, I’m looking something up in my Bible—the same old, falling-apart one I read for the first time twenty years ago—and I come upon an emphatically underlined passage and a note from me to me scribbled in the margin in the excitement of some forgotten moment of revelation. I knew once exactly how to fix me, evidently, but then, just, never did.

As Paul complains, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15 NIV). It upsets him—and I share his anguish—so much that he repeats it again and again. “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18), he wails. “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).

Thank God for Jesus, and that’s Paul’s point here.

But there is another hope I want to consider today, and it is this: Change—however slow, however miniscule, however hesitant and hobbled by failure—does happen. Because of Jesus, we are, as Paul also promises, “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Strategy by strategy, attempt by attempt, failure by failure—so gradually that we ourselves may not even notice—we believers in the One God Sent are advancing, with ever-increasing glory, into the perfect people we all want to be.

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.

Concreteness and the Gospel of Christmas

Toward the end of the semester in a Writing from Faith course that I regularly teach at my Christian university, a first year student voiced a revelation.

Manger, Meggido, 850 BCE, photo: Darko Tepert Donatus
Manger, Meggido, 850 BCE, photo: D. T. Donatus

“Until now,” she told us, “I’ve always thought, when teachers said ‘Be concrete,’ that I should use more adjectives. Now I see that it means I need to make people see what I saw and hear what I heard and smell what I smelled. Using your senses to reconstruct an experience helps people believe and care about what you’re saying.”

She was responding to a fellow student’s personal psalm about her fear that, her missionary family being in far off Costa Rica, she wouldn’t get to go home for the holidays. In the poem, the student-psalmist stares at the computer screen while, just beyond the thin walls, her dormmates’ are goofing around and chattering about their holiday plans. The poet recounts the family traditions she’ll be missing: getting ornaments out of dusty boxes, drinking hot chocolate with her siblings while Dad reads them all Christmas stories, holding hands to pray over the traditional dinner of arroz con pollo.

We all teared up as she read, and, when she finished, the whole class started scheming about collectively raising the money for her plane ticket. Within minutes of hearing that psalm, they were organizing a new ministry to do the same for every needy MK—as missionary kids are called—on campus.

It was a big moment for me, pedagogically speaking. Not only had one of their writings spurred them to action, but they were finally starting to understand the importance of concreteness instead of just thinking it another feat of dubious value that their teachers and now I demanded of them in lieu of explaining. The power of sensory data to persuade was a creative strategy I’d been trying to convince them all of from day one. I lectured about it, pointed out concreteness in whatever we were reading, and highlighted in yellow and commended instances of concreteness in their own writing. It’s a simple concept, but somehow even advanced creative writing students struggle to grasp it.

“But it’s so easy,” I coaxed. “All you have to do is appeal to our senses!”

Jesus, St. Martin-in-the-Fields portico, photographer Richard Croft
Jesus, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, photo: R. Croft

Christmas is such a sensory holiday. Carols. Pine smells. Fruitcakes and sugar cookies. Snow. The sheer concreteness of Christmas crystallizes the joy-inspiring gospel it celebrates: that our invisible Creator sent us concrete evidence, in the form of his newborn Son, so that we might believe and have eternal life.If we can get, in our minds, to that baby in that feed-trough out in that barn—if we can really believe that good news—we have accomplished what Jesus will later say is the only work of God expected of us: to believe in the one he has sent.

The Holy Work of Writing

Every year I host a faculty essay reading at my university for our collective entertainment. At the beginning of the semester, I choose and cajole a dozen colleagues from across the curriculum to write personal essays on a shared subject. Then, sometime around Thanksgiving, I invite the rest of the campus to come hear them read the resulting essays aloud. It’s always a fun evening, everyone feeling proud afterward of what they accomplished.

Though the selected essayists have composed entire dissertations of scholarly writing, most have never set out to write for entertainment alone, so getting them to do it necessitates pep talks from me along the way as well as a fair amount of collaborative back-and-forthing between them and the trusted readers I encourage them to seek out. When they report to me on how it’s going and, afterward, on how it went, my colleagues are bashful and sincere and loveably modest as at no other time in my interaction with them.

“I got my daughter—she’s in high school—to read through it and make sure it made sense,” a grizzled professor of engineering tells me.

