Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.

The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable. 

It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing. 

Elsewhere, in Exhibit XX, Urban makes a similarly gloomy-but-galvanizing point about procrastinators. Based on his own rich experience, Urban argues that procrastinators frequently forget that, “No one ‘builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house.”

Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)

Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.

Clive Thompson wants to “rewil[d] your attention,” and as an aid to such savagery, he submits the Glitch-built, Weird Old Book Finder

WOBF allows you to explore the outer reaches of the public domain with the random search terms of your choice. Of course, your terms hardly matter. The non-congruence between what you seek and what you find is part of the point. Whether you input “infinity,” “twilight,” “anemone,” or “ballet,” your choice will help you search, and perhaps discover, a scrap of the internet’s originary chanciness. Use it, and find the books for which you never knew to search.

Stars

(Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)

Although the American myth of meritocracy continues to crumble to smithereens, some of its fragments are worthy of consideration.

For instance, what does it mean when people who cannot succeed by virtue of their demonstrated abilities and merit, nonetheless continue to achieve? In this context (which is ours), what does success—or failure—even mean?

Success is typically communicated by signifiers of wealth, respect, or fame. It denotes achievement—which itself connotes effort—both of which confer the legitimacy collectively extended to success.

But when wealth, respect, and fame are gained without effort’s exertion, success becomes a more fragile, fluid word. It no longer refers to a meaning relatively fixed by the collective, and depends instead on the relative interpretation of a powerful few.

Failure is, or maybe was, different. Failure, denoted by lack rather than plenitude has always been fluid. We see this in the concept of failing up, where failure must be modified and fixed by its direction. The collective agrees, relatively speaking, that failure is not fixed.

To whom does it really matter if success and failure are now both fluid, relative terms? Well, for the collective seeking to award success and punish failure, it’s a problem. When we become less capable of consensus on what constitutes effort and exertion, we can no longer agree on who has won, and what, or who has lost, and how.

For the individual, however—for you—the responsibility of relativity can be a gift. Determining success and failure according to your own criteria is harder than it sounds, but it allows you to set a standard that matters to you. This is self-help at its most autonomous. Rather than reaching for a collective sense of success that appears increasingly empty, we can extend our efforts toward the kind of success toward which we want to strive. Of course, we can still fail. But, then again, we always could.

Have you read A Sick Day for Amos McGee, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal? The story is gentle and kind, its pictures tender and sincere. It has quieted many a rambunctious child in my own chaotic house.

In celebration of its sequel, Amos McGee Misses the Bus, Philip Stead, author, and Erin Stead, illustrator, spoke on Weekend Edition Saturday (NPR) about writing stories untethered to time.

Aiming for classic status for Amos, the Steads approach their work not in terms of the risks they like to take but of the limitations they like to impose: “‘We didn’t want to necessarily be that rigid,’ says Philip Stead. ‘But…there’s something very beautiful about working with limitations. It kind of sets parameters for your project.'”

He refers to the deliberately defined color palette by which Erin Stead’s images, so delicate and precise, become durable. But he makes a more universal point. Limitations, parameters, and boundaries can be a conduit to creation.

We often perceive limitations as restrictions holding us back or obstacles keeping us from our goals. But limitations–certainly of color, form, and genre, but also of time, desire and will–can stimulate inventive solutions.

We see this at work in haikus, sonnets, villanelles (poetry in general), which raise expressions of limitations, or perhaps limited expressions, to an art form. But it’s a more flexibly applicable technique.

The task of creation is challenging, in part because the galaxy of invention is so vast. When everything is possible, it’s hard to make anything real. If we can choose all things, how can we settle on, much less commit to developing, any one thing?

But of course choices (usually) must be made. Decisions are very often required. In some cases, it can be surprisingly useful to narrow, even artificially, our choices. The Steads chose to limit their story to the subject of kindness and to restrict their color palette to “muted yellows, greens, blues and reds.” Other writers might find the imposition of a genre or a deadline a useful, even necessary, constraint.

It’s true that a limitation can be a hindrance. It’s also true that it can sometimes be a provocation.

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.

They’re typically rejected 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.  

The post may be old, but the book is a classic.

Golden Shoes

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.

If it’s difficult to accept vulnerability as a precondition of strength, it’s even more difficult to express this acceptance. Few of us want to reveal our weaknesses, particularly weaknesses that have been (and maybe still are) difficult to overcome. For some, however, revelation is a requirement.

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.

Consider Jo March and her initial rejection of and later regret over Laurie, or Estha and the shame he hides after his encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, or Harry Potter and the loneliness contingent on the private pain of his scar. We connect to these characters through their fragility. Their recognizable vulnerability enables us to examine our own.

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.

Vulnerability is less Achilles Heel, more Athena’s aegis. 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.

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.

Sometimes, authors seek editorial work for a manuscript that isn’t yet ready for the editing stage. (And oftentimes, authors are surprised to hear this feedback.) But what if your manuscript is underbaked (or unformed or underdeveloped)? What can you do to prepare your manuscript for eventual publication?

If your manuscript doesn’t qualify for developmental work, you’ve received good news and bad news. The good news is simply the fact of feedback. Manuscripts are many and editors are few: If an editor responds to your work—even to say it’s not yet ready—something in it caught their attention.

The bad news is the manuscript is underdone. It could be the argument lacks precision, illustration, or evidence. Or it may be the treatment of argument, illustration, or evidence lacks depth, detail, or distinction. Regardless of the cause, after the hyperintense effort of writing, you may feel frustrated or demoralized by the prospect of a return to drafting.

What should you do? You should take a break.

“Take a break” sounds like an ineffective or childish intervention, but findings from brain-based research are robust: When it comes to periods of acute skill acquisition, emotional engagement, work productivity, and of course muscle activity, taking a break is imperative for mental, emotional, or physical consolidation.

Taking a break from the work also clears brain congestion to enable more efficient neurological processing. This, in turn, might help you see your manuscript more clearly, and through the critical perspective required for self-revision.

So, if you’re an author with manuscript feedback that amounts to “not yet,” fully enact that assessment: Take a break.

Because developmental editing is a type of creative work, editors often take an idiosyncratic approach to their projects. But because developmental editing is also a type of project management, editors often take a systematic and regimented approach. Creative and systemic come together by way of an intimate but structured conversation.

“Intimacy” is a somewhat extreme word to use in reference to an argument-driven manuscript, but most authors are well aware that writing requires a teeth-gnashing, garment-rending, hair-tearing effort. And even if it doesn’t inspire self-inflicted figurative violence, good writing depends on attention, care, and time. It therefore represents and reflects fundamental truths, maybe about the world at large, but most definitely about the world within the writer, and the world within their work.

A developmental editor extends the writer’s attention, care, and time—but also stages an intervention. This is necessary because intimacy, while it brings us closer and more deeply into our work, narrows our field of vision. To make use of its potential value, we must adopt the meta-perspective that enables us to see both the benefits and the drawbacks of closeness.

Helping writers acquire this perspective is the developmental editor’s job. We insert ourselves into an extant intimate conversation, using tools to structure the intimacy and make it more meaningful.