What you want to hear vs. what you need to hear: This is an eternal struggle with writers when they approach someone to read the drafts of their work. What you want to hear (“It’s brilliant! Change nothing!”) is sometimes very different than what you need to hear (“Here are the problems”) — so much so that even when we hear what we need to, we’ll still fight against it.
Josh Sundquist knows of this struggle. A cancer survivor turned motivational speaker, he had written a draft of what would eventually become his memoir Just Don’t Fall: How I Grew Up, Conquered Illness, and Made it Down the Mountain. He knew what he wanted to hear about it. But was he ready for what he needed to hear? Let’s find out.
“My advice to you,” the handwritten letter read, “Is to throw away this draft of the manuscript and start over from scratch.”
I was too young to understand it at the time, but I was lucky to receive such a letter. Very, very lucky.
Most first-time authors, upon completing their manuscript, assemble an inner circle of friends and family to read over the draft and give their honest feedback as to whether they think it’s ready to be submitted to agents. But therein lies the problem with this practice. Friends and family are inherently biased to like anything you produce and tell you what you want to hear. You are a genius. This is a surefire bestseller. It would make a great movie, too, probably staring somebody really famous.
What an author needs instead is an impartial reader, someone who doesn’t know him personally. There are two ways to find such a person. Number one, you could approach a random individual in a bookstore or some other place book readers tend to congregate (say, Whole Foods), hand her your manuscript, and hope she has an unnaturally strong inclination towards lending her free time to strangers. Number two, you could pay for feedback from a professional. But most first time authors don’t have that kind of money. I know I didn’t back when I wrote my initial draft.
Which is why I went with option one: Getting lucky with a near stranger. That, of course, is the very definition of high risk behavior (in writing and otherwise), but I was fortunate in that I received the aforementioned painfully honest handwritten letter in response to my request for feedback.
I was only sixteen years old at the time. As it happened, I had been featured in a national newspaper for the motivational speaking career I had recently launched. I was traveling to schools across the country, talking about how I had lost my leg to childhood cancer and gone on to become an internationally ranked ski racer.
After it was published, I sent the writer of the article my manuscript and asked if he’d read it. He was a professional journalist, I figured, so maybe he’d have some helpful suggestions.
He did. And that’s how I found myself reading his handwritten note telling me to throw away my life story as I’d written it and start over.
“You to need to tell us what it was really like for you,” he wrote. “You’re hiding behind motivation.”
He was right. It was a habit I’d developed on stage as a fledgling speaker, coupling motivational clichés with an I’m-so-perfect-and-heroic version of my story. But it wouldn’t be until I returned to writing in my mid-twenties that I was ready to take his advice.
Back in the first draft, for example, I wrote about my amputation like I was some kind of inspirational wunderkind, perfectly resolute in my bravery even at the tender age of nine. Why I wrote this way, I’m not sure. I guess it was a role I thought I was supposed to play as a motivational speaker. But when I wrote the new draft, I was ready to share the real story, the story of how for weeks leading up to the amputation I would sit in bed and hold my leg and cry myself to sleep. I wasn’t brave. I wasn’t inspirational. I was just a boy facing the fact he’d never play soccer again.
When I took drafts of this new manuscript to friends and family, I received warnings that certain passages were overly raw and revealing, that they were dangerous to my career as a motivational speaker. But this time around, I knew these readers were too close to me, that they just wanted to protect me, that they in fact loved me too much to be able to step back and understand my big idea: Writing a memoir that connects on a deep, human level means writing a memoir that strips off the public mask and exposes the deeply flawed and frail child hiding underneath.