THEY PUT A DOG ON THE COVER! L howled in a diner known for their potato pancakes. My friend tended to operate on a high volume, and everyone in a five-table radius did the thing that New Yorkers excel at doing — they looked at us without really looking at us. An ambivalent, side-eye sneak that we’d spent a lifetime perfecting. It was quiet save for the clatter of plates and my friend shouting about a shepherd.
Then she slammed the galley of her debut novel on the table, and there was indeed a very large dog on the cover. However, that wasn’t what concerned me. The red Comic Sans font bordered on criminal, and the lime green backdrop that haloed said dog reminded me of a John Carpenter film.
You wrote a book about a dog? L wrote stories about Jewish families in various states of disrepair. Someone was always suffering and they either ended up losing their love, life, or mind. Shaggy pups weren’t in her repertoire.
No, Felicia. I didn’t write a novel about a fucking dog. Do you see that door? (I nodded at the phosphorescent door while shoving a pancake in my mouth.) That’s my main character’s bathroom and she’s waiting for the results of a pregnancy test that will change her life. This is about her examining her life on this one particular day.
So, it wasn’t about a dog. The dog was a prop, background noise. Certainly not the marketing main event. But L revealed that the marketing and sales teams thought the cover would appeal to a “chick lit” audience, and during that thought process a sheepdog and an ugly Christmas sweater cover materialized.
L’s lamentations were at pieta-levels, and even though I worked in book publishing at the time, and believed that her team was the definition of incompetent and the cover was proof of it, how do you tell your friend that? Especially when the cover art is final and she’s got an advance to earn out.
No one bought the book. And believe me when I say that setting aside the horrifying cover, L’s novel was exceptional. She would go on to become an NYT bestselling author, but back then you could see signs of a powerful voice emerging. A colt wobbling on new legs.
A colt that became a thoroughbred.
Back then, L did what most of us are guilty of doing — equating material, tangible gain with artistic success. If our book doesn’t sell, doesn’t get reviewed, doesn’t win those prizes, accolades, and coveted teaching appointments, we’re a failure.
We view success by what we hold in our hands instead of lies in our hearts. We place the whole of our worth on an object.
I experienced a similar scenario when my second book scored some early promising trade reviews (starred Kirkus, etc.) and then fell into a black hole. Perhaps I was spoiled because my first book had been featured in all the fancy, boldfaced magazines. I went on a book tour, which now is laughable and archaic unless you’re Elizabeth Gilbert or a writer of her fame and ilk.
Every writer I’ve ever known always pantomimes, write the next book! Never become tethered to your newborn — time to get back in the sack. Make the donuts.
Believe me when I say that after my second book faded into the ether, I wanted to punch every writer in the face. For months, I was the Sahara of novelists, desperate for a thimble of water. I wrote a book worth torching. I fired my agent. I started two other books and felt as if I knocked someone up and ran screaming after the paternity test. I couldn’t get it together because I was too attached to the result of the work instead of the work in and of itself.
No one knows a crueler fate than a poet, so when they give you advice, stop everything. Pull up a chair, remove the pancake from your mouth, and listen without waiting for your turn to speak. After my second book was published, my friend Mindy took me out for Mexican and slapped me in the face. Not literally.
I read both of your books and some of the essays in between, she said. Here’s your problem. You’re looking at your career as a writer through one incident at one particular point in time — you’re missing the big picture. From her perspective, I had been successful. My voice and style were confident and assured. While I spent most of my twenties and early thirties mimicking writers I admired, now I’m clear on how I go about telling a story. I have specificity and a process for how I craft everything from images to plot and character. Line cadence matters to me just as much as the story.
I have to speak the words out loud and hear the music playing.
My friend made me realize that true success lies in my growth, the fact that you can read two books of mine published eight years apart and see a stark contrast between the two — the colt and the thoroughbred.
And the money, reviews, fawning fans, and followers are important because we need to eat, to be read and remembered, but they are merely antecedents of your work. In no way are they a measure of your talent or success. The outcomes of the work — that of which you have no control — are never the weight and measure of the artist’s skill and prowess.
I’m an exceptional writer. I don’t need claps, clicks, and six-figure book sales to affirm what I already know. I’ve been at this for decades and I am not the outcome of what I create. My worth can’t be reduced to a click or clap. I don’t need to hit the publish button to know I’m good at what I do.
My writing isn’t mass-market. I have a particular style and voice that invariably repels a fuck ton of people. My books will never sell a million copies and my stories won’t always get a ton of claps, and I’m perfectly content with that because I know what I’m writing and who I’m writing for.
The mark of my success is curiosity. Hunger. How can I fine-tune my voice? How can I retool an image and make it fresh and new? How does age shift and deepen my perspective? How can I keep devouring books, art, music, and nature that inspires and challenges me? What will I write about next and how will I write it? Can I be agile in my approach? And do my readers see these shifts, this growth? Are they growing with me? Am I okay with leaving some of them behind?
Real success is marked by an artist’s propensity for wonder and growth. Not all the trinkets and toys that could so easily be lost as fast as they were acquired.
Focus on the work, first and always. Let the business of the work slide into the backseat. Behind your head and your heart. Where it rightfully belongs.