Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, has become my new favorite example of the power of persistence. She certainly hasn’t made me forget about Jo Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers before finding a home at Bloomsbury, but Rowling got representation from the second agent she tried, while Stockett reportedly got at least 45 rejections for The Help before even finding an agent (see this article for a bit more on that).
If you don’t happen to be involved with publishing, I should explain that even after an author finds an agent, the agent then has to submit the book to publishers, so even finding an agent can be a long way away from getting a book published.
The Help is an engrossing, insightful novel about black maids and their white employers in the American South in the early 1960’s. I finished reading it (actually, listening to the audio book, which is very well performed) the other day, and it has taken its place among my favorite novels for its involving story, entertaining style, and heart. As you may know, Stockett’s novel has been made into a hugely successful movie and has sold millions of copies. After reading it, I found myself hoping that it had to do with direct experience, that Stockett was one of the children who were raised by the kinds of maids we get to know in the book. This turns out to be true, although Stockett is about a decade younger than the children in her novel.
Try, Improve, Try Again
Flying in the face of Robert Heinlein’s famous advice (“You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”), which reportedly even Heinlein himself didn’t quite follow, Stockett kept making changes and improving her manuscript as she received rejection after rejection, though she doesn’t seem to have been at all immune to the painful process of having a work you’ve slaved away on repeatedly turned down and spoken ill of. This brings to mind Harper Lee’s process with To Kill a Mockingbird: she edited that novel over a long, laborious period with her editor, Tay Hohoff. While we know that there are great successes that come out more or less great from the beginning, others, clearly, are crafted over time.
It’s tempting to think that when many agents or publishers reject a book that later becomes successful, that they’re simply foolish or short-sighted. This can certainly be the case, as with the book publishers who said children would never read a book as long as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or the editor who told Emily Dickinson that her poems were “generally devoid of true poetical qualities.” Sometimes, though, these people are just being truthful about work that doesn’t fit for them, or are responding to something that isn’t yet fully realized, a diamond in the rough that as far as the rejecting party knows may never really be cut to its proper shape.
Does persistence always pay off?
So should we take from this that, like Stockett, all we have to do is to hang in there, keep trying, and success will eventually come? I would suggest that the complete answer to that is “Yes and no.” Persistence seems to be a very important quality to have if we want to be successful at anything great. Actually, maybe “persistence” doesn’t quite cover it. Maybe the word I’m looking for is devotion, when we don’t simply show up, but put our whole selves into our efforts.
With that said, persistence alone isn’t necessarily going to get us anywhere. The Help is reportedly Stockett’s first novel, but she has a background in writing and editing, and most of the published novelists I know wrote at least one other novel or a lot of short stories (sometimes both) before selling a book.
Diamond in the rough or practice project?
So it is possible to stick with a project too long. With that said, I’m not sure it’s possible for us to stick with projects we really believe in, profoundly, for too long. Practice is essential to developing great skill, and realistically, some of the projects on which we set all of our hopes will eventually turn out to have been practice projects: practice books, practice jobs … even practice relationships.
Other projects need improvement. There’s no such thing as practice parenting if real kids are involved, so despite any past mistakes, all we can hope to do with parenting is to improve ourselves and do the best we can going forward. Some books just need a lot of editing or rewriting. Some businesses need a new direction to survive or thrive.
How do we tell the difference? That’s the hardest part, of course, but the keys seem to be
1) We are most successful when we pursue goals we’re passionate about
2) Failure and rejection are not, in themselves, evidence that we’re on the wrong track
3) If we continue backing one specific project or effort, we need to be open to improving it if the opportunity presents itself, and
4) Experience and insight sometimes show us that a previous attempt is no longer worth pursuing.
That last point is tricky, but the core of it is keeping in touch with our passion for our work. If that passion has died away because we come to see that we can do more or better, than that’s all right: it may be time to start a new project. If we’ve simply been worn down by not achieving what we had hoped for, though, the danger is of giving up too soon. Success is sometimes a long road, but personally, I’m inspired by the example of people who, like Stockett, have followed it to its end however long that takes.