The Little Book That Could, revising in fiction and life by Samantha Wilde
When a box of twenty-four copies of my second novel, I’ll Take What She Has, showed up at my doorstep, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I put on my sparkles, my mascara and my favorite, glittering purple gown, spread the books out on a sheet, and rolled in them. The image I had in mind called to memory my dog, Cleo, who loved nothing more than an ecstatic back rub in a pile of goose poop. The look on her face, of sheer and utter bliss, as she wriggled on the ground, saturating herself with the stuff, is just what I wanted to capture on my own face.
My husband took the photograph. “How do I look?” I asked him. “Totally self-absorbed,” he called back to me from his perch on the second floor where he leaned over the railing with camera in hand. I laughed. Nothing could dissuade me from my mission. I made a decision to celebrate this book, and self-absorbed or not, I would swim in those copies to my heart’s delight.
But this book wasn’t just any book, not just special for being my book (I never rolled in my first novel). No, this book became a bit of an orphan, a foster child. I call it “the little book that could.” Usually, an author sells a book to a publishing house and works with the editor who bought the book for the duration. Sometimes that editor leaves and you end up with a new one. Well, my first editor left. Then my second editor left. Then my third editor left. Then my fourth editor left. I have a fifth editor now. For those first three editors, I did major, over-haul revisions and by the third one, it seemed quite probably that my book, and the years of revisions I had already done, would never amount to anything. I learned three important things in this process: revise like it’s your life, hold on tighter in the worst spots, and never postpone a celebration.
Revise like it’s your life. In life, we constantly revise. We have the opportunity, so long as we are living, to keep writing out the story of our life. A book, on the other hand, with a publication deadline, reaches a time when revisions stop and the story concretizes. Every time I got a new editor, I got a whole new perspective on the book and a whole new dozen pages of changes. I came to feel like the book could be endlessly revised. It no longer felt like a fixed or determined story, but a mutable, flexible, adaptable mass—like a hunk of clay. And that’s when I began to realize that a story, like a life, can endure any variety of revisions, that it can withstand changing and changing and changing again. That it can, in fact, become better with that infinite sense of changing, which feels to me a lot like life itself.
Hold on tighter in the rough spots. I sat down on my living room couch after receiving my third editor’s fourteen page editorial note. The already numerous staff changes meant that the book’s acceptance for publication was at least a year behind and therefore the payment on acceptance seriously delayed. I didn’t have the money to pay for childcare to re-work the novel. I didn’t have the editor who bought it and believed in it. At that moment, I had a somber conversation with my agents about the possibility of walking away from the contract.
Except on my living room couch, I allowed myself to get very quiet and to listen. This is what I heard: “Say thank you. Thank you for this gift.” Well, I can tell you that in no way did that situation feel like a gift to me! Still, I listened. I got grateful. I chose to be grateful. I held on tighter, not to a perfect version of the future, but to the idea that something good could, would come out of this experience, one way or another.
Never postpone a celebration. I promised myself, while working during naptimes and after the children fell to sleep, that when the book came out (and if), I would not hold back on my celebrations. I wouldn’t wait to make a bestsellers list or hear from a certain reviewer or receive the fan email. I would seize upon the moment and joy it up with every fiber of my being. It seems to me that celebrations are too infrequent and require far too much. Sure, if I go on Oprah I’ll call all my friends, crack the champagne and throw a party—but why wait? What did I need to wait for? What do any of us need to wait for? All the dreams fulfilled, all the wishes accomplished in our imaginary futures may or may not come to visit us. We can’t control the outcome. If anything ever taught me that, my experience with I’ll Take What She Has confirmed it. We can only control ourselves. In my case, I decided to turn myself into that exuberant, unself-conscious, elated dog–glad to be alive, glad to be here, glad to find life big enough for all the revisions I’m given.
Samantha Wilde, the mother of three young children born in just over four years, openly admits to eating far, far too much chocolate—usually to keep her awake during nap time so she can write some books. Before she took on mothering as a full-time endeavor, she taught more than a dozen yoga classes a week (now she teaches one). She’s a graduate of Concord Academy, Smith College, Yale Divinity School and The New Seminary, as well as the Kripalu School of Yoga. She’s been an ordained minister for more than a decade. Her first novel, This Little Mommy Stayed Home, helped a lot of new mothers get through the night. The daughter of novelist Nancy Thayer, she lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, a professor of chemical engineering.
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