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.

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.

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.

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.

Way back in January of 2018, on my negligible commute, I tuned in to Minneapolis Public Radio for the local angle on NPR’s special series, “Abused and Betrayed.

The conversation was guided by Marianne Combs and focused on the silent epidemic of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities. Combs was joined by NPR correspondent and special-series investigator Joseph Shapiro, sexuality educator Katie Thune, and attorney Patrick Noaker to discuss the Minnesotan context of this national problem and respond to listeners’ phone calls.

The guests’ words were incredibly powerful, but my driveway moment was attributable to the anguish expressed by the parents and caregivers who called in to discuss the abuse sustained by their loved ones with disabilities.

Particularly memorable–and devastating–was the voice of an elderly woman who talked about the exploitation of her adult son. She recounted a situation that occurred years ago, when a powerful man in the community approached her young adult son with a sexual proposition. Her son has a traumatic brain injury: He lives independently, but he has limited cognition and social awareness and can be easy to confuse. The powerful man preyed on this vulnerability, framing his proposition as an arrangement that would help powerful man “relieve stress” and “do his job better.” Her son ultimately agreed, believing his actions were necessary and that he would be paid for them.

A few years later, the man died. When her son learned of the man’s death, he explained to his mom that he would be inheriting money, and why. She was of course shocked and furious, but what followed was even worse: When her son didn’t receive his money, he couldn’t understand why and accused his mother and siblings of stealing it.

The mom’s voice, broken in suffering, compelled me to reach out to Katie Thune to ask about turning her educational curriculum, Sexuality for All Abilities, into a book. The result of our efforts, I am proud to say, is Sexuality for All Abilities: Teaching and Discussing Sexual Health in Special Education, released this week by Routledge, as part of its Eye on Education series.

We created this book to give educators and others the tools and confidence required to teach topics in comprehensive sex education in the context of special education. In it, we draw on the expertise of educators, the experience of teachers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and the words of people with disabilities to inform lessons on healthy relationships, public and private spaces and behaviors, consent, hygiene, and other important topics necessary to living an informed life.

The book is a useful resource in and out of the classroom, but it’s also a contribution to the better civilization we strive to build—a civilization in which we acknowledge a wide range of individuals with varying abilities, and in which we seek to supply the education necessary to live as fully, safely, and with as much autonomy and pleasure as possible.

Building an author platform is an especially important task given the quarantine’s likely long-lasting impact. In the indeterminate new normal, “the digital first impression is…the only impression.”

Authors for whom a digital first impression feels uncomfortably distant can take refuge in the etymology of digital in “finger’s breadth” (and in the inherent ambiguity of every impression).

According to ZG Communications, a Canadian-based marketing agency, authors, publishers, marketers, booksellers, book buyers, and anyone associated with writing, making, selling, buying, and reading books must be especially agile in adopting (and adapting) digital-first branding strategies.

The American Booksellers Association (ABA) echoes the suggestion. In Action Items for Authors, ABA instructs authors to work with local booksellers to create virtual story time, livestream readings, conduct Skype- or Zoom-based conversations, or offer Twitter-based AMAs.

It isn’t clear how the pandemic and potential bookstore closures will redefine bookselling or buying. But the general, newly narrowed focus on establishing, maintaining, and building a digital presence will broadly impact the industry.

Publishers Weekly, for example, has responded to COVID closures with a virtual handselling campaign. The effort, designed to give booksellers an opportunity to introduce books published during the pandemic, works to replicate the bookstore customer’s happenstance purchases.

Its reach is necessarily limited and not yet tested, but the campaign nonetheless introduces new and old readers to books they might not have otherwise encountered. Consequently, it gestures to the intimacy available via digital strategies. For authors, in particular, such strategies can offer readers the realness of apparently unfiltered immediacy—sometimes by simply providing glimpses into authors’ private lives.

Adrienne Westenfeld, in Esquire, writes extensively to this point. By necessity, readers are now able to gain access to authors in a a variety of new ways, including via their bookshelves, living rooms, partners, kids, and pets. Readers in the pre-COVID normal were seldom invited to peek beyond the bookstore’s walls. 

While authors may have little control over the future of the industry, they can certainly use their platform to more intimately communicate with potential readers. Authors who build platforms featuring virtual events (or events that easily adapt to virtual venues), for example, will be better positioned to reach a variety of readers in the future, regardless of the future’s particulars.

This is true for unpublished authors or authors with a work in progress, as well. These authors can create digital-first platforms that deliver reader-responsive expertise through webinars, lecture-led discussions, Q&As, specialty training sessions, or anything else their audience might like to access.

Simply put, when a digital impression is the only impression, it’s the only impression that matters.

For first-time nonfiction authors, the passive pressure to “build” an “author platform”  shares some of the urgent-but-empty significance of corporate jargon. What does it mean? Is it really necessary?

Brooke Warner describes it at The Write Life as an “author’s visibility”; Agent Kate McKean describes it as “name recognition”; and Jane Friedman, publishing industry insider, describes it as the “ability to sell books because of who you are and who you can reach.”

An author platform houses the various inputs by which you define yourself as an author and express and communicate your message to potential readers. A platform is  a point of connection (usually several points of connection) between you and the readers who want to know more about you, your expertise, and your various projects. 

