Although attributed to semanticist Alfred Korzybski in 1931, “the map is not the territory” is poetic in its perpetual relevance.
Among its other subtleties, the metaphor emphasizes the gap between representation and what it seeks to represent. The gap is necessary: Without it, a representation is neither useful nor meaningful. (A map representing territory in a one-to-one correspondence would cease to be a helpful map.)
Of course, we make choices when we represent something. When making a map, for example, our choices are informed by what we choose to focus on. Our choices are also informed by the needs we seek to meet, by our particular point of view, and by our sense of what our fellow wanderers require.
The map is not the territory can be a liberating expression for writers striving to represent “the truth.” It reminds writers that there is—and should be—a gap between the vast territory they explore and the way-finding they offer in their book.
Ultimately, that the map is not the territory should comfort every writer: There will always be space between what is and what is represented. There’s no need to eliminate that space. Indeed, the reader requires it to build a bridge to guide them into new territory.
For most of my life, I’ve found comfort and catharsis in running. The relentlessness of the pace and its imperative to persist (almost) always help quiet my busy brain.
Like many dedicated runners, I’d always assumed that, sooner or later, I’d run a marathon. For years, I waited for inspiration to strike. When it did—usually while clicking through finish-line pics of exhausted-but-elated marathoners—I expected motivation to follow. But the sustained urge never arrived.
Over time, I upped my mileage, hoping that, eventually, I’d need to, I’d just have to run a marathon. But many miles were logged, and still I failed to feel the urgency commensurate with the goal. It wasn’t until these last months of Covid-provoked upheaval and change passed that I remembered that I can change, too.
Among other experiments, I decided to try a training plan. Which I hated. Change is hard, and new learning curves are often very sharp. The plan insisted on showing me, with spreadsheet severity, that what seemed possible in the abstract was impossible in practice: I couldn’t hit my paces; my watch was constantly disappointed in my efforts; and marathon mileage felt totally out of reach.
I decided I wasn’t going to run a marathon after all—clearly, I wouldn’t be able to, anyway. Instead, I’d just have to work on disciplining myself to the plan, and that would have to be enough.
Surprisingly? It was.
Many weeks have now passed, and I’ve made that imperfect plan a part of my every day. This is not to say that I hit my paces (I don’t) or that my watch is happy with me (never). But marathon mileage is in reach, and its proximity has given me the motivation, the drive (if not necessarily the need) I passively sought in the past.
What lessons have I drawn from this experience? A few, but among the most meaningfully applicable: The discipline is the goal.
When a goal is too big, or too diffuse, or maybe even too quiet to command attention, a plan to start and a commitment to continue can bring it into view and therefore in reach. I didn’t have to need to or have to run a marathon. I could simply want to, and start from there.
Chuck Close famously observed that “inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s one way to describe it. But here I think Rilke offers a more philosophical sourcebook: You don’t yet know the answers. That’s okay—you don’t have to. You inhabit your answers by first living your questions.
It might be pointed and concise, florid and lengthy, or a deduction drawn from long silence. But regardless of form, all writers experience, at some point, the pain of rejection.
After submitting a finished manuscript, a lengthy proposal, a thorough accounting of marketability, and an engaging query, authors who receive rejections are unsurprisingly disappointed, confused, and irritated.
But traditional publishers reject manuscripts for a variety of reasons. Publishing is a numbers game, and as such, submission takes on the chanciness of a gamble. Standard metrics are hard to come by, but anecdotal reports from acquisitions editors and agents suggest that traditional publishers accept less than two percent of manuscripts received.
Although publishing insiders and consultants agree that authors with strong, complete manuscripts move to the top of the slush pile, even strong, complete manuscripts are rejected.
Why? Typically because of timing or fit.
Timing, broadly conceived, might refer to the time of year a publisher receives a query, the current titles a publisher has planned for the upcoming year, the previous titles a publisher has already published, the timeliness of the subject under discussion, and more.
For example, a publisher might reject a manuscript because its topics are covered in a book already in production or because its topics were treated in an already published book that failed to meet publisher expectations.
Fit functions similarly. A publisher might reject a manuscript because it doesn’t fit the publisher’s production schedule, because it doesn’t fit the publisher’s profile (often represented through a backlist), or because it doesn’t fit the moment.
Rejection is common, but it’s (obviously, and appropriately), not easy to accept. After the wrenching work of producing a manuscript, rejection sometimes feels like obliteration.
Hedge your bets by producing a strong, complete, and relevant manuscript; researching your publisher’s backlist to determine fit; and articulating your manuscript’s relevance nine to 12 months into the future.
