On handling bad reviews, censorship, and finding your voice as a writer.
You would think author Jason Stanford is flying pretty high right now. His recently released book Forget the Alamo, coauthored with Bryan Burrough and Chris Tomlinson, has been achieving the kind of exposure and reviews authors only dream about: New York Times, Vanity Fair, Time, NPR’s Fresh Air. Kirkus called it “brilliant,” and Publisher’s Weekly called it “essential.”
Texas history professors in reviews in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have lauded the book’s accuracy in its reexamination of the “white heroism” myths surrounding the infamous standoff with General Santa Anna.
Given the current polarized political climate the trio expected to nonetheless face some fire for the book’s debunking of cherished mythology so emblazed into Texas lore that the state has made the teaching of these myths part of the required curriculum for schoolchildren in the state—backlash that came pretty quickly in the form of vitriolic reader reviews offended by some of the more uncomfortable revelations in the book–like the role slavery played in “Texians’” battle against Mexican forces.
Negative reviews might try even the most sanguine author’s confidence, but that wasn’t the worst of it for Jason and his coauthors, who recently made national news when a book event at the Bullock Texas State History Museum was canceled at the last-minute by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who not coincidentally happens to be a board member of the State Preservation Board that oversees the museum, because the Republican lawmaker didn’t want the veil of the beloved Alamo myth pulled back to reveal the unpalatable realities.
As a former political journalist and speechwriter for Austin mayor Steve Adler, Jason is no stranger to political firestorms. Despite the attacks, he shrugs it off: “Bad reviews mean you matter. Take that as a win…. If you take them seriously then they have power.”
In fact, he’s struggled more with the preponderance of acclaim and attention the book is getting: “I’ve received more positive affirmation from strangers in the last month than I’ve received in my entire life. What does that mean? I don’t know. Does it change the actual work I did? No, it doesn’t change a word in the book—the book is the creation. Everything else is business.”
But despite Forget the Alamo’s seemingly instant notoriety and success—including Jason and his coauthors receiving the offer on it within two days of pitching the idea to their publisher, who then doubled the offer in negotiations—like nearly all writers Jason has had stops and starts in his writing career.
A tongue-in-cheek nonfiction book about Rick Perry (Adios, Mofo), which he wrote in 2011 with coauthor James Moore, gave him the false sense “that you just sit down in your underwear and tell jokes about politicians for 70K words.” Because it worked for the book, Jason says, after that “my column became me sitting around in various articles of clothing, being a dime-store Molly Ivins without any of the heart, trying to get off the one-liners without any point.”
That, coupled with another book proposal that got no interest when his agent shopped it around, led Jason to give up writing for a while.
And then in 2014 his wife, Sonia, literally put in to be one of the first people to go to Mars—like, the planet—a one-way trip.
Supporting her decision but struggling with mixed feelings, Jason wrote a piece for Texas Monthly about what that experience was like for him, an exercise that forced him to uncover his authentic voice as a writer: “How do you make that good?” he asked himself. “How do you tell the truth in an entertaining way? And that’s what writing became for me—very introspective and personal.”
That exploration eventually led to his starting his deeply personal, wide-ranging, very successful Substack newsletter, The Experiment, where he explores in stunningly intelligent and well-informed depth issues that matter to him, like local and national issues, religion, and The West Wing.
“Instead of getting off one-liners I tried to figure out what was real. It’s one thing to say something is true, but it’s another thing to figure out why it’s true.”
Jason is brimful of great advice for writers, from negotiating a publishing contract (“One, pretend you’re worth it, because you are. And two, they’re not going to fire you–they’ve already tried to hire you”) to handling bad reviews (“It doesn’t matter what [other people] think at all unless you think it does, and you shouldn’t. Write a good book”) to knowing what really matters in your creative pursuits (“Fame for a writer is mostly damaging, and it’s so rare. But having readers is real, and that should be precious…. Having your readers is real. That’s a real connection—you’ve created this real relationship with that reader. And that has to be separate in your mind from being well-known or famous or any of these goofy daydreams we all get”).
But it was his thoughts about editing and revision that I especially loved when I asked Jason how he approaches my favorite part of the writing process (boldface mine, because YES).
Editing my own writing is simple. It begins with inviting my ego behind the barn for a quick smoke. When it’s not looking I beat it over the head with a shovel until it falls. Then I start kicking it until I can hear the ribs break. At that point it’s easy to drag my ego into the barn and tie it up the stall with the cow pony.
Only then can I go back into the house and fix the mess my ego made of the first draft. I start by what I call “moving mountains,” or actively getting a better perspective on what I’ve written by stepping back. The worst place to see a mountain is when you’re climbing it. The only way to see it clearly is from miles away. In the case of my writing, getting perspective means literally stepping back about three feet and reading along over my wife’s shoulder as she reads what I’ve written out loud. I listen for the unintentional and the on-purpose screw ups. Did I drop a word? Lose something in an edit? Or worse, does she trip over a sentence and face-plant in a puddle I mistook for a flourish? By adopting the literal pose of the audience, you can quickly identify where you’ve gone haywire — as well as where I’ve scored. There is no reader reaction better than the high five I get from my wife when something landed.
I’m lucky, though. Not everyone has a partner who enjoys their role in moving mountains. And often there are commercial concerns, professional considerations, and outright interlopers who, for reasons that never stand up to scrutiny, seem endemic to any professional writing job. Submitting a manuscript to editors, agents, and others brings me to the “liquor store robbery” portion of writing — in and out, no one gets hurt. Stick a manuscript in their faces, tell ’em to empty the register and give you all their feedback, and then get out. Once you made it back to your hideout, examine your stolen loot and decide what to keep. Did what you wrote leave them confused? Frustrated? Did they not get it? That’s helpful. Make a note to go back there and write it better. Did they understand it perfectly well but just not enjoy it? See if you can put a suit and a smile on your prose. Did you give them apples and they wanted oranges? Unless they paid for oranges, ignore that. That edit isn’t about you. It’s about them.
Now that you have perspective and have your helpful edits separated out, get your head straight. Upset that all your hard work ended up imperfect? Upset that all your readers pointed out flaws and failed to recognize you as the next Hemingway? Congratulations. Two-thirds of what Mozart wrote was forgettable crap, and you’re not Mozart. You’re you, and you’re the only you there is, and you’re not done yet. Wallow in your fallibility and too much whiskey, and when the hangover wears off, realize what a gift this opportunity is. This is when you get to take all the good you did in the first draft and add more good stuff. The next draft you write is for the reader, and you have the most marvelous opportunity in the world: You get to write.
The convention is to call this process editing or re-writing. It is, and it is not. This is Schrödinger’s prompt. It’s all just writing, and you stay after it until you get it right or at least until you stop. Do not think of what happens after the first draft as rewriting. You are writing still, and if you focus too much on what needs fixing you can miss all the fun, which is what you have left to add to the good stuff you put there in the first place. Oh, the marvelousness of you!