One old adage told to every writer early on is “write what you know.” There are some pros and cons to such advice, but to me, “write what you care about” 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 – 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 authors’ proposals get rejected many times before they find a home; after all, that’s what happened with my last book.
It was early 1997 when my mentor asked yet again, “As a woman of a certain age, are you sure that’s what you want to do?” 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 crème 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 John’s early years. Now I wanted to finish it. My proposal made the rounds, but because John himself was not “famous” and because it did not include “dirt” on all his clients, no one was interested…until, one night at a patron’s dinner, a San Francisco Jazz board member referred me to a friend of his, a publisher of a small press in Maryland. “Men, Women, and Girl Singers” 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 “write what sells.”