Did you have a favorite childhood book? Mine was (and still remains) The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. In fact, I have re-read that book dozens of times over the decades, and still find it every bit as affecting as I did when I was 5. It continues to hold a place in my heart because the parables illustrated through the story have always resonated deeply with me – although with the passing of time (i.e. as I get older) how I perceive those parables changes. To me this is the mark of a truly timeless tale.
Don’t know the story? Let me give you a brief summary. The book opens Christmas day in a child’s nursery where a new but plain and simple stuffed cloth rabbit is being snubbed by the other more expensive or mechanical toys—who consider themselves better than the rabbit because they have become real. The old but wise Skin Horse befriends the Velveteen Rabbit and explains that a toy becomes really real when its owner truly loves it. This becomes the Velveteen Rabbit’s unending desire and one day, when a favorite toy is lost, the child is given the stuffed rabbit as a replacement. The two become inseparable and through the boy’s eyes, the Velveteen Rabbit comes to see himself as real—despite all evidence to the contrary. Then, illness strikes and all of the toys are ordered destroyed in order to disinfect the nursery. The boy is given a new stuffed bunny and shuttled away to the seashore to recover, leaving the Velveteen Rabbit behind. Now discarded and awaiting the bonfire, the Velveteen Rabbit realizes he was never really real at all. His profound grief causes him to cry an actual tear, which awakens the magic fairy of the nursery who reassures the Velveteen Rabbit that he was indeed real, but only to the boy. In an act of loving kindness, the fairy transports the velveteen rabbit to the woods and bestows her kiss, which grants his greatest wish – making him real in the eyes of all.
It’s a very sweet story, isn’t it? But how does this possibly have anything at all to do with writing, you ask? Good question.
Next month two very talented, well-respected colleagues and I will begin another session of a novel rewriting and revision workshop we have been teaching together for the last couple of years. This time around I am in a new place as a writer and subsequently as an instructor, and I’ve been looking at ways I can use my new experiences as a contracted novelist to help our students. Many of them are terrified to have their work dissected, and I have a lot of empathy for their anxiety. Been there, done that. I’ve also never been more acutely aware of my role in the critique process and how important it is to tread carefully. It is so absolutely essential for every writer to open themselves up to feedback, and yet we are all terribly vulnerable in that exchange. The trust between writer and mentor is sacred, and fragile. Not unlike the bond between a boy and a stuffed bunny who longs to be real to the world. .
When I was very young, the simple but meaningful message I took away from The Velveteen Rabbit was that love makes you real. This idea was very comforting to me. It gave me a context for defining my existence – an answer to that universal question – “how did I come to be?” It all made sense to me: my parents and grandparents loved me, therefore I was real.
As an adolescent, I came to understand that the love makes you real adage was more a philosophical approach to the meaning of life than an actual scientific principle. When I re-visited The Velveteen Rabbit again, I perceived the concept of ‘being real’ as “being valued”. At that age, I believed that a person’s value to others was determined by intrinsic character traits, and so I strived to become a person of integrity, loyalty, compassion and kindness. Soon I was the most sought after babysitter in the entire neighborhood.
Then came the teen years and the universal question evolved into “who am I?” and then “why am I here?” By then I had begun to see myself as a person with things to say, and realized that just maybe I had a talent for prose. Was I a writer? Once again, I turned to The Velveteen Rabbit in search of answers. As my perception of the world at large had become, well, larger, so had my understanding of the concepts of “being real” and “being valued”. In this bigger picture view of my life, which now included my future, I determined that “being real” and “being valued” could be synonymous with recognition and admiration. These and other accolades carried weight with me because I had seen that they opened the doors to opportunities. But in order to receive those awards and acknowledgments, I would have to risk rejection. My desire to achieve legitimacy overruled my fears and I began to enter writing contests and submitting essays for publication. There was rejection, LOTS of rejection, but there was also acceptance—albeit in small increments. I held on to hope and tried hard to learn from the critiques. In the end, the attention (both good and bad) my work received from others whom I admired or understood to be influential shaped my vision of myself. I had, to some greater extent, discovered an identity and purpose- as a writer.
But Am I Really Real?
Now, I suspect there are some of you who are aching to remind me that my sense of self-worth should not have been so affected by how others judged me. Let me reassure you – I am oversimplifying my formative years here and focusing solely on my development as a writer. But even in that narrow scope, the opinions of others were in fact a significant determinant in how I saw myself and my potential. How could it work if they weren’t? Pretty much everything I hold to be true about myself is at least in part a result of analyzing and reflecting upon the judgments of others. That’s how we learn and grow and formulate that all important sense of self – by evaluating the checks and balances we encounter as we explore our existence. The trick is in figuring out how to filter the gold nuggets out of the silt and leave the dregs where they belong. For a writer, this is the very foundation of craft building, and the beginning of the journey of self-discovery that leads us to our individual voice. In the end, writers cannot gain and grow an audience without a grounded connection to the collective consciousness, which is one of the reasons why the reaction from our readers is so important.
Anaiis Nin gave us my favorite writing quote of all time – “The role of the writer is not to say what we all can say, but to say what we cannot say.” It is only once we fully understand the parameters of commonly held beliefs and ideals that we can effectively stretch those boundaries by expressing new thoughts and creative ideas from our unique point of view. To do that, however, we need a well fed ego and a lifetime supply of self-confidence.
And this is why validation continues to be so critical to me in my writing career. A colleague and friend of mine used to get so frustrated with me because I could not completely step into and own any piece of my writing identity until I had achieved a certain level of recognition. (Guess she hadn’t read The Velveteen Rabbit).
For me, the first acknowledgment that I could be a career fiction writer was earning her editorial nod, telling me my work was of publishable quality. The second was receiving an offer of representation from an agent. The third was winning a publishing contract and seeing my name listed in Publishers Marketplace (insert sound of cheering crowd here). Today, I confess, I finally feel like a really real author.
Of course, this is only my point of view and how I look at my own path to publishing. We each must find our own way, and there are infinite routes. Each of us holds different values for our writing, and each of us looks for different milestones. Nonetheless, sooner or later it is absolutely necessary to risk rejection in order to achieve your dream. Believing in yourself is only the beginning. From that sheltered place, you must reach out and ask to see yourself through someone else’s eyes. How else will you know where you stand?
Congratulations to our students this next session, who have made the terrifying leap of faith and opened themselves up to whatever comes. Such an important step! Take heart, fellow writers. Like the boy and the Velveteen Rabbit, once someone besides your mother, brother, husband or best friend (like a mentor, instructor, agent or editor) sees you are a really real writer, the possibility becomes infinitely greater that one day, everyone else will too.