One old adage told to every writer early on is â€œwrite what you know.â€ There are some pros and cons to such advice, but to me, â€œwrite what you care aboutâ€ is a more important message. It is certainly not the most lucrative approach, but it is the most rewarding. I keep reminding myself of this as I send out book proposals about people and subjects that matter to me. When the rejection letters come in, I follow a three-step ritual. First I file the letter (more often a postcard or preprinted form) for future use â€“ perhaps I will use them to wallpaper my bathroom much the way jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond used Christmas cards from the White House. Then I mail out a fresh copy of the proposal to another publisher. And finally, I remind myself that most authorsâ€™ proposals get rejected many times before they find a home; after all, thatâ€™s what happened with my last book.
It was early 1997 when my mentor asked yet again, â€œAs a woman of a certain age, are you sure thatâ€™s what you want to do?â€ Still fresh from the cancer wars, my future far from certain, a well-intentioned mentor thought that perhaps I should focus on something more lucrative, more commercial. A dozen years earlier, I began writing a biography of John Levy, the bassist with Billie Holiday and George Shearing way back when, who in the early 1950s became a trailblazing personal manager with a list of clients who were the cream de la crÃ¨me of the jazz world. He was also a man for whom I worked and with whom I fell in love. I worked on this project, on and off, for many years. Research turned up recordings and lots of events that John did not even remember. I interviewed George Shearing, Dakota Staton, Billy Taylor and others to piece together Johnâ€™s early years. Now I wanted to finish it. My proposal made the rounds, but because John himself was not â€œfamousâ€ and because it did not include â€œdirtâ€ on all his clients, no one was interestedâ€¦until, one night at a patronâ€™s dinner, a San Francisco Jazz board member referred me to a friend of his, a publisher of a small press in Maryland. â€œMen, Women, and Girl Singersâ€ was finally published in 2001.
Hopefully it will not take fifteen years to find a publisher for my current proposals. Being a woman of a certain age, I am unlikely to change my ways, or my mind, but sometimes I wonder if my writing life would have been any different had the first message been â€œwrite what sells.â€