When I published my first novel back in 2011, I had no idea what to expect. Would strangers actually buy my book? How much work would I need to do to market it? What would any of this amount to?
Here’s what I learned: when there’s a vacuum of expectation, the ego is more than happy to step in and fill it.
I’ll give you an example.
At the time my book was published, I worked for a big newswire company. And one of their enterprise-level service offerings (that’s a sticky mouthful of jargon) was to display—for a hefty price tag—an image of your product, your company logo, your coiffed C-level executive, whatever you wanted, on a four-story jumbotron in the middle of Manhattan’s Times Square for literally millions of people to see. The end result: unbelievable publicity.
When some people at my company found out I had published a book, they offered this to me…for free. “Send us an image of the cover of your book and up it goes!”
I remember the words of one of my coworkers upon hearing the news: “You’re going to be famous!” And with a tingle up my spine, I kinda, sorta believed him. I could see my company’s sales and marketing teams salivating over one of their own getting to be a guinea pig in the best kind of way, eventually becoming a case study, a success story they could hock, “an author who saw her sales triple overnight!”
In reality, there was a brief email exchange with a girl in New Jersey asking me for my .jpg, but it didn’t stop me from filling in all the fantastical details.
But wait, there’s more.
Also part of that enormous service offering was the ability to send out a press release about my newly published book to a media list of my own choosing. So, giddy with my impending transformation from unknown writer to bestselling author, I got in touch with an acquaintance of mine in PR, thinking she could maybe give me the names of five or six people for a small fee. Instead, she unexpectedly and generously turned over her entire media list of publishing and entertainment reporters, editors, and publications to me—for no charge.
This wealth of free help, valued at thousands of dollars—way more than I could ever, as a single girl with an average-paying job, hope to afford—did something to me. These people were helping me and they didn’t have to. I was getting stuff handed to me when normally I’d be charged an arm and a leg. This had to mean something. It had to. This was certifiable success knocking at the door. The universe was conspiring with me. I was weepy with gratitude.
So I said yes, YES, to it all, and a few days later, there was my book…four stories tall in Times Square…with an accompanying press release whizzing over the wire to all relevant media points. I posted about it on my Facebook page. My publisher posted it on her Facebook page. My company gave me the thumbs up. Any minute now, fame and fortune! I waited by my phone. I waited by my email.
Except…there was nothing.
Twenty-four hours later turned into two days, then a week, then two weeks, then three weeks.
And still nothing.
Not a single interview request from a reporter. Not a single inquiry from an editor. Not one mention from the millions of people out there whom I presumed had seen the cover of my book. Absolutely zero came out of that this-has-to-be-a-sign-from-the-universe event.
It was, as they say, an epic failure.
Especially for someone like me who had hoped to skip about a hundred steps and a few more years and hit the bulls-eye on my first try.
Without talking about it to anyone, I retreated into myself to sort out what had happened and where I had gone wrong.
Like Elizabeth Gilbert says so eloquently in her TED talk about failure, I got “lost in the hinterlands of my psyche.” And for a long time afterward I struggled to find my way out of it and back to my writing—this crazy, hare-brained, frustrating, humbling, soul-leveling thing I had embarked upon, told everyone I was doing, was arranging my life around, speaking openly about (which is always hard for me), and which, God help me, I so desperately wanted to make work.
To another of Liz’s points: like great success, great failure flings you far from your center and leaves you disoriented.
I’ve had to ask myself this question often since those days: do I love writing more than I love myself?
Many times the answer has been “I don’t know.” In fact, I would say most days it’s still “I don’t know.” And that’s because the sting of that failure lives on. The utter pompous naiveté with which I approached my novel being splashed across Times Square still lives alongside the excited little girl in me and the “what if?” hopefulness of my heart.
How do you tell that excited, hopeful little girl not to be hopeful or excited?
I’ve studied a lot of new age theories and esoteric wisdom and quantum physics and great googly-moogly. I’ve probably studied that stuff as much as I’ve spent hours writing. So I wanted to believe, with every Higgs boson particle giving material form to my cosmic self, that the gift of immeasurable publicity was a validating nod to my dreams and aspirations, and surely the very thing that was going to get me to the next level, whatever I conceived it to be.
So when it didn’t work, I took it to mean that I wasn’t meant to be a writer.
Yeah, that’s a sad thud of a thought…
(Fast-forward through the Pit of Despair months).
Since then, I have a few more years under my belt. I’ve made it through a few more of those “hundred steps.” I’ve met some really significant people who made me look at my writing and my choices in a new way, and I’ve had a few small successes that mean more to me in their tiny, twinkling purity than that screaming, lit-up jumbotron ever could.
No matter what, a writer wants to be read. A writer wants an audience. We’d all be lying if we said we didn’t want others to read our work and appreciate it. An audience is our Higgs boson: it gives form to the deeply mysterious work of hauling a story out of the ether and onto the page. That’s why an audience—any audience—is all the more sweet because we know, deep down inside, that some of us will labor all our lives without ever getting one. And the vast majority of us sure as hell will never get Times Square. Not because it’s impossible. But because those of us who are truly serious about what we’re doing don’t get serious until our creations stand tall inside of us first, rather than outside of us.
I don’t envy the Times Square miracle for someone else because it may very well be a legitimate stop on his or her journey. In fact, I’d love it to be a stop on someone’s journey because it would give me renewed faith in astonishing occurrences.
It just wasn’t mine.
Mine was an abrupt catapulting into a hell of my own self-doubt.
Then a soft, kind, encouraging walk back to where I needed to be.
The way I see it, that failure may not have been a failure at all. A particle can be in two places at once. I just observed the silence after the hoopla and called it defeat. The other particle was alive and well the whole time, in another place, setting up the band and the confetti for the “You’ve Arrived” celebration. I don’t even need that celebration anymore. I’ll take peace in my heart and courage to go on any day.
Because the Times Square miracle pales in comparison to the miracle of simply getting up every morning and trying to do what you really want to do and trying to love it as hard as you can. If you don’t believe me, Liz has something to say about that, too—only she calls it magic.
It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed. – Ram Dass