Today, I am going to interview Laura Davis, author of THE COURAGE TO HEAL and BECOMING THE PARENT YOU WANT TO BE. Laura and her colleague, Janet Goldstein, New York City publishing strategist and former editorial executive at Viking Penguin, Broadway Books and HarperCollins, have organized a two-day event called THE NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING which will be held in Santa Cruz the weekend of May 22nd-23rd. I want to talk to Laura about this seminar and also about the value of writers’ conferences in general. I’m inspired to do this because I just got back from the Las Vegas Writers Conference. It was really a revelation to me. Here I was in the absolute armpit of low culture and there is this amazing community of writers, passionate about their art and their craft. It really reminded me about how courageous writers really are.
Andy: Laura, let’s start by talking about THE NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Laura: I’m an independent writing teacher. And a lot of my students were getting to the point where they were ready to consider moving from personal writing—just for themselves—toward publishing—writing with an audience in mind. I could help them find their voice and develop craft and a story, but I realized that my knowledge of the rapid changes in the publishing industry was limited and out of date. So I called up Janet, who was the editor on my first six books, and asked her to fly out to California to do a half-day seminar on the changes in publishing. We did that last spring and it was so successful, and participants were so hungry for more, that we decided to do it again—this time offering a much more in-depth, hands-on environment where individual writers could really make progress applying new insights to their books, projects, and publishing steps.
Andy: It seems like writers’ conferences are cropping up all over the place? What do you have to offer that is different?
Laura: Our concept for this event has been to find that “in between place” between a writing retreat that is focused on creating work and a writers’ conference that is focused on panels and “pitching.” The larger conference environment can be incredibly exciting and stimulating, but it can be difficult to apply the insights gained to one’s individual work. We wanted to design a conference that isn’t just oriented toward the “indie-only” route or that promises that you can write a book in a weekend. It’s our belief that authors who truly understand the writing-to-publishing continuum and the mindset of successful publishing–such as craft, collaboration, audience–can strengthen their work and make it more valuable and open the door to publishing success.
Andy: It is kind of a cliché that you can’t really teach people how to write. You wouldn’t know that from all the workshops and magazines and blogs about writing tips. What do you think you can teach? What is beyond your grasp?
Laura: I can teach people how to carve away everything they’ve been taught about writing so they can discover their true voice and unearth their real material. I help people find the courage they need to write the pieces that are hardest to write—the kind where tears flow out with the ink. I teach my writers to cherish the shitty first draft; without it there would be no heart or soul to their work. I also teach them that dozens of drafts are required to create something polished and worthy of publication. I encourage my writers to begin thinking about communication and audience long before they think they’re ready to publish. That’s why I love writing circles—they create a built in “safe audience” that enables a writer to see the impact her words are having on others. In that confidential, encouraging setting, writers hone their craft and gain the confidence to share their work more widely. I see THE NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING as a next step, where writers can workshop their ideas in the larger world—and begin to understand the range of publishing options that are open to them.
Andy: It seems to me that it is pretty easy getting your book published now, but not so easy getting anyone to notice it. At least traditional commercial publishing had (and has) a pretty robust filtering system that can separate wheat from chaff. Undoubtedly there is great work in the self-publishing world, but also an ocean of mediocrity. How can we make sure that the cream will rise to the top?
Laura: The cream doesn’t always rise to the top. Plenty of crap makes its way to the bestseller lists. And as you point out, millions of books get published each year that don’t find an audience. As Janet and many others say, it definitely seems like more people want to publish books than read them. Marketing guru Seth Godin says, “No one owes you their time,” and I agree. Writers need to accurately assess the quality and value of their work. Does their work truly merit an audience? And if so, who is the right audience and what’s the right platform for their book?
The dynamic of selection has changed. That’s a given. But writers and readers are still served by strong work that connects, resonates, helps, and inspires, depending on its purpose. What we want to do at our conference is help people make the leap from thinking like a writer to thinking like a author—someone who first of all, has to write a compelling book, and secondly, needs to find and connect with an audience that will care.
Andy: When I speak to authors, I like to tell them that they shouldn’t get discouraged if they can’t get a publishing contract. After all realistically, most writers can’t. But I still believe failure to find a publisher doesn’t diminish the value of writing. I like to quote the great final line from Camus’ MYTH OF SISYPHUS. “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.” It seems like the premise behind THE NEW WORLD OF PUBLISHING is that becoming a published writer is a different kind of writing and offers qualitatively different challenges and opportunities. Tell us some more about this.
Laura: Personal writing—primarily for yourself—has tremendous value. Writing helps us process grief, make life decisions, understand ourselves, and record life stories for ourselves and for our families. Writing is an incredibly evocative, therapeutic, expressive tool. And if that’s as far as someone want to go with her writing—I’m cool with that. But for me personally, and for many of my students, a great wonderful leap happens when you start writing for an audience. It’s no longer just about self-expression; it’s about communication. There’s a two-way dialogue that happens between the author and her readers—and that’s a connection and a commitment that I find absolutely compelling. I’m a better writer because I’ve been published. When I have to make the story work for the reader, the story improves. No doubt about it.
Andy: Laura, let’s talk about you for a minute. You were a writer long before you became a published author. What changed when you became an author?
Laura: I feel an incredible responsibility to my readers. My first book, THE COURAGE TO HEAL, which I wrote with the poet Ellen Bass, was about an intensely personal experience for both me and my readers—having been sexually abused as a child. People didn’t read THE COURAGE TO HEAL for entertainment; they held it as a talisman, they slept with it under their pillow, they read one page or one paragraph at a time and then had to put it away until they could bear to read more. One woman barbequed her first copy because she was so enraged at everything the book was bringing up. When you touch people’s lives at such an intimate level, when you hold their lives and their trust in the palm of your hand, it creates an incredible covenant. Twenty-two years after THE COURAGE TO HEAL was first published, I still feel bound and helped by that covenant. And that experience is at the heart of what I want to share with my students and the people who come to our conference. Words can change lives—not just yours—but the lives of your readers as well.