Another tells me how, in the course of writing about a Picasso painting her autistic son loved but she didn’t, she kept asking him questions and managed, through these exchanges, to get a rare glimpse of the world from his perspective.

Yet another colleague makes an appointment with me after the reading to work on improving his essay even more. He takes away from our discussion an argumentation skill that he is still bringing up in meetings years later: that you can’t convince someone of a truth unless you show it.

That’s the part of the event I like the most—my colleagues’ accounts of the process of composition. It’s so thrilling to watch seasoned writers grow into better writers through the humbling practice of sharpening iron on iron. Hearing the essays read aloud—every one of them so good!—and then witnessing the enthusiasm with which their audience applauds their achievement—yes, very good!—confirms what I am always telling my students: that, we humans having been made in the image of our creative God, our practice of creativity is as holy as the exercise of any of God’s other traits. And as pleasurable.

It often makes me feel a little guilty that my work, both as a teacher of writing and as a writer myself, is so enjoyable. It hardly seems like work at all, much less holy work, as I have come to think of it. But when we write well—when, through our words on a page, we interest and engage an audience in what is true and lovely and admirable and excellent—we are performing the work of God.

When asked what God’s work is, Jesus says, “to believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29). Writing, and teaching others to write, helps me to believe ever more confidently in the One God Sent—through whom, says John, “all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3 NIV). Good writing recreates, in words, what has been made through the Word and offers it up to others for their contemplation and enjoyment. What work could be more sacred?

Reflection on the Writing of Books

After a conversation with a Catholic friend the other day, I got to thinking about the nature of revelation. My friend and I believe the same exact good news—that God orchestrated his son’s human birth and death and coming back to life so that we humans could live forever—but we come to it so differently: my friend through tradition mainly, beliefs passed down and solidified over the centuries since Jesus’ time, and I mainly on the basis of what Jesus’ friends and their followers wrote down long after he left them.

If my friend and I were to argue the superiority of our respective views—which we do not, being content to share the essence of our faith, if not the minutiae of how we came to embrace it in the first place—we would soon reach an argumentative impasse. My friend’s sources are certainly older, since the passing down was already happening when Jesus still walked among us and words still dropped from his tongue and people around him were still being amazed by the miracles he performed in their midst. I would argue that, while my sources are centuries younger, they were surely more authoritative for having been written down rather than left to a millennia-long game of telephone, in which the message changes, often comically, every time it’s passed from mouth to ear. He would surely counter that mindless adherence to an ancient book produces its own, often comical, misunderstandings about God, and I would have to agree. And so it would go. If, that is, we lowered ourselves and risked our friendship to argue in this way. But, as I say, we don’t.

It struck me in thinking about this non-argument, though, how crucial a role words and books do play in my faith—even though, as the apostle Paul rightly asserts, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20 NIV). Even small children, incapable of reading, can know God—as I did when I was little—just as non-literate believers have throughout the centuries.

Faith, in other words, does not have to depend on written words. And yet, for many of us—for me—it does. Or, perhaps not faith itself but faith growth.

And although my friend might argue that my dependence on specific words and passages of scripture surely limits my capacity to believe, I am confident that, in the main, the Bible enlarges my faith, challenging me to see and hear and inhabit the world differently than is my wont and to recognize God in it more readily. So, too, do other books. Something about words, written down, demands reflection.

A melamed (teacher) and his students in 19th century Podolia

So, it seems to me, we writers of books have a significant role to play in the furthering and nurturing of faith. And, though God is bigger than anything we or the biblical writers of old can convey, bigger indeed than the Bible itself, we have a rare responsibility. We govern unseen cities already, through our words, and tutor the very children of God.

What a Good Book!

A real page turner by carterse

As a writer, I find the Bible such an inspiring book. Truly it is The Book, which is, incidentally, the actual meaning of the word Bible. Not just the Good Book, as many call it, but the Best Book: an anthology of diverse writings by diverse authors, each unique, yet all identical in their devotion to the Book’s Author and Subject.

Okay. I’m done capitalizing.

All this to say I consider the Good Book a model for all good books.

First off, it’s always interesting. Because, as I preach to the would-be writers who are my students, it’s always concrete.

Manna, for example, is not just some vague nourishment left to our imagination. Rather, it looked like “thin flakes like frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:15), “like resin” (Numbers 11:7), and “tasted like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31) and “like coriander seed” and “like something made with olive oil” (Numbers 11:7-8). I get hungry whenever I read these passages.

