In the summer of 1957 I was all of 19. I got a dream job, associate editor at a literary agency, and immediately dropped out of college to keep it. The agency (Scott Meredith) was a hybrid, representing some solid professional writers while making big money as a slush mill, charging reading fees and encouraging the hopeless. I was there for eight or nine months, and I learned something useful every single day.
One of the best lessons came from the guy in Shreveport, Louisiana. He gave me a stunning and enduring lesson in the Power of Negative Thinking.
Yeah, negative thinking. We hear a lot about the power of positive thinking, but negative thinking’s every bit as powerful. We’re all of us at the effect of it, and none of us more than this dude.
He must have been around 40, and he’d made a lot of money in the oil business. Now all he wanted to do in the world was write something and get it published, but his first letter explained why that was a hopeless proposition. “No editor will ever buy a story from me,” he assured us.
And he sent in a story that demonstrated his thesis well enough. I don’t remember it, but it wasn’t something you could send out. Still, he was not a bad writer. His sentences had life in them. He was by no means untalented. So one of us wrote him a letter over Scott’s signature, explaining why the story didn’t work, but assuring him he was a good writer and we’d like to see more of his work. (We told that to everybody. Didn’t matter if you couldn’t write your name in the dirt with a stick. As long as your checks cleared, we’d encourage you. But in his case it happened to be true. He was a good writer, but this wasn’t a good story.)
He wrote back. It was all a fool’s errand, he said, because no editor would ever buy a story from him. So he had a proposition for us. Suppose he sent in a story, and one of Scott’s big-time authors put his name on it? Our client could keep the money, and he’d pay him a fee on top of it.
Someone asked Scott. “We draw the line at that,” he said, which impressed the hell out of me, because it was the first I knew that we drew the line at anything.
The guy wrote back with another proposition. Let the big-time writer supply the story, to be submitted under Shreveport’s name. How would that be? We drew the line at that, too, and he said in response that neither ploy would have worked. “No editor would like a story I wrote,” he said, “and no editor would buy a story with my name on it.”
But the one thing he wanted in life was a sale to a national magazine. Did we have any ideas? We suggested a radical approach. Why didn’t he try writing a story that would prompt an editor to write a check? And, since he didn’t seem to care what he wrote or where he published it, why didn’t he take aim at a soft target?
At the time, the true confession magazines were the most receptive market for new fiction. (They purported to be non-fiction, but they weren’t. Think Reality TV.) The stories didn’t carry bylines, so name value wasn’t a consideration. A lot of writers made a decent living writing confessions, and many of them moved on to solid careers.
One day a woman sent in a pair of stories as her first submission to us. I grabbed them out of the slush pile, and within 72 hours we’d sold both of them and signed her as a pro client. (Her name was Barbara Bonham, and she went on to do very well writing confessions, along with romance novels and nurse novels and a biography of Willa Cather.)
The Shreveport guy thought that was a terrific idea. And he went right out and bought every confession magazine he could find and read them all cover to cover. He was a fast reader and a fast writer, and it wasn’t long before his efforts bore fruit and a thick envelope landed on Scott’s desk. (And, once the check for the reading fee had been extracted, it wound up on mine.)
This was a story written after a careful analysis of the market, a story designed to maximize its chances of selling. Right?
First thing I noticed was the length. It was 12,000 words long. Now confession stories at the time all ran 4-5000 words. Some but not all of the magazines would include a double-length story, running 8-10,000 words. I don’t believe any of them ever published anything 12,000 words long.
Another thing I saw right away was that the story was written from a male viewpoint. Most of the confession magazines would use an occasional story with a male narrator, but never more than one per issue, and it was never the double-length story.
A 12,000-word male-viewpoint confession.
But so what? I didn’t have to look at the word count, or note the male narrator, to realize our friend had written something we could barely sell as birdcage liner. All I had to do was look at the title.
First, though, you need to know that confession stories were remarkably tame. They got kind of racy twenty years later, but back in the 50s they were anything but. The traditional formula was Sin, Suffer, and Repent, with the sinning off-stage and vague, the suffering considerable, and the repentance profound.
But for the fact that the poor little narrator may have gone to bed with someone once, there was no sex here, and what passed for it was White Bread all the way. The world of the confession story was a world in which child abuse and incest simply did not exist. Nor did interracial relationships, or homosexuality, or drugs, or orgies, or masturbation or sex toys or, well, much of anything. Oh, maybe a little shrimping and felching, but—
No, no, no. None of that!
No coarse four-letter words, to be sure. No clinical language, either. No colloquial terms for the sex act.
So what was the title of his can’t-miss-’cause-I-studied-the-market 12,000-word male viewpoint story?
“I DIDDLED MY WIFE’S SISTER!“
Swear to God. I’m not improving on it, because how on earth could I?
“No editor wants to read what I write. No editor will ever buy a story from me.” That’s what he truly believed, deep in his heart of hearts, and he told us as much in his first letter. And, for all that he yearned to see his work in print, he wanted even more to prove himself right.
And it worked. We sent his story back, and he expressed dismay but not surprise, and we never heard from him again.
Why am I telling you all this?
Sometime in May, shortly after A Drop of the Hard Stuff was published, I began starting each day by posting an affirmation for writers on my Facebook page. On June 24, I celebrated my birthday by joining Twitter, and since then each day’s affirmation has gone out to both my Twitter followers and my Facebook friends.
At one point I posted a note on how to work with affirmations, and just the other day I sent this out to the Universe:
How to pick daily affirmation: Go down list. Find one that’s (a) palpably false (b) saccharine pap (c) nauseating (d) all of the above. That’s the one. Now post it.
Maybe it’s time to explain all this relentless positivism. It goes back at least to the early 1980s, when I developed the affirmations (and listed them in a book, and made a tape, and wrote magazine columns about them) as part of my interactional seminar, Write For Your Life. Just about everything in WFYL wound up in a book with the same title, but there was one story I left out, the story of the self-defeating scribe of Shreveport.
Now it was a wonderful story, and it went over well every time my wife and I presented the seminar. But I left it out of the book because a lot of people were buying and reading the book before they took the seminar, and I didn’t want to dilute the story’s impact by telling it beforehand.
Well, it’s been 25 years since the last WFYL, so why hold back?
Tell the truth now. Have you been diddling your wife’s sister?
You haven’t got a wife? She hasn’t got a sister? Makes no difference. Each of us has a ruling negative principle to which we’ve proved as loyal as the Shreveport Schlepper to his. Any of these ring a bell?
I’m not good enough.
It’s not safe to let people know the real me.
Writing is a struggle.
I’m too old.
No one wants to hear what I have to say.
Success would separate me from the people I love.
I’d go on, but you can figure out yours on your own. And why not? It’s been running in your head all your life.
All. Your. Life.
Affirmations are designed to turn that around. Just thinking about them is useful. A tape for repeated listening can be very helpful. And, especially for people like us to whom the written word is so consequential, there’s a process for writing affirmations that’s genuinely transformational.
Which is to say that it works. Even for you, in spite of the fact that you’re not good enough, not to mention old and stupid, and no one could possibly want to hear what you have to say.
It’s a simple process, but takes more words to explain than I feel like writing, and why should I? See, I’ve already written them. The whole process is explained and illustrated in Write For Your Life, available now as a HarperCollins eBook. There are other links at the upper right for my other Books for Writers, and one for the Affirmations tape, available now as an MP3 file.
Uh, these affirmations. This whole process. You really believe in it?
Hmmm. Now that reminds me of the story about the Tarheel who was asked if he believed in the baptism of infants. “Believe in it?” he said. “Believe in it? Hell, man, I’ve seen it done!”