For most authors, an author platform is made up of a relevant handful of the following: a website, a Twitter profile, a Facebook page, a newsletter, and podcast appearances, speaking gigs, and writing–or writing adjacent–projects. 

Nonfiction writers should view an author platform as a helpful aid to securing publisher interest. The platform testifies to an author’s ability to produce work that resonates with readers. It also suggests the presence of readers ready to purchase the work. This is important because, as McKean argues, a platform “is there to sell books.” 

Despite this, nonfiction authors can and should begin to build their platform while in book development. You may feel ill-equipped to build a platform before your book is finished, or you may fear that sharing too much of your project will dilute its power. However, creating connections with interested audiences takes effort, and effort takes time. Your audience can provide essential insight into what work resonates and with which audience members. Further, the mere presence of an interested audience can prompt production.

The work of building an author platform may initially feel arduous, but it builds its own momentum. Overlook its jargon-adjacent phrasing, and consider it an instrumental part of the author process.

It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.

Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.

Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in  “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.

Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.

Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?

When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can only be utilized in extremity.

Yet care is not a limited resource. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a logical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we expand our capacity to care.

Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care. 

Oh, look at those young women up there! It’s hard to believe how much has changed since Jessica Knight and I began Modern Writing Services: Houses bought and sold; babies born and grown; and, of course, business growth and change. 

This year marks the first full year without Jess. In 2019, she transitioned from her role at Modern Writing Services to that of a full-time research writer and analyst at United Health Group. While she still consults at MWS, she does so in a bespoke capacity. Here, she talks about her move:

Q: What precipitated your decision?

A: There’s not really one why, though going in-house is something I’ve thought about for a while. I was interested to see what it would feel like to have a longer-term stake in my work than I was able to have as a consultant. It can be tough to pour your heart and soul into a project and then have very little control over what happens to it after you turn it over to a client! I was also ready to step back from the business-ownership side of…well, owning a business. And I knew Molly would continue to do great things with MWS. Plus, it gave me an excuse to buy a bunch of new clothes!

Q: What’s your new position like?

A: It’s really challenging, and really interesting. It’s been a huge learning curve, and I imagine that’s going to continue pretty much as long as I stay in this job, since developments happen so quickly in the healthcare and R&D worlds. My role involves very diverse work, from conducting literature reviews and writing white papers for our business and scientific leadership; to working with our data scientists, statisticians, and clinicians to help them develop research questions, analyze results, and create narratives of their research; to collaborating with our subject matter experts to refine conference presentations and papers for publication.

Q: How is it different from, or similar to, your MWS work?

A: It’s a ginormous company, which has benefits and drawbacks. To some degree, the R&D group feels like its own little island with an independent culture, but even within R&D I have a couple hundred coworkers. And the work I do is very collaborative across research teams and roles, so the day-to-day feels a lot different from what my day-to-day was like at MWS, when my projects were almost completely solo ventures.

However, the job draws on a surprisingly similar skill set to a lot of the work I did at MWS. While it’s obviously all healthcare focused, the research, writing, and editing that I do isn’t so different from the kinds of work that I did for nonprofits, universities, and presses with MWS.

Q: The best part?

A: The energy and intelligence of my coworkers—it’s really exciting to work with such smart people and to be tasked with trying to solve such challenging problems. I’m constantly learning—and I love that constant learning is a foundational part of my job. And the food. We have weirdly good food at our office!

Q: The worst part?

A: Hands down it’s the commute. I’ve gone from rolling out of bed and into my home office, to slogging through a 30–60 minute drive each way. I can work from home, but it’s often just easier to be in the office. I listen to a lot of books on tape, which, thank god for books on tape, or I’d be a totally rageful driver. I do my best to be zen about it, but it’s for sure a drag to spend so much time in the car.

Q: When will you work with Molly again?

A: In my head, I still work with Molly. We collaborated on everything we did for six years at MWS, so I think there will always be a little piece of my brain that operates on a WWMD (what would Molly do?) basis. And I jump on any chance to actually work together againI’m always available to come on board for special MWS projects

As has been documented (here and…everywhere else), I welcome the opportunity forced by the new year to reflect on the old, contemplate the present, and imagine a better, slightly more accomplished future. 

But reflecting on the old means reflecting on very many resolutions I’ve failed to uphold. So, when I make resolutions, I make one or two, in areas of life I actually want to spend time in, and small enough so I have a chance of fulfillment.

In this respect, the #2020bookchallenge is a hazard and an opportunity.

My 2020 book challenge is much less ambitious: I want continue tracking the books I read (a prior, miraculously successfully met resolution) and also track why I read the book in the first place.

The Newsletter Age has resulted in many excellent book recommendations, but they are hard to track. When I finish a book, whether I loved or hated it, I want to (mentally, at least) discuss it with its recommender. Yet, by the time I receive and then read the book, its provenance has vaporized with the mists of memory. 

The Library Extension tool and my trusty Excel spreadsheet are going to help me keep this resolution. The former (for Chrome or Firefox) will find the book at my local library the moment it’s recommended, and Excel will track its provenance. 

It’s too late for Trust Exercise–I reserved it in 2019 but no longer remember who recommended it–but I trust I’ll be able to engage in many more mental dialogues in 2020.