Last week, I decided to withdraw from my contract with New Harbinger for the publication of my book on defense mechanisms. If you’ve read my earlier post where I discussed what this book deal meant to me, you’ll understand this was a very difficult and painful decision. The editorial committee had been enthusiastic about the first four chapters I sent them, offering useful suggestions that helped me improve the flow and clarify my message. When I received their comments for the next batch, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t make the changes they were asking for. They wanted me to refocus the book, eliminate the broader social perspective and turn it into a self-help book like the other titles they publish. I have declined to do so and will return the small advance I received.
Watching myself react to their comments, I could see my familiar old defense mechanisms at work. I thought it might be useful to describe that experience. One of the points I often stress on this website, about what it means to be “after psychotherapy,” is that your old issues and ways of coping with them (your defenses) don’t disappear; you learn to recognize them as they come up, hopefully “disarm” them and find different ways of responding. So here’s a faithful (and somewhat embarrassing) account of my process. Be nice.
My first reaction on reading their comments was indignation of the narcissistic variety. How dare they not recognize the brilliance of these chapters?! What set me off was their letter’s opening: “These chapters substantially miss the mark.” One of the rules in my writer’s group is that you always begin your response to a reading with praise, by identifying what works and what you like about it first, hopefully defusing any automatic defensive reactions to the critique that follows. It was the way the first letter from New Harbinger had begun, in response to the early part of my book: “These chapters are very strong.” I readily accepted their first set of suggestions but grew indignant in response to the second.
I’ve been living inside of me for too long now not to know when I’m getting my grandiose back up. Within minutes, I was smiling at myself. I went back through their notes and identified a few useful points, but I still felt certain that I wouldn’t be able to give them what they wanted. Mostly, I felt scornful, full of contempt for the way they wanted to dumb my writing down, fit me into a box. After all, they publish quite a few books with The Gift of … in the title. Many other publications in the New Narbinger library profess to teach you how to “overcome” this or that disorder or bad feeling. In a way, NH stands for everything I oppose in my profession: the simplistic CBT approach, the sentimentalization of human psychology, the failure to address unconscious material. In my thoughts, I sneered at them for being such mindless drones, an assembly-line publisher that keeps releasing the same book over and over.
Even if there was some truth to my complaints, the degree of contempt bothered me. In my view, contempt usually functions as a defense against shame; rather than “running with” my defenses, hopping on board the contempt-and-indignation train of thought, I made myself quiet down and wonder whether I might be feeling shame. Eventually, I realized that, in fact, I was. If I hadn’t brought quiet to my mind, I might never have “heard” it; but there it was, an unmistakeable feeling of shame. I had failed. Yes, I know — I didn’t really fail; I could have argued with myself that I had absolutely no reason to feel shame. Nonetheless, the shame was there and it was quite real.
It has nothing to do with actual failure; this kind of shame is the lasting residue of a troubled childhood, coming from a dysfunctional family of origin. It’s not reasonable, and you can’t argue it away. It simply is. Especially when I derive narcissistic gratification from something — e.g., the great pride I felt in being able to say I had sold my book — the loss of that achievement can throw me back on the residual shame that will always be with me. It no longer feels toxic or unbearable. I recognize it when it comes up, try not to defend against it in my typical ways, and eventually it will pass.
I stopped thinking of the editorial staff as a bunch of morons. New Harbinger is a business. The editors who work there understand their market extremely well; they know what their target audience wants and what kind of book will sell, much better than I do. In the final analysis, I think it was simply a bad fit. I don’t write for their audience, nor would those readers be much interested in my perspective. I have a lot to say and I’m confident in its value, but it wouldn’t appeal to the New Harbinger reader.
Indignation has passed. Scorn and contempt have passed. The shame has largely faded. Now I just feel sad. It’s a big loss.
At the same time, I feel liberated. Now I don’t have to adapt myself to the New Harbinger format; I can simply write the book exactly the way I want to write it — just as I say exactly what I want to say here on my very own website.
I’ll self-publish my book in the fall. Maybe my Amazon numbers will be high enough to garner interest from another publisher, but it will be my book then, already in print, written exactly to my standards. That feels really good and helps with the sense of loss.
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