This Tuesday, my newest book Everyone Has What It Takes: A Writer’s Guide to the End of Self-Doubt, will be officially published and available. Though I’ve written a lot of books in my life, some of which were published, some of which were not, this one stands apart from the others for the very long and circuitous route it traveled to arrive at its current destination. That journey taught me much about writing and publishing, but also the limitation of the identities we assume as we try to find our place in the world.
I always knew I was going to be an artist of some kind, and it wasn’t long before I also knew that of all the art forms, writing suited me best. I knew I wanted to write prose and not poetry or theater or screenplays, and I knew I wanted to tell stories. To me, that meant novelist. After all, when I read books, I read novels. My problem was that when I started writing my first novel, I had begun to fall out of love with fiction. I wasn’t reading it much, and I didn’t have a story idea of my own.
No matter. I dove in and started writing anyway. For the record, do not try to start writing a novel if you don’t have a story you want to tell, or at least a character who you want to get to know better. It makes an already challenging pursuit exponentially more difficult. Despite how hard the writing was, despite feeling a strange disconnection from the work, I plowed ahead. I had a plan, and I was sticking to it. If I wasn’t a novelist, what the hell was I?
It was a good question I declined to answer. I liked the idea of being an author and novelist. Yes, my ego liked the notion that when I was at a party and someone asked me what I did I could say I wrote novels, but there was also something deeper at play in my desire to write and publish. When I read something I loved, I loved it because it seemed to get to the heart of life. That was the job of the artist, I felt. To cut through what didn’t matter and focus the audience or the reader’s attention on life’s loving center. What a great job. And what a great way to be in the world. To have my work be all about what actually mattered most.
The novel writing eventually went all right, but the novel publishing did not. In the middle of all this, my wife and I learned that my youngest son was on the autism spectrum. Raising him taught me something very valuable: no one is broken. Those are the actual words I heard in my head one day. No one is broken. I jumped up out of my chair when I heard them. They were like an answer to a question I didn’t know I’d been asking. To me they meant that no one is better or worse, and no one needs to be fixed. Beautiful. I knew it was true simply because of how I felt when I thought it.
What’s more, it seemed like the sort of thought that should to be shared with others. Actually, with everyone. But how? I was a novelist, and this was a message. I didn’t want to shroud this message in the metaphor of a fictional story. I thought about it for a couple of years while I continued to write novels, wondering if it was a documentary, a self-help book, or a workshop. None of it seemed correct.
By and by I tired of writing fiction and turned my attention to the idea that no one is broken. I decided I would write it as a memoir. A memoir is like a non-fiction novel. It often reads like a novel and employs many of the same narrative techniques of fiction. It is also artistic, meaning it shows much more than it tells. Artists don’t prescribe; they describe. I was an artist.
I liked the memoir format. It was similar to the essays I’d begun writing for a magazine I edited, but I did have trouble finding this memoir’s story. Memoirs need a story with a beginning, middle, and end, with a central problem, and a conflict and a resolution. It was tricky trying to find the story in which to house the message. The message seemed to resist it. No matter. I plowed on, and many people were excited by the idea of this book. In fact, everyone I told about it was excited by the idea. But the book itself, which I wrote again and again and again, in draft after draft after draft, never quite captured what the title promised.
Meanwhile, in my spare time, I wrote and published a book called Fearless Writing. This was a kind of self-help book for writers based on classes I’d been teaching. It was easy to write and easy to sell. It was both prescriptive and descriptive, by which I mean it was filled with what I hoped were entertaining stories and useful advice. I figured, however, that it was a one-off. I was an artist, after all. Once it was out, I told my agent, “Now let’s sell No One is Broken.”
She couldn’t. So I got another agent. She almost sold it. While she was trying, I spent a lot of time talking to writers at writers’ conferences. I would often tell them stories about my son and about how no one is broken, even writers who feel stuck, or writers who worry that they have no talent, or writers who haven’t sold anything yet. Everyone has what it takes, I told these writers. Everyone is absolutely built to succeed, and everyone possesses the same perfect equipment. It’s just a matter of learning how to use it.
It was a couple of weeks after the last tiny publisher passed on No One Is Broken that I was talking to my wife and mentioned how I would often tell writers that everyone has what it takes. Maybe that’s a book, she said. I saw instantly that it was, that it would be like Fearless Writing, but with an even more spiritual bent. I knew it would be easy to write and sell, and it was. It was also filled with many of the same stories I told in No One Is Broken, only now those stories were the kind of teaching anecdotes I always included in my essays.
I love this book and am excited to share it. I consider it a work of art, but that’s my secret. I didn’t describe it that way to my agent or the publisher when we sold it. That is, however, how I think of it because my first and primary goals were to entertain and inspire my readers, to describe a world where everyone has what it takes, in case the readers had any doubts themselves. There’s also some advice, but I think the entertainment and inspiration are more useful.
It is remarkable to me how complicated I had made writing by trying to impose my own notion of what this book ought to be upon it. If there’s one lesson every artist must learn, it’s that the story or the song or the painting tells them what it wants to be. I had developed too narrow an idea of what made something a work of art. I was an accidental snob, believing I knew what sort of book was worthy of my attention and which was not. It took a while, but now I let the books tell me, and I am led in the writing to where I ought to be.