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This blog was featured on 03/13/2019
“The Lady of Shalott” and the Writer vs. the Author
Written by
She Writes
March 2019
Written by
She Writes
March 2019

This guest post was provided by K.K. Pérez author of The Tesla Legacy.

When ruminating on a writer’s life, I often think of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s nineteenth-century poem, “The Lady of Shalott.” The Lady of the title is derived from Elaine of Astolat who dies of her unrequited love for Sir Lancelot in Arthurian literature. Tennyson’s Lady is imprisoned in a tower on an island near Camelot where she weaves what she sees in a magic mirror night and day. If she ever looks at the world directly, she’ll be cursed. Finally, she sees Sir Lancelot in her mirror, declaring “I am half sick of shadows” and “She left the web, she left the loom.” She triggers the curse and dies on a boat floating down toward Camelot.

Tennyson’s poem is often viewed as a metaphor for the place of the artist in society, and feminist critics have noted the parallels of the restrictions placed on female artists (and women more generally) in the Victorian era. I was first drawn to the lyrical romanticism of the poem and the tragic fate of the Lady of Shalott as a teenager, but now I also think it’s a useful analogy for the role of the writer versus the role of the author. As writers, we can spend much of our days in isolation––even if we’re not literally held captive in a tower!––but as authors we must engage with the world if we want our stories to be known.

However, our writer selves and our author selves can sometimes come into conflict. For me, I think of my writer self as the creator and the author self as the promoter. Both are necessary if I want to put my stories in the hands of readers but, as an introvert, I’m naturally more comfortable with my writer identity. I have also learned to differentiate between my story and my book. The story is something I have control over whereas the book is not.

Let me explain. The way I see it, writers create stories and authors promote books. The stories that tug at my consciousness, whisper to me in my dreams, demanding to be told, are not the same as the books that appear on the shelves of bookshops and libraries. A book is, ultimately a product, because publishing is a business and the goal is to sell as many books as possible. Once I finish writing, editing, copyediting, and approve the final pass pages, then my story will become a book and what happens next is largely out of my control.

Marketing Your Product

The success of a book in the marketplace is determined by a wide variety of factors, especially the marketing push given to that title and whether it happens to touch on the current cultural zeitgeist. This is why, to protect my writer self, I have learned to distinguish between the story and the book. The story is mine, it’s what brings me joy and I will always love the worlds and characters that I create, whether or not the book does well in the marketplace.

My author self, of course, wants to promote the book to the best of my abilities and I’m constantly learning new skills for social media and traveling to events where meeting readers is one of the highlights of my job. The Lady of Shallot grew tired of only glimpsing “shadows” of the world in her mirror and as a creator, I sympathise, because I draw a lot of inspiration from the people I meet and the places I’ve traveled. It’s important to leave the “loom” (i.e. the computer!) and, luckily, I’m not going trigger a curse when I step out my front door!

Nurturing the Writer

But, over the course of my debut year, I’ve realized that it’s very important to protect and nurture the writer self because that’s where my creativity lives. Spending too much time “authoring” can be physically and emotionally draining and have a detrimental effect on my writer self. I’m not suggesting that I want to be locked up in turret but, metaphorically speaking, sometimes I think it’s necessary. In the words of Nikola Tesla, the inspiration behind my first YA science fiction novel, The Tesla Legacy: “Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

Even without a magic mirror, as creators we must step back from the world in order to reflect on it, to tease out the deeper meanings in what we see around us and be quiet so that we can listen to the stories clamoring inside our hearts and let them ripen. Creators, in my opinion, must be both within the world and without it.

Like with everything else, this requires finding a somewhat precarious balance. We must reconcile the writer self with the author self. What that balance looks like is different for everyone, but for me it means limiting my time on social media, going for long walks by the river where I live here in London, starting to practice yoga, and having a no-screen policy for candlelit dinners at the end of every day.

The Power of Female Creators

As female creators, we now have the power to come and go from our towers as we please. We have the freedom to figure out what works for us. Publishing is a marathon not a sprint, and to be able to keep writing the stories that I love that sometimes means taking off my author hat for a bit. Find the balance that is right for you so that you can continue to love your stories and let go of the book once it hits the mercurial marketplace. I am not my book, but I am my stories.

About K.K. Pérez

A native New Yorker, I’m half-Argentine and half-Norwegian, and I’ve spent the past two decades living in Europe and Asia. I have a penchant for non-defanged vampires, fringe science, ice skating, and dulce de leche.

I also hold a PhD in Medieval Literature from the University of Cambridge and have taught at the National University of Singapore and the University of Hong Kong. As a journalist, I’ve written for many international news outlets covering primarily travel, culture and fine art. To find out more, click here.

These days I live in London where I write both fiction and non-fiction for adults, young adults, and the young at heart!

Check out more content from K.K. Pérez here.

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  • Chantal Walvoord

    I've noticed that some books are pushed more than others. Some receive a huge marketing push e.g. Gone Girl. Other books that might be just as compelling don't receive much readership or success because they don't have that early push. How do publishers decide which ones to push and why? Or is it up to the authors themselves?