Rejection may require suffering, but suffering can foster endurance: Sometimes, the pain of rejection produces the conditions for acceptance.
Spring is not a comfortable season in Minnesota. The snow melts, the wind gusts, and the rain pelts. But then, the snow rudely returns. The wind persists in gusting. The rain insists on pelting. While some days reach, gloriously, into the 50s, many others stall in the 30s, threatening the goodwill of exhausted citizens.
But if spring isn’t comfortable, it is comforting. When songbirds return to the shrubbery, loons to the city lakes, and sunshine to the horizon, it reminds us that coldness will warm, darkness will lighten, and green things will grow.
In my house, spring also signals the return of the most comforting of all childhood tales, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The story, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack’s delicate, saturated pictures, wears its generational coziness on its title page. There, the “as told to Jenifer” invokes a beloved family tale handed down from father to daughter (and, according to Heyward’s biography, from mother to son).
Heyward may be better known for his 1925 novel Porgy, upon which the Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess, is based, but he published The Country Bunny in 1939. It’s a story about Cottontail, a clever bunny “with a brown skin and a little cotton ball of a tail,” who wanted to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who brought eggs to children on Easter.
But “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits with long legs who can run so fast” laughed at her ambition. They laughed even harder when Cottontail, “much to her surprise,” found herself with 21 babies to take care of: “Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies,” they said.
Cottontail put aside her Easter-Bunny dream and tended to her babies. As time passed, and her bunnies grew, she taught them to sweep, clean, cook, wash, sew, mend, sing, dance, garden, and create. When she heard that one of the Easter Bunnies had become too slow and Old Grandfather was to pick a new Easter Bunny to take his place, Cottontail brought her children to the Palace of Easter Eggs to watch the festivities.
Reader, she is chosen. Indeed, she displays such verve, such persistence, and such heart in her role that she is given the incomparable gift of the little gold shoes.
I love Cottontail’s story not only because it’s the softly feminist fulfillment of a dream. It’s also (if I may), a story about letting go of a dream so as to return to it with a more experienced, more nuanced perspective. Cottontail becomes an Easter Bunny not because of her steadfast, single-minded commitment. She becomes an Easter Bunny because her most challenging life experiences fostered the wisdom, kindness, swiftness, cleverness, and heart required to fulfill her dream.
That, to me, is a believable (or at least aspirational) heroism.
The book, it must be said, is a bedtime investment—a concise Mo Willems it is not—but its story about a timely triumph of kindness and heart is a tonic amidst the perennial cruelty of These Times, making every moment spent with it a true comfort.
Among writers, memoirists face a singular burden of expression. Though their work frequently illustrates triumph in the face of adversity, their expression of vulnerability is often their most effective tool.
For lessons in expression, memoirists can look to fiction writers. The best fiction writers are expert at endowing their characters with the kind of vulnerability that solicits readers’ care. That care fosters a connection–offering insight into weakness and strength that extends beyond the page.
Unlike fiction writers, however, memoirists don’t have the luxury of distance. The presumption of truth that defines their work ensures any tenderness expressed is their own. Although this provenance raises the stakes, it also raises vulnerability’s value.
Therefore, aspirational memoirists can and should coach themselves to embrace vulnerability’s inherent, etymological power. They should remind themselves that the example of their fragility will inform their depiction of strength, inspiring readers’ connections, motivating their reflection, and perhaps moving them to action.
By viewing their vulnerability as a mirror, a conduit, a facilitator, and a tool, memoirists can generate a power from which readers draw significant courage. The work is not easy, but it’s worth it: Like the very best fiction writers, the best memoirists transform vulnerability into a power so stable it can hold up others.
Against the black background of 500,000 lives lost to COVID, “vulnerability” feels like it has lost some of its millennial sheen. It’s no longer (just) Brené Brown’s shame, and an opportunity for open-hearted living. Today, it means feeling—and being—a persistent target for viral attack.
Although vulnerability can make us feel extraordinarily alone, “vulnerability” contains the roots of collective rescue. From Latin stock “to wound,” vulnerability once referred not only to our susceptibility to wounding but also to our power to wound. These referential foes–to be hurt and also to hurt–have flowered again during our pandemic year.
Now (as, in some ways, always), we’re vulnerable because we can be wounded, get sick, stay sick, die. We’re vulnerable because we love people who can also be wounded, get sick, stay sick, and die. And yet we’re also vulnerable because, in our vulnerability, we can wound and sicken others.