Gathered the next day—in disobedience to God’s instruction—these delicious-sounding coriander honey wafers got “full of maggots and began to smell” (Exodus 16:20).

Ew! It’s no wonder that, prone as the Israelites were (as we all are) to disobedience, they disdained the gift of manna, yearning instead for the “fish…cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” they had eaten “in Egypt at no cost” (Numbers 11:5). They preferred, that is, the foods they’d enjoyed back when they were slaves and likely had to content themselves with refuse leftover from such culinary delights enjoyed by their masters, as slaves have had to do throughout history. Old fish. Yellow overripe cucumbers. Melons and onions and other vegetables long past their prime. Given such details, the story of those Israelites’ appetites and hungers is so convincing and real, so relevant millennia later.

Unlike many lesser books, the Bible constrains itself neither to one genre— its generous pages embrace poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—nor even to one approach to any genre. Take my own field of nonfiction, for example, which appears throughout both Testaments as histories, arguments, reflections, topical essays, genealogies, lists. The Bible blends these nonfiction subgenres and others, weaving them in and out of prose into poetry, in and out of actuality into invention. In addition to the Bible’s many strictly factual chronicles of otherwise forgotten times, it offers gripping retellings of the same events from new, startlingly intimate perspectives, a narrative strategy (called fictionalization) that effectively topples even the most fact-addicted readers’ unwillingness to suspend disbelief. The only people I know who question the Bible’s trustworthiness are those who’ve never actually read it. Read it, cover to cover, and you’re a goner.

And the Bible never sanitizes. In its pages, women have their periods, men spill their semen on the dirt, matters openly discussed only rarely, even in the least particular public venues, all but never among Christians. A woman sneaks up on Jesus hoping to steal his power to cure her embarrassing bloody flux, and Jesus talks about it before the whole town.

When my daughter Charlotte got her first “real Bible”—the ICB, written at a third grade reading-level but with chapters and verses so she could follow along in church—she was so engrossed she read far past the passages the preacher cited, which I confess I’m prone to do as well, and soon turned to the beginning to read it as one would any other book. By mid-service, she was so shocked by what she found there—the story of Noah, sprawled drunk and naked in front of his sons—that she thrust it across the pew at me and, forgetting her church voice, announced to me and the whole congregation, “I can’t believe they put that in a children’s Bible!”

I know of no book that sucks in a reader—and such a vast assortment of readers, young, old, devout, dismissive—so immediately, so completely, so irrevocably. I never read long in it without thinking, I wish I’d written that!

On Telling the Truth, Sort Of

Yesterday my daughter, Charlotte, was talking to me about churches. She’s away at college, and beneath our conversation I was pray-hoping her speculations might indicate she was thinking about attending church there one of these days.

“I hate churches where the preacher tells those fakey stories,” she told me. “You know, the kind that starts out, ‘A woman once said to her husband…’ or something like that. I mean, it’s obviously made up and just wrecks his credibility.”

Our conversation went on—to the endless sermons of the church we’d attended in her youth and her preference for the brief, strictly Bible-passage-focused homilies of Catholic masses she’d gone to with her grandparents—and then moved on to other subjects, but I’ve kept thinking about this business of the fakey stories preachers tell.

They arise, I’m guessing, from a problem nonfiction writers often confront. I mean, I told Charlotte, it’s not like the guy can actually tell a true story from his own life in church, especially one about something sensitive, like meanness or covetousness or lust—a story, that is, about something truly relevant to the people he’s addressing—with his wife and kids sitting right there among his listeners. If he wants to tell a story from real life—which he likely does, since that’s the best way to interest an audience—he must take pains to remove its realness.

Whenever I go to writers conferences, there are nonfiction workshops dealing with precisely this problem, because publishing a story from one’s actual experience is likely to upset the people involved. (More important, at least from your publisher’s perspective, is that upsetting the people involved can get you, your editor, and your publisher sued. Most publishers have lawyers on staff to prevent such eventualities. That’s how problematic telling true stories can be.)

At the conferences, writers are advised to do everything from changing the names of the people involved in a story to getting permission first to waiting to tell a story until all the people in it are dead. In my experience, the permission solution is best…unless, of course, you have a story you really want to tell and you’re certain someone involved will never grant you permission to tell it. Like when it’s about your kids, who must be legally fair game, since I’ve never had a publisher demand I get their permission for any of my daughters’ many appearances in my writing.

