Confident, Solid, and At Ease
Or, learning who to listen to
I had a realization the other day. I had just finished an on-camera interview about my second novel Terra Nova, and I felt calm. That’s nowhere near the right word to describe the feeling. Maybe it’s better to say I felt, all at once, confident, solid, at ease, grounded. And I noticed it. As I walked to my car, I wasn’t trailing worry or insecurity. I wasn’t already shooting my thoughts out ahead to how the interview might be received, whether it would be received by many. I was just walking to my car, having had a lovely experience. I was confident, solid, at ease.
I noticed this because I instantly felt the contrast between that moment and its counterpart during the launch of my debut novel. Over the last nine years, I’ve experienced a huge shift in what I believe about myself as a writer and in my expectations. And a huge shift in the very way in which I assemble my belief about myself. I wrote this down because, like so many realizations we have about ourselves, I feared losing it, reversing course, if I didn’t commit the thoughts to paper. But I’m also posting this here because I think this situation applies not only to the very weirdly specific experience of having launched a book, but to more aspects of life in general. So I hope you’ll find it useful.
I did the book events for my debut novel in a haze of elation mixed with misery, all of it stewed together with enormous insecurity. Why? (Well, why not, you might ask, if you’re a writer who has launched a book.) My decades-long marriage was in the middle of the five years it took to die, so there was general misery in that. But specifically, my then-husband had refused to read the novel. [This piece is not about his actions, but about my reaction to them. Suffice to say something about the book upset him, and he stopped reading about twenty pages in.] I could have simply moved on from his refusal and gone on to my many book events with joy in the generally good reception I was getting for the novel. Instead, I felt ashamed.
Even as I went around to bookstores and interviews on-camera like the one I did last week, even as I accepted people’s good wishes, I always felt out of place, as if presuming, as if trotting out some embarrassing thing everyone secretly wished I would just put away. I have always had a strange relationship with The Clover House, finding it difficult for me to accept that, objectively, it is a perfectly fine book.
This anecdote in itself doesn’t get us anywhere, doesn’t lead to any important realization. The key thing here is the way my embarrassment (that’s not quite the right word, but we’ll stick with it) over the novel clashed with my expectation back then of what it was supposed to be like (or could be like) to launch a book.
We all have fantasies involving Famous Celebrity book-club selection! Movie rights! Red carpets! Without specifically anticipating any of those things, I did harbor an amorphous hope, or even belief, that launching a book would feel like a Big Deal. And don’t get me wrong: it did! It was in many ways wonderful. But back then, in 2013, I had an idea of “wonderful” that made me ache even more for its absence. In a time in my life that was made up of loss and of aching for the thing I could see slipping away from me, I went to every book event expecting fun while feeling a secret shame—for the very misery I was wrapped up in and for this novel someone important had refused to read.
This time around, my expectations are in line with my reality—and my reality is wonderfully free of ache and pining. [Reader, I married a man who, by our first date, had already read The Clover House and loved it. Which makes it sound like a fairy-tale challenge suitors must meet, but I swear it wasn’t!] This time, I know my book for what it is—a good book, maybe the best I’ll ever write—and I know the experience of a book launch for what it is for a novelist like me (I know what I mean by that). I am, perhaps, more realistic about what the experience entails, and I’m able to enjoy each part of it. This time, I’m not pulled back into any misery, nor shot ahead into fantasies. This time, I’m confident, solid, and at ease.
I think there are two lessons here.
First, it’s important to find that balance between your expectations and what you believe about yourself. Second, it’s important to have a clear understanding of who you are, where you are, what you’re doing.
I lied. There’s a third thing and it’s the whole reason I sat down to write this.
Never let some other person decide for you who you are and what you’re doing. That was my mistake. Someone important to me, for his own reasons, reacted negatively to what I had created, and I decided he was right, even though objectively I knew he wasn’t. (That’s where shame comes in, right? Otherwise, if I really knew he was right, I’d have quit.) Then my negative feelings about my creation clashed with my understandable hopes for the novel, and there you have it: I had wrapped myself in constant unease.
I write a lot here about expectations and how to manage them and how to set goals and manage those. Here’s the first time I’ve said anything about how to manage the expectations other people have for you. It’s good to have supporters and coaches—people who can believe in you when your nerves or anxieties are getting in your way. It’s important to have people who can give you trusted feedback on the work you produce. But it’s so crucial to know when not to listen to others.
The whole thing involves three steps. First know what you want and who you are. Then shape your expectations accordingly. Then and only then decide who else, if anyone at all, gets to have a say in the matter.
Henriette, thanks for this brave and sincere account of your first book launch, and for sharing your insight into the contrast between that and the one you're doing now.
Perfection is not of this earth, but as you point out, something imperfect can still be wonderful! Since that's what earthly perfection is, we might as well get used to it and embrace it. While your first launch sounds terrific in its own way, this one seems even better because (to use an explorer image) you have your "sea legs."
Each book represents a fixed point, a moment crystallized in a collection of words, though of course subject to interpretation. But as a living writer, you're much more volatile -- a moving target. . It is great that this time around, you can enjoy the ride. You're different in terms of who you are , and maybe even why you write. With this comes the precious ability to channel who(m) you choose to listen to. This is always hard to know, in literature as in life., but you're reminding us we can work toward a better place, and the kind of understanding you've won the hard way, by pushing forward and growing in wisdom and experience.
I am so glad you are having this kind of experience with this book. It seems like everything about this time around is joyful! Thanks for the reminder to know when not to listen to others--it's hard, but it's possible!! Enjoy the post-launch glow!