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Caroline Leavitt & The Sticky Subject of Success

by Susan Henderson on August 7, 2017

Talk to any successful writer and they will tell you stories of rejection and doubt, reading to empty rooms, and writing stories that tie themselves in knots. I wanted to bring those writers here to talk with you, and I could think of no one better to kick off my series, Words for the Weary, than Caroline Leavitt, who knows all about the highs and lows of being an author. She is, honestly, the most generous writer out there—an advocate for the unsung hero, a voice for writers without confidence or platforms.

Caroline is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, Meeting Rozzy Halfway. She has appeared on The Today Show, The Diane Rehm Show, and has been a judge in both the Writers’ Voice Fiction Awards in New York City and the Midatlantic Arts Grants in Fiction. She teaches novel writing online at both Stanford University and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as working with writers privately.

But the resume never tells the full story. Here’s the one and only Caroline Leavitt with a letter that is just for you.

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Find this amazing novel on Amazon and IndieBound.

Dear You,

Most of the writers I know have had messy childhoods. We write to heal. to say I am, I Am, and hope someone else says, Me, too, Me, Too. We want to be known, and that leads to the sticky subject of being known all too well, which is (sigh) fame.

Why do we want it? Maybe to feel validated. To have enough money to pay our rent, and go out to dinner and have enough to quit that horrible 9 to 5 job where you are yelled at for not dressing coherently enough. (It happened.) We want enough notice so we can write another book, or be known enough to get reviewed in top places, to be noticed, and oh, okay, to feel important.

Every writer I know feels the sting of envy. Why did that writer get that review when I didn’t? That prize? That crowd in the bookstore? I compared and despaired. Did people not like my work? Or was it me? Nothing was ever enough, until a friend of mine asked me, would I be finally satisfied if I won the Pulitzer? I knew the answer.

I had early, dramatic success with my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway and I mistakenly thought it would always be that way. I was flown to NYC and interviewed by Publisher’s Weekly and by TV and radio stations. I read and appeared everywhere and even had a movie deal. Then I wrote my second novel. My publisher went out of business and the novel tanked. I got a new publisher, and guess what? They went out of business, too.  Next I had a 3 book deal with a major publisher who wasn’t really interested in marketing or promotion, and I had enough sales only to buy my husband and I dinner at a fancy restaurant. I cried a lot. I was deeply ashamed.

I wasn’t successful. I knew it. My friends were getting prizes and important reviews and bookstores so filled that people had to wait outside. When people asked me what I did, I said, “I’m a writer?” with a questioning lilt to my voice because I wasn’t so sure, since success seemed so scarce.

I roamed the bookstores and looked at books and I couldn’t figure out, why was this bestseller better than my book? Why did friends of mine get the things I yearned for—and get them so easily? Was I doing something wrong?

I cried to my friends and they commiserated. I wrote a new novel that my agent loved, my writing friends loved—and my then publisher rejected on the grounds that it was “not special” enough. I knew then that I was finished. If you haven’t made money after 8 novels, and no one knows who you are, what publisher would take the risk of buying your new book? I couldn’t’ worry about success anymore because I was obviously a failure. But a writer friend of mine wouldn’t let me give up, and got my manuscript to her editor at Algonquin. I knew nothing would happen.

Until it did. They took that non-special book and put it into 6 printings months before publication. They turned it into a New York Times Bestseller its first month out.  I was suddenly sort of famous. The people who wouldn’t take my calls were now making them to me. I was asked for blurbs, asked for essays, feted.

But was I happy?

No, I was not. I was scared because I felt pressure to make the next book even better. What if I couldn’t? What if no one liked it? What if I grew less famous instead of more?

I was devastated by insecurity, I started trying to figure out the secret. I asked my editor a while ago about a writer who seemed to be getting everything on the planet and I couldn’t tell why because I had read the novel and thought it was, well…pleasant and light.  My editor shook her head.  “That writer is adorable,” she told me. “And also very well connected.”

Somehow, that made me feel better. Some writers are insanely good at making themselves adorable to the public, at gaining a following because they are handsome human beings, or they are part of a clique of writers who always go to the same coffee shop and order the same coconut latte. That’s not me, so I’m guessing it isn’t you, either.  You have to have time to hang out to be adorable and for those of us who are solitary souls, that isn’t going to happen.

It all felt so discouraging that I stopped writing altogether. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I told a disbelieving writer friend. “And it feels like a relief.”  And for three months it was. I didn’t write, I didn’t think about writing, I didn’t care. Instead, I lived. I had fun with my husband, with my son, with my friends. I didn’t read book reviews, but read the books I wanted to read for pleasure, not comparison.

I began to realize from being a book critic that some books I adored were savaged by other critics, and books that I had some problems with were touted.  Then, to my surprise,  one day, I felt a story simmering inside me. It had to be heard. And so I listened, and I began to write, not thinking about anything but story. I became happy, immersed in my work. I hope the book will be read, but if it isn’t, then there’s a next one, and a next one after that.

Now, when I feel a flare of envy, I turn it into good karma. Someone gets a prize I wanted? I immediately warmly congratulate them. Someone gets a rave? I send flowers. I try more and more to help other writers any way I can. It actually knocks out any jealousy. It makes me feel like a better person, and it puts things into perspective, and truthfully, we are all swimming in the same sea, so why wouldn’t it make me happy if someone got attention?

