Post Date: January 14th, 2012
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8
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Whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, Dale Carnegie or The Secret, chances are you fall into one of two categories: either you’re a fan of positive thinking or you feel pressured by the perpetual optimism, fake or honest, of mainstream culture. American culture is rife with reinvention, new beginnings, and belief in the cult of renewable self. Try, try, and try again. And if you’re a writer, you can’t escape trying. Either you try all the time, or you will never get published: end of story.
We all get that Negative Nelly never sees the light and that Pollyanna, though she may be misguided (stupid, even), appears to have a much better time. And Pollyannas not only like what they’re gotten but believe they might even get better. It’s all good. I would imagine Pollyannas believe they have the right to ask. I’ve been called Pollyanna, so I might as well speak for her.
I’ve always been a squeaky wheel. For that, I get stuff (contest wins, an agent, blog respondents) and grief (rejection, anger, or “no”). When you ask, you will inevitably irritate some.
Writing is about demanding attention. Our words say, “All eyes on me.” I’ve never had trouble with that, being a teacher and an amateur actress. Call it ego and insane confidence, but you must believe you have a right to be seen and heard. Some writers fear irritating agents and editors so much, they never even knock. So you don’t deserve a space at the table? You don’t need a moment in the sun? There’s room for everyone. Everyone.
Writing is about asking for help. I ask my writing pals Bob and Gordon to take yet another look at my manuscripts; I ask my writing groups to hear odds and ends from various unfinished manuscripts; and let’s just say my parents should be canonized. They’ve read more drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT than any person should.
There’s only been one time I’ve asked and paid a person to give me feedback and that person has gotten irritated with me and my manuscript
. Note to Self: editors who are easily pissed off probably hate the job. Or are pretending to edit. Yep, I cried post critique. But I’ve never cried once in all the hundreds of rejections I’ve seen in the last several years. Perhaps because in all those nos, no one seemed particularly irritated by the asking. I guess I’m a people pleaser at heart and always wonder, “Wow, did I do something to piss this person off?” Um, you can waste a lot of time at that particular task.
Because sometimes my desire for speed, change, success, etc. can be a bit bull-in-the-china shop, I have to pay close attention to whether closed doors, no response, etc., is a sign I should stop or a sign I should persist. When my gut tells me, “It’s the principle of the thing,” I persist.
- Principle #1: I query because I have a story that needs to get out there. I asked about 150 times, and I did receive.
- Principle #2: I ask because I am worth something. I am worth the investment. Therefore if I ask for a raise, a loan, a reimbursement, or help, it’s not a request I should apologize for.
- Principle #3: I ask because I desire to grow and change. Seeds can’t be nurtured without water, soil, light, and time.
- Principle #4: I ask because I’m angry. Something needs to evolve; something needs to change.
On the latter, I realize I’m usually mad about something. I’m asking because I find the system broken or unresponsive; I ask because no one is paying attention; I ask because no one will tell me no forever. Maybe it’s a spirit of Italian vendetta (I’ve got Calabrian ancestry, granddaughter of an immigrant) that gets me raring to go. I don’t think this is particularly good for my blood pressure, but it does lead to interesting situations and great story ideas. Anger got me to the page several times and my best stories emerged. Another good motivator is empathy…but that’s another post.
My argument assumes we’re following the etiquette of asking. Polite in the wording, considerate of the askee’s time, appreciative of a response given. Not kicking off a request with a critique (author Laura Maylene Walter shares a funny story about that–see her #7 in this post). And even if you are the essence of politesse, you must still give your query permission to irritate. Don’t obsess on the wording too long or risk psyching yourself out; you may never get to the door in your kid gloves and proper hat. Why worry about dressing to see the Queen if you’re too afraid to seek an audience?
So if the blowback is ugly or disproportionate to the request, ask yourself if the irritated party falls into one of these archetypal categories. Even the most seemingly professional, laudable, famous, authoritative folks can fall into any of these slots:
- The Martyr: This person’s attitude is, “What, you’re asking me for something when I work too damn hard around here?”
- The Jealous Freak: “I can’t believe you have the nerve to ask when OBVIOUSLY you have it made and OH MY GOD THERE ISN’T ENOUGH TO GO AROUND!!!!”
- The Sluggard: “I have no desire to fulfill your request because I would rather surf Overstock.com and waste my time tweeting.”
You’re dealing with people who either need therapy for workaholic obsession, who’re severely addicted to the scarcity model, or who got where they are with too much luck and not enough sweat.
The writer who trashed my manuscript back in the day? I think she falls into all three.
Whether you desire a grant or 30 minutes of writing time a day or whether you crave an editor or a retreat or an agent–all of it is worth the asking. Are you willing to make someone mad as you do?
And if you aren’t asking, is it because you picture the red and spittle-flecked face of someone’s anger or the frigid gaze of disdain? The condescending stare of those who say, “You think you need something? Whatever! Suck it up and do without. Everyone else does.” No, they don’t. It’s a tiny few who are scouted from their writer’s garret, yanked from an isolated office or mountain hideaway, who squirrel themselves away without asking for help. Other writers are out there knocking. So reach. Ask. Keep your hand there.
Jesus was talking about prayer in Matthew 7:7-8. I’d say that’s an apt description of writing: asking, begging, railing, wondering, pleading, invoking, imagining into being. Novelist Milan Kundera writes, “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. “
What will you ask today?
- What question does your story, essay, poem, or novel ask?
- List requests you’ve made of others lately. On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the reasonableness of the request, the gall or arrogance of it, or the scariness of it. Talk about the number you chose.
- Tell a story about asking or receiving, or both.
- Which piece of writing has a right to see the light? To be heard by others? What is keeping it squirreled away?
- How will asking help your writing grow and change? Set three goals that require you to make some requests in the next three weeks.
- Write a story where The Jealous Freak, The Martyr, or The Sluggard stars as a foil to the hero or heroine.
- Write a poem titled, “Ask.”
- A man walks into a grocery store and makes the oddest request at three counters: the deli, the bakery, and the produce department. What does he ask? How do the store employees respond?
- A woman’s last will and testament presents a bizarre request that requires her children to do the opposite of what they want. What is that?