04/04/2012 03:15 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

My Harshest Critic: How a Blistering Review of My First Book Silenced the Critic Within

I always imagined getting my first book reviewed by a big newspaper. I had heard many wonderful things about Staying the Course: A Runner's Toughest Race, the memoir I wrote for Dick Beardsley, by the time it was written up in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Dick's a marathon champion turned farm accident survivor and recovering drug addict. The reviewer had a lot of respect for Dick, but thought someone else should have written his story.

"He deserves a better book. This one is filled with exclamation points and italicized words instead of passion or insight. It's a soulless, connect-the-dots portrait."


Writing Staying the Course had been a mystical experience for me. I was filled with such purpose and peace it was as if magic dust had been sprinkled on my computer. Everything I'm good at, everything I've ever loved doing, I put to use. It broke my heart to turn in the manuscript because I wouldn't have it to work on anymore.

Then this. We continued hearing from readers who loved the book and were inspired to change their lives because of it. It didn't help. They say there's no such thing as bad publicity. I doubted "they" are people whose work is trashed in the media. It was like taking years to build a dream home, finally moving in, and then spending one night there. Before I could get back from the grocery store the next morning someone had set fire to it. There was nothing left but ashes.

I did okay at first. Part of me felt like a real artist. To have gotten to the point where people were taking shots -- at least I was getting noticed. I had a new appreciation for those who work in the public arena. I was proud of taking a risk, proud of doing my best. I told myself that what anyone thought was really none of my business.

Then it sunk in. For a couple of days I pulled the review out and read it over and over, as if memorizing it could take the sting out of the "I can't believe this happened" feeling. It didn't work. I sobbed. My husband's patience was tested. Better equipped to solve problems than to sit with feelings, he had difficulty understanding the way to help was just to be there. Our daughter Katie -- then seven -- was unmoved as well. "You think that's bad?" she exclaimed. "A girl in my class said the snacks you made taste like laundry soap. And she's tasted laundry soap so she knows!" The child was punished -- no snack privileges for a week. Ironically Darrell soothed this time, wishing he could take away the reviewer's snack privileges, too.

The thing was, just because the review hurt didn't mean it was wrong. Maybe I wasn't a very good writer. You could take everything anyone ever said about the book. What got printed was what this person said. Some resume.

A few months later a writing coach critiqued an essay I'd written about my feelings on Kate's first day of kindergarten. She thought the piece was "remarkably depressing." There's no lesson learned, she added, no resolution to a problem. An essay should inspire, she continued, and this one didn't.

There it was. Two independent sources. My writing sucked.

Or did it? Everyone else who read the kindergarten essay loved it. I was proud of it, and that hadn't changed. I thanked the coach for her assessment, and submitted it to someone else that evening. Before long, the editor of Spirituality & Health magazine was on the phone, wanting to publish it. "It's wonderful!" he said. "One of our editors read it and said, 'You're going to love this one' -- and she doesn't even have kids... " The piece appeared that spring, a three-page spread complete with photos.

Then it clicked. What I'd been taught in sales training: SWSWSW. Some will, some won't, so what. So the person who reviewed my book didn't like it. So what. My newfound detachment helped me realize he was right about a couple of things. The book is filled with exclamation points and italicized words, and I would go easier on those if I was writing it today.

Rejections still hurt, and I'm still at the mercy of the person reviewing my latest pitch. Maybe it will sell, maybe it won't. I'm not the only one writing my life story, of course. But like a true journalist, I'll keep experimenting... and reporting back on the results.

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