I know now that career is a long road, not a short stop. Any writer might have a Pulitzer one time, and a book that barely sells the next. It doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the writing, being in that incredibly heady state when you are in the zone and you inhabit your characters so vividly, you swear you can feel them breathing beside you. It’s that necessity to create, that deep, abiding emotion that spurs you on. It’s not commerce. It’s making art. Hey, I still have green eyes, but they’re not filled with envy anymore.

Love, Caroline

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel Cruel Beautiful World is out in paperback this August. Visit her at www.carolineleavitt.com

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Kimberly M. Wetherell August 7, 2017 at 3:04 am

Oh, what an encouraging, generous letter! Thank you, Caroline for writing it, and thank you Sue for sharing it this marvelous new addition to your already oh-so-lovely playground!

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Susan Henderson August 7, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Isn’t it a breath of fresh air to hear her story? I’m always reminded of a friend of mine, after he published his first book, how he was touted as an overnight success. It made it sound like he’d just whipped out a critically acclaimed book, but those of us who were close to him knew he had literally buried four or five dead, unsold novels in his backyard. Debut my ass. This work is hard and you can be fooled into thinking you’re totally failing, even when you’re right on the brink of something wonderful breaking out. xoxo

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Caroline leavitt August 7, 2017 at 3:08 pm

I am so glad!!! Cxx

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Wendy Werris August 7, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Hi Caroline,
Thank you for lifting my spirits and granting much-needed courage. I’ve been working on my second memoir for . . . well, years, and although I’ve become a better writer during that time I hear “who cares??” too often in my head than I care to mention. Now I realize that I care – which is all that matters. What a gorgeous little essay you’ve written. I am grateful.
Wendy Werris
Los Angeles

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Caroline leavitt August 7, 2017 at 3:10 pm

Hi Wendy! Yes! You care and that is what matters..! and what will matter to everyone lucky enough to read your memoir! And when it does come out, you know I will be promoting it all over my blog. Send everywhere else because it came from your heart! Caroline

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Susan Henderson August 7, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Wendy! I’m so glad you’re here. I needed to read this letter today, too. xo

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Jim Nichols August 7, 2017 at 5:04 pm

Thanks so much, Caroline and Susan…so affirming to read this while in the middle of the latest daunting struggle.

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Susan Henderson August 7, 2017 at 5:42 pm

The struggle is real.

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Jim Nichols August 8, 2017 at 5:56 pm

Maybe coincidentally, I may have pushed through a plotting tangle today!

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Susan Henderson August 8, 2017 at 8:30 pm

This makes me so happy!

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Jim Nichols August 10, 2017 at 12:00 pm

What makes me happy is a new Susan Henderson book! What makes me unhappy is I have to wait until March to read it.

Renee Thompson August 7, 2017 at 5:14 pm

I could almost cry, reading this–I can relate on so many levels: the “solitary soul” Caroline speaks of, who hunkers at her desk and works like a dog, and so doesn’t have time to schmooze with friends (and understands she’s missing out). Writing is a tremendously difficult endeavor, and it’s a gift to know that others we respect and admire struggle too, that we’re not alone. That said, it’s also wonderful that Caroline works hard to help OTHER writers succeed. Sue, you’re equally generous with your time, and I’ve tried to follow your examples. I’m so proud to call both of you “friend.”

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Caroline Leavitt August 7, 2017 at 5:28 pm

Thank you so, so much, Renee and Jim. I just feel like everyone needs to talk their truths more, so we can all feel so much less alone. We’re all in this together. It’s dazzling and dark, joyful and full of sorrow–=and it’s who we all are. <3

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Susan Henderson August 7, 2017 at 5:44 pm

Friend with no quotes around it, Renee! And, yes, to all of this. It helps so much to know we’re in it together.

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jessicakeener4 August 7, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Caroline, You are ever dazzling, and I adore you for your honesty, your passion, your courage, and your vulnerability. Thank you. Jessica

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Susan Henderson August 7, 2017 at 7:13 pm

I’ll second that!

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Janet Clare August 8, 2017 at 12:56 am

Dear Caroline,
I have found I’m truly happy when I’m writing, having the story to go back to, day after day. One book, then another, now working on a third as the first will be published next year. Lord almighty, who woulda thought? Thanks for the cheer, the great company.
Janet

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Susan Henderson August 8, 2017 at 2:43 pm

I agree. If you focus on the work itself, you don’t feel as crazy.

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Anita Rodgers August 8, 2017 at 3:47 pm

Thank you for saying what we are feeling (all of us, no matter how ‘successful’ we might or might not be). You are beautiful!

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Susan Henderson August 8, 2017 at 8:29 pm

Isn’t she wonderful? : )

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Caroline Leavitt August 9, 2017 at 8:04 pm

ThANK YOU ALL. xx

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Sarah Van Arsdale August 12, 2017 at 11:45 pm

Hi Caroline,
Thank you for speaking to this topic. Gosh, I even feel envious of writers in previous generations, when the world was smaller and there wasn’t such enormous pressure. I wanted to share this essay with you, published on (the now, sadly, defunct) Bookslut, on this topic.
http://www.bookslut.com/features/2016_01_021354.php

Thanks for all your work,
sva

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Susan Henderson August 14, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Sarah, What a gorgeous, insightful piece. So glad you linked it here.

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Susan Henderson August 10, 2017 at 2:12 pm

Awww. :)

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