Illustration by Maggie Cole
Once upon a time there was a writer—let’s call her Beth. Beth was very happily writing books and sharing her process with anyone who was willing to listen. She was always open to feedback and comments, and she kept all her doors open so no one had to knock and could just come in and participate in her creations. (As you have guessed, she just discovered writing and was so excited, she could barely contain it. Of course she wanted to share!)
Then one day, one of Beth’s books started attracting more and more readers. It started winning prizes, and suddenly more and more people were squeezing through the doors into the rooms already packed with people, so Beth didn’t even have much room left to herself. She rejoiced. All this love, all this attention! Isn’t that what writing was about? To share it with all around you, and to give each other love?
With time certain important people started coming in. They said smart things to Beth. She listened. She was wiling to learn. One such person was very wise and very experienced, and this person listened to Beth’s stories and told her she must absolutely write a book about them. It was great advice. Beth agreed, started the same day, and wrote a book that some people loved but most people found too dark. It took her months and months of crying every day to write it. She had to go back to some painful life events that she’d rather not visit, but she had received advice from an important, experienced person. She wanted to be open to criticism. She wanted to learn. And she was very disciplined in making herself do things. So she wrote. She completed it. It exhausted her. She thought it was worth it.
People kept growing and multiplying in her house, and soon she was typing in a dark corner, barely having room to breathe. That’s when another person, very friendly, reached out. The person needed help. The person suggested Beth write her most recent story a certain way (it was only an idea at that point), to help people see this person’s side of the story. Beth happily agreed. After all, this was all for the people! For the readers! It took her again months and months to complete the draft, and when she revealed it and started talking about it, not knowing exactly how to properly talk about someone else’s story, other people whose story this one resembled, heard it from afar, ran into her house, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her through the mud. She had to kill the book. All those months of work…gone.
But Beth didn’t despair. She continued writing. And lo and behold, soon yet another very knowledgeable and helping person appeared on her doorstep. By then some people have left Beth’s house. After the incident with the mud-dragging they didn’t think much of her anymore. There was a little more room to breathe. Not that Beth complained. She was about to publish her newest book, when the new person—let’s call him Jerry—stopped her. “It could be so much more,” Jerry said, “I have so much knowledge to share with you. I worked on all these amazing projects no one heard of, yet they all came very close to completion. I’m a master of writing, you see.” Beth believed. Jerry showed Beth some special writing techniques that made her so excited to learn them, she agreed to hold the book back. Then she agreed to not publish it at all and start from scratch. Then she agreed to make more books out of this one, a whole series, and slowly, as she worked together with Jerry, other people started leaving her house, and she couldn’t understand why. Was she doing something wrong?
While all of this was happening, Beth started building another little house on the side, and then into that house she invited a circle of people—a writer’s circle. At first there were very few, but soon there were more. Beth has learned her lesson when she was dragged through the mud, and she thought it’d be safer to share with people who not just came in to talk but also supported her, put food on her table, helped her pay bills. Helped her grow.
Two years have passed, until one day Beth woke up and realized she was in a lot of pain. She wrote non-stop for almost six years, without taking vacations. She worked like a horse, writing and coaching her writer’s circle folks, to have enough for publishing more of her books. Only…she hasn’t published anything new in four years, and the books she was writing were moving forward at a snail’s pace. Only one book of the series was completed. After two years of work! Beth tried to get out of bed and couldn’t. Her wrists flared up, her back twisted, and she couldn’t stand. The house was curiously empty, though there was activity going on in the little house, she heard it. Her writer’s circle folks were talking to Jerry. They were having a great time. Beth tried her best to get up every morning, to visit, to appear happy and healthy, and yet the pain returned every night, until one morning Beth saw black in her eyes, and saw the truth.
The truth was, most of those people in her house were never friends. Most of them never meant to come and help. They loved how Beth had a bit of shine, and they came to take some for themselves. Of all the books Beth wrote, her bestseller was the one she wrote herself, for herself, before anyone discovered her. After that, after she opened the doors to anyone and everyone, her writing started declining. And she made mistake upon mistake, saying words and hearing words, and talking and agreeing, and never putting down anything on paper. Never thinking, what might happen if it all collapsed?
The moment Beth saw it, she had to make a drastic change. She did it quickly, while the house was empty, because she knew if she waited until someone showed up, she wouldn’t have the strength. She’s get sweet-talked into something else by someone else, and she’d give her arm and leg before she realized what she was doing. It was time to close the doors, close the windows, and to protect herself and her writing, opening it only to the trusted few. That’s exactly what she did. She got up and closed everything, locked it and walked over to the little house where everyone was still sleeping. It was early, after all. She told them all what she did, how Jerry is now gone and can’t come back, and when they woke up, they were angry and upset and confused. She didn’t ask their opinion! They supported her! How could she do it! She didn’t have the strength to explain why she did what she did. She simply crawled back into bed and covered herself with the blanket, wanting to die.
She heard their footsteps, leaving. She thought maybe a few will leave. In reality, more than half left. Later she found out they invented their own reasons as a way of explaining what happened. And not only that. Jerry built a copy of her little house, and they continued meeting there. Only without her, and without supporting her. After all, they reasoned, “Why did she need us to give her all that food and pay her bills? Couldn’t she go gather berries and hug trees instead?” It didn’t matter anymore. She had met with a few very old and very trusted friends who connected her with a wonderful house in the wonderful faraway, where lived a legal team who helped her with the proper closing of doors and windows, and once she did what they suggested, suddenly her pain was gone. She was back to writing. And she was writing at such speed, it amazed her. “Never again,” she thought. “Never again writing a book someone else told me to write. Never again stopping a book from publishing. And never again letting everyone in, only those whom I trust.”
Of course, as you can imagine, she had to kill this most recent book too. Two years of work, gone. And she couldn’t get the food on her table for a while, because more than half of her support was gone, but she was happy. She learned to do background checks on people to see them for who they really were. Predators. And she learned she could’t do this alone. She learned to surround herself with the people who uplifted her and who believed in her, and who didn’t come to her house to take a piece of her because she had a little bit of shine. She resolved to get her shine so bright and so big, that she made an impact on the whole world.
She’s well on her way, as we speak. There she goes, way up in the sky. See her?
When she told me this story, she asked me if I could do her a favor. I agreed. She said she wanted to share one more time, this time through me and through this cautionary tale that I wrote down from her words. She said she wanted other writers and creators to learn from her experience, and she told me about six things they should NEVER EVER DO:
NEVER enter into any kind of a business or collaboration relationship without a legal agreement. Yes, it may seems all rosy at first. Life happens. Be prepared for a breakup, or worse. (It’s worth the invested money.)
NEVER undervalue your creative work and fail to protect it before broadcasting it. We all want to share, all of us artists. And we never think someone might take what we create and use it to their advantage, even if they don’t mean to.
NEVER share to the point of driving yourself exhausted. It’s your health and your life, and you only have one. No one deserves your exhaustion—least of all you. You deserve to thrive.
NEVER stop listening to your body (and ignore its warning signs). Your body knows better. Quite often your mind catches up too late. Listen to your body! Always. Do what it tells you.
NEVER ignore your true friends. They will tell you something is wrong before you see it. You might be too enamored to hear them. Teach yourself to stop and to listen, even if you don’t like what you hear. You might regret not listening later.
AND THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON OF ALL:
6. NEVER fall for stories without factual backup. If it looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t.