Several months before my first novel came out, the good news began to roll in. We received a blurb from Edna O’Brien, my living hero, who described the book as “a shimmering work, an audacious debut, a gem.” Random House was sending me on a tour. The novel was going to be reviewed in People, featured in Elle; it was going to be in a summer round-up for USA-Today. I was thrilled. I was anxious. I walked around every day feeling like I was at the edge of a cliff. My stomach was in my throat, and my whole sense of normal, for some reason I could not pin down, was on its ear. And it was hard to explain this feeling of angst to anyone, because my friends and family, and the other writers I knew, kept telling me how lucky I was, how excited they were for me, and I kept thinking there was something all wrong that I couldn’t seem to feel the same unbridled joy. I couldn’t escape the sense that what was about to happen—publication—had very little to do with the actual process and art of writing. But again, it was my first time through a book release, and it was hard to put these feelings into words and harder, too, to justify them.
Then the first review came out, in Library Journal. It came out on a Friday. The reviewer wrote: “Unforgettable...brilliant characterizations...shimmering descriptions...a gripping climax....Tripp's poetic narrative will remind some of Michael Ondaatje and others of Barry Lopez, but she's an original.”
I was over-the-moon happy. Beyond thrilled. And all weekend I kept telling myself: “See, everything is going to be okay. Nothing to angst about. This is only first time stage-fright. It is all going to be fine”
Then on Monday, I got my second review, from Publishers Weekly, and the reviewer described my novel as “overwritten,” “a tangle of reverie and lore” with a “plot that moves at a snail’s pace.”
I was devastated. Literally, a puddle on the floor. I phoned my editor in tears, and she said to me something I have never forgotten: “You are a beautiful writer. Just write.”
Needless to say, in the moment, I couldn’t quite take her advice. For the next few weeks, after that scathing PW, I couldn’t seem to write at all. I could barely focus on the draft of my second novel even though it was nearly finished.
But in the ten years since, I have come to see those first two reviews as a gift—both of them as a gift. In the span of four days—I got a pure rave and I got the worst review I’ve ever received. And I have come to see that neither of them really has much to do with what I am called to do, as a writer. Reviews come. You get the praise, the raves, you get the mixed, you get it all, and at the end of the day, what really matters is that there was a story you loved once, that burned in you enough that you took a year or two of your life and wrote it down. What matters is that there are the glimmers of a new story, perhaps a new novel, moving in your body, prickling around like liquid silver in your veins, and snapping you awake at 3 a.m.
I have learned this: Whether someone loves what I’ve done, or whether it just isn’t their cup of tea, someone else’s reaction to a book I’ve written has very little to do with why I was driven to write that book in the first place. It has very little to do with what still drives me to wake up every day, go to my desk, and pour myself into the page.
The greatest advice I have ever been given came as a result of those first two reviews, and it is advice that I have passed on:
You can find Dawn Tripp at www.DawnTripp.com, and Game of Secrets wherever books are sold.