To be vulnerable means to carry an enormous weight, but its etymology suggests it’s not one we must–or even can–privately bear. Instead, the discomfort of our vulnerability can serve to remind us of our collective responsibility to safeguard one another.
As we pass the signpost marking a quarantine year, we can mark our progress not in days (ha.), but in terms of our ability to accept vulnerability as both weakness and strength. We now know the associated cost of denial: When we fail to accept our vulnerability, we relinquish the power we have to keep ourselves and others safe.
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”
Well–one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
For some of us, the new year provokes a Pavlovian response. Every January, the month and year conspire, and time seems to be both starting over and running out. Some respond to the conspiracy by becoming, for a moment or more, their most industrious, goal-setting selves. Others might be paralyzed by illusory, elusive possibility.
In a typical year, the first week of January means a new slate of queries at Modern Writing Services. The queries usually come from writers in the former category. They’ve been prompted, by the new-year fire, to grasp the hot iron of a long-envisioned book and make their mark.
But this year is not a typical year, and while it has closed so much down, it has also opened up a space for atypical queries. A number of writers who have reached out in this first week are the industrious, almost-finished kind. But a surprising number of others have reached out with goals they’ve only recently and tentatively identified as worthy of pursuit.
And this latter group is beginning to look like a trend.
Because developmental work can be a long game, new-year queries often set a powerful focus. It’s early, but 2021 appears focused on women writers creating autobiographical passion projects that speak truth to power on issues of climate change, sex abuse, trauma and healing, and social justice.
It’s hard to make predictions from January’s vantage point, but if the trend holds, 2022 looks to be an incredible year. Not just for the health of our nation, but for writers and readers, too.
I stopped at a red light on Mass. Ave. in Boston, a couple blocks away from the bridge, and a woman in a beat-up old Buick backed into me. Like, cranked her wheel, rammed right into my side. I drove a Chevy pickup truck. It being Boston, I got out of the car yelling, swearing at this woman, a little woman, whose first language was not English. But she lived and drove in Boston, too, so she knew, we both knew, that the thing to do is get out of the car, slam the door as hard as you fucking can and yell things like What the fuck were you thinking? You fucking blind? What the fuck is going on? Jesus Christ! So we swore at each other with perfect posture, unnaturally angled chins. I threw my arms around, sudden jerking motions with my whole arms, the backs of my hands toward where she had hit my truck.
But she hadn’t hit my truck. She hit the tire; no damage done. Her car was fine, too. We saw this while we were yelling, and then we were stuck. The next line in our little drama should have been Look at this fucking dent! I’m not paying for this shit. I’m calling the cops, lady. Maybe we’d throw in a You’re in big trouble, sister, or I just hope for your sake there’s nothing wrong with my fucking suspension, that sort of thing. But there was no fucking dent. There was nothing else for us to do. So I stopped yelling, and she looked at the tire she’d backed into, her little eyebrows pursed and worried. She was clearly in the wrong, I was enormous, and I’d been acting as if I’d like to hit her. So I said Well, there’s nothing wrong with my car, nothing wrong with your car…are you OK? She nodded, and started to cry, so I put my arms around her and I held her, middle of the street, Mass. Ave., Boston, a couple blocks from the bridge. I hugged her, and I said We were scared, weren’t we? and she nodded and we laughed.
The propinquity effect describes the likelihood that interpersonal relationships develop—and develop more deeply—according to proximity. We’re more likely to forge friendships and develop deep relationships with people who live near us or with people we frequently see.
This may be unsurprising, given that physical proximity provides so many opportunities for, and thus expands the time we spend in, conversation (an effect made abundantly clear during the pandemic). More surprising might be the propinquity effect’s relevance to book development.
In my last post, I advised authors with underbaked, underdeveloped manuscripts to take a break. A break aids consolidation, which in turn enables authors to return to work with newly accrued knowledge and a fresher perspective. (Also, sometimes it just feels good to take a break, even if we don’t want to or don’t feel like we deserve to.)
But a break doesn’t need to be passive. Authors can help themselves (and maybe extend their enjoyment) by activating the propinquity effect. By identifying and reading the books with which their work is in conversation, and by producing imagined responses, authors establish deeper connections between their work and the proximate books with which their work is in relation.
By making the most of propinquity, authors enlarge their perspective and view their work’s particular qualities and strengths more critically. This not only benefits their manuscript, it also helps refine extratexual efforts such as query letters or marketing materials.
In fact, the propinquity effect should be considered an incentive for taking a break. Authors may benefit from a pause in their work, but their manuscripts benefit when authors develop the connections between their manuscript and proximate titles.