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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

image by Guido Klumpe

Success in publishing is always at least partly a matter of luck. The writing itself, we can largely control: our minds gin up the premise, our will drives the process, our hands type the sentences. Beyond that, all sorts of things can affect the success of a book. On the particular day your manuscript hits their desk(top), agents and editors will say yes or no for their own set of reasons. When you do finally publish, someone else might happen to release a book with a similar-sounding premise around the same time and claim that space in the public consciousness. Reviews may or may not go your way. The lists of things beyond your control is basically endless.

And then there’s the virus.

Disruptions due to COVID-19 have turned so many things upside down, and publishing is no exception. Bookstores are closed to the public; publishers are still acquiring and putting out books, but everything from book tours to trade shows to paper availability is affected, and then of course there’s home life, where kids are suddenly underfoot and/or other sources of income have dried up and/or we’re all so driven to distraction by anxiety and fear that sitting down at the keyboard and putting fresh words down on the page seems all but impossible.

These are tough times. They are also the only times we’ve got.

I won’t say to look on the bright side, because it isn’t a matter of saying to yourself Buck up, Buttercup, and then everything will be all right; for far too many people, in far too many ways, everything will not be all right.

But I will say that stories have power, and unlike so many other aspects of life, the story you tell yourself about these dark days is entirely within your control.

Think of yourself as the protagonist of your story. (You are the protagonist, aren’t you?) If you tell yourself the story that you were all set up for success — you wrote the perfect book, got everything lined up perfectly for publication, and then your one chance at stardom was ripped away from 2020’s uniquely destructive brand of dumpster fire — that’s one option. But that story, especially through repetition, breeds resentment and anger. Blaming things that are out of our control is so tempting we really can’t resist. At first. But once that first flare of anger is out of the way, it’s also possible not to focus on blame at all. To let it go. And to search instead for a path forward.

One story you could tell yourself: I would have been a success until coronavirus destroyed everything, so I gave up.

Another story: My path to success hit a bump in 2020 — you know the bump I mean — but in the long run, I hung in there.

These dark days are not the end of the story. That second story, the one where you hang in there, the story you have in your power to tell yourself — its end is not yet written.

You’re a writer. The only one who can finish that story is you.


About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.