In the Wilderness: The author who went out of contract
An author came to see me recently. She was between contracts, temporarily without a publisher, suffering a slump in confidence. She knew she would probably be under contract again soon, but living in uncertainty was making her anxious. "You know what you should write?" she said flatly, unquestioningly. "You should write a blog called 'In the Wilderness'. That's where I am. That's what I need to read." Here it is, lovely girl. I hope it helps.
Dear author, when you say you are in The Wilderness, do you mean that you feel lost because you are a writer without a publisher? Being temporarily without a publisher, perhaps you feel you have lost the way to your readers.
Of course the sense of being lost can be frightening. But one of the joys of a real Wilderness is that there are no paths to guide you; there is no well-trod route you must follow. On a map, The Wilderness leaves little trace; it transcribes as empty space. It is for us to forge our own paths through fern or brush or bracken, to draw our own map. You have a chance to find a new way through to your next book, with no expectation or committee or wider consensus. Don't wait to be found - strike out and find us.
All of us in publishing are obsessed with 'discovery'; with the challenge of bringing new books to the attention of readers. When you say you are in The Wilderness, I know you mean that you are weary from wondering whether you will be seen or discovered. You would like to know that someone is listening; you crave the collaboration of an editor and the company of good readers.
These writing months are a more solitary time it's true, a quiet time in which to think and to write without influence or interruption. In The Wilderness there are no crowds - only you, your imagination, your ideas. That feels lonely and worrying sometimes. But it's also freedom. Soon it will be time for conversation again; to figure out how to talk about your book with others - how to summarise it, pitch it, package it, sell it. You'll have to get distance from your work in order to do that but for now you can immerse yourself in writing the book you want to write. Every conversation about your book will start with your own passion for it - that passion is all you're looking for right now.
When you say you are in The Wilderness, I know you mean to tell me that you're tired from walking and working without knowing when you'll be done - you'd like to be back in more familiar territory. But of course, most of us can't wait to escape familiar territory, to spend time in The Wilderness. Everyday life is all order: regimented, segmented. Here the streets divided into regular sized plots, here the commuters patiently filed in queues, here the meeting schedule, here the deadline. This summer, in the real wilderness, I walked through fields of fern so high they brushed my shoulders; I climbed up mountains and looked out over blue and grey peaks rising into mist; I swam in rough seas and was pulled under. We feel small and overwhelmed by the size and power of the wilder places and yet when we lie at the mountain summit and look out, we are usually content. We find ourselves thinking - yes, this makes sense, I can live in this world.
This is a chance for you too, whilst you feel you are in The Wilderness, to take time out from deadlines, from routine, from commitments and commissions; to look out, to survey, and to consider - what do I really want, from this - from my writing, from sharing my writing with the world? Have I been writing the books I really want to write? Just as looking out at a stupendous view broadens the mind, so could you be opened up to new possibility by the terrifying empty space of The Wilderness.
Wild is what all places are before we plant and tend, nurture and cultivate. Wild is what we are before we learn patience and manners; before we understand what is expected of us. In The Wilderness, cultivate the wildness of your dream self. Listen to the ideas and desires you have buried inside. Once you start to turn the ground over, who knows what you'll unearth.
I love this, from Little Women, about Jo March's favourite place: "The dim, dusty room, with the busts staring down from the tall book-cases, the cozy chairs, the globes, and, best of all, the wilderness of books, in which she could wander where she liked, made the library a region of bliss to her."
A region of bliss. We readers need never be without The Wilderness; you writers are all in The Wilderness in one way or another, every day. Just as I love to escape through books, so does it feel essential to me, to spend a few weeks of every year in the wilder places. Maybe this period in The Wilderness - this gap between contracts - will come to feel essential to you; will seem in retrospect to have been an important period of change and reflection. Maybe you'll even decide that The Wilderness is the perfect place in which to write. Some authors only feel free enough to write their best work when they are out of contract.
Enjoy your time in The Wilderness, dear author, it won't last forever. When I leave the wilder places and come back home, I make sure to bring some of the wilderness back into the city. There is always a shell in my pocket, a stone in my bag, or sand in my shoe. I hope you bring some of the scale, freedom and endless potential of The Wilderness back with you too, when you become an Author Under Contract once again.