Which is good, as getting permission from them would have been impossible. What kid is going to want you writing about her spate of evil tantrums at age eight? Or your terrors as a parent when she started developing pubic hair?

When my other daughter, Lulu, at age six or so, figured out what I was up to when I sat at the computer, she flat out refused to be written about.

That stymied me a bit. With only one daughter’s foibles and my own to plumb, what could I write about?

“You’re the daughter of a writer,” I finally told Lulu. “It could be worse. You could be the daughter of a preacher and never allowed to do anything wrong. Or the daughter of a soldier and always worried about my being killed. There are worse things than being in the public eye.”

But I’ve trodden carefully since then. I opted not to write about Lulu’s potty training trials when the idea bounced through my consciousness the other day. And I have decided to put the sketchier of my daughters’ college experiences (that I know about) on literary hold until after they graduate. When I just can’t resist, I make up fakey stories that probably damage my credibility. But, oh well.

Publishing Is Publishing

This Fourth of July, I watched the fireworks from the exotically landscaped grounds of a ritzy Malibu mansion overlooking Santa Monica Bay. I was admiring an Anna’s hummingbird perched in a tree that could have been invented by Dr. Suess when a beautiful woman I’d never met before came up to me to find out how to get her children’s books published.

“They rhyme,” she told me. She had written them together with her three children, whom she homeschooled.

She seemed sweet, one of those amazing moms who can take charge of all children present (in this case, at least twenty of them)—supervising them in the pool, sunscreening them on a schedule only she knew about, braiding hair to keep it out of faces, correcting their behavior toward one another, taking one to the bathroom, moving them en masse to the trampoline, seeing to it every last picky eater among them got something to eat, keeping track of the dog—and all the while initiate and maintain extended conversations with various of the adults present.

“Well,” I said. “I don’t have any experience whatsoever in children’s books. I write nonfiction for adults.”

“Yeah, but I heard you write, um, like, spiritual books.”

I nodded.

“And they’re published, aren’t they? So they’re, you know, regular books, right? Like, you can buy them in bookstores? I mean, publishing is publishing, isn’t it?”

It intrigued me that she was seeking my advice at all. I was such an oddity at that party. Visiting from Oklahoma. Not rich. The only woman present with grey hair. Not at all the sort of person someone like her would go to for advice about anything—except maybe birdwatching. I seemed to be the only one at the party paying attention to the magnificent hummingbirds and house finches and hawks whooshing around us.

But she was right, I guessed. Publishing is publishing. I recommended she get the latest edition of Writer’s Market.

“Did that already,” she said.

“And I think I’ve seen a special Writer’s Market just for kids’ books.”

“Got that too. Read it cover to cover.”

“Then you know what to do. Write a proposal that has all the parts they ask for and send it out to agents listed in the book who represent the sort of thing you’ve written.”

“You mean a query letter?”

“Yes, that too. I mean, for publishing adult nonfiction, you’d need a book proposal, but maybe with kids’ books you can get everything you need to say said in your query letter. Send it to agents who seem in the same place professionally as you are—that is, just beginning your career as a writer.”

“But don’t I need to copyright my stuff first? I mean, they could just steal my ideas.”

I said I didn’t think copyrighting was necessary. Why would an agent want to steal her ideas? “Agents make money from selling your book to publishers,” I told her, “not by stealing ideas and writing books of their own. They get fifteen percent of whatever you make. They want you to make money.”

She seemed unconvinced.

“Well,” I said, “Just do whatever it says to do in your children’s Writer’s Market.”

“I did all that,” she said. “So what do I do now?”

“You wait to hear back. And then, if you don’t get any takers, you revise and do it all again with another list of agents. If your stuff is good, eventually you’ll find someone who wants to represent you.”

“But how long should I wait? I mean, it’s been a few weeks already. Isn’t there anything else I can do?” This woman was a doer. As we spoke, she was rearranging the bowls of dips and crudités that the pool-wet children had left in disarray.

“No,” I told her. “Just write. Revise. Submit. And wait. That’s all I know about how to get published. Unless it’s different with children’s books. Which I’m guessing it isn’t. I mean, publishing is publishing, right?”

So what do you think? Is all publishing the same? If it’s different, how is it different? If it is the same, how is it the same?

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