I know a thing or two about writers and writing. After all, I’ve been toiling in the vineyards of book publishing since 1975, when I got my first job at St. Martin’s Press writing catalogue copy. I’ve worked with legendary publishers and editors, including Kathryn Court, Linda Grey, Bruce Harris, Tom McCormick, Les Pockell, Steve Rubin, and Dick Seaver. And once I got my sea legs as an editor myself, fair winds and good fortune brought me authors such as Douglas Adams, Martin Amis, Carol Burnett, Susan Cain, Deepak Chopra, Stephen Hawking, Byron Katie, Shirley MacLaine, and Queen Noor.
I know how to make books better, so surely it couldn’t be that difficult to create one about the wisdom found in The Wizard of Oz. That was my thinking five years ago, when I had an epiphany about a book I wanted to write (which became Emeralds of Oz: Life Lessons from over the Rainbow). I wrote up a proposal, found an agent, and then a publisher—so far, so good. Then, catastrophe struck. Once I set out with my little coracle into the wine-dark sea of literary creativity, every navigational trick I’d learned from working with hundreds of authors on thousands of drafts fled my mind. My overdeveloped editorial muscles didn’t help, either, with their expectation that each sentence emerge beautiful and fully formed. The writing process did not go well.
Nor did things improve once I’d completed a first draft. When my editor kindly and gently informed me that I needed to make substantial revisions, I fell into a trough of despair. Somehow, despite having made