Editor's Note: In conjunction with his publication of his new book, "Good Prose," Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Tracy Kidder and editor Richard Todd will host “Good Prose Month” on Signature.com, with the goal of bringing together the strongest voices in nonfiction to share insight into the writing and editing process with the next generation of authors. Every day during the month of January, visit Signature.com for a new Good Prose tip, lesson, or story from bestselling authors, award-winning journalists, acclaimed editors, and favorite storytellers. The conversation will continue on Twitter with a weekly #GoodProse chat about the craft of writing, hosted by selected authors from a range of nonfiction genres.
Melanie Hoffert is the author of Prairie Silence: A Memoir. She grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota, where she spent her childhood wandering gravel roads and listening to farmers at church potlucks. Her work has been published in several literary journals, and she holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University. Melanie lives in Minneapolis and works for Teach For America. Learn more about her work at www.melaniehoffert.com.
1. You will never be able to anticipate everybody's reaction to your work. Don't try.
Before the publication of my memoir, I handed the final draft over to my mom for one final read. While I think it is safe to say that the book is nowhere near racy -- it has been described as a quiet narrative, and is largely about self-identity and my longing for the North Dakota landscape of my childhood -- all I could think about was her reading about my first sexual experience with not one, but two women. There were other passages I worried about too: What will she think about my current views on religion? How will she feel about her appearances in the book? For days I couldn't sleep.
When I stopped by my parents' house to retrieve the manuscript, I learned that I had good reason to be concerned. "It was all really good honey, but—" oh no, here it comes, I thought, her meltdown. "I'm not sure about those dirty faces," she said.
"What do you mean, dirty faces?" I asked.
"You know how you described those kids with the dirty faces? What do you think they'd think?"
"Oh, that?" I said, remembering the passage. "Mom, we were kids, playing in the trees; I was describing their playfulness, their youth, our outdoor ruggedness, their beauty. I'm sure it's fine."
"I don't know. It worries me. They might think you meant that they were not well-kept or something."
As feedback about my book has started to come in, I am thankful for this exchange with my mom; it prepared me to understand that writers can’t anticipate everybody's reaction to their work. What we obsess about, nobody may notice; tiny details we never dreamed would catch anyone’s eye may cause a stir. It is pointless to worry. Instead, hold tight to the truth that you followed your voice and wrote from the most authentic place possible.
2. The book will end and become something new.
I have received lovely notes from people telling me they couldn't put my book down and finished it within a day. Oddly, when I first heard this news, I felt depressed. The book took ten years to write. I felt sad for its end.
After a few days, I had to step back and evaluate my reaction to what should be -- one would think -- good news: People seem to like the book. In this evaluation I began to understand that the book is now its own entity with its own journey. The writing has stopped, but something new has begun.
Now, when someone tells me they've read the book in one sitting, I close my eyes and imagine the words as vibrating energy, like subatomic quarks. I tell myself that the book has not ended, but changed form, expanded. While I will never know its full impact, I choose to trust it will live on.
3. Publication will not change your life, but writing will.
I have heard it many times, the conventional wisdom passed down from published writers to non-published writers: Beware of your expectations, publication will not change your life.
I have always thought, Sure, easy for you to say, your book is circulating in the world. Now here I am, with a book. And while it is thrilling to walk into a bookstore to see my hard work manifest, I am, predictably, the same writer with all the same insecurities.
So, yes, publication does not radically transform, but the good news is that writing does. The times when I have felt the most excited about my new book have not been when reading generous reviews, but rather when I've sat down to write. When writing, I am reconnected to the flow of language. I am participating in an act of creation, without a beginning or an end. Publishing a book is just a bonus; like that one day out of a hundred when you catch your reflection in the mirror and think, Okay, I guess I don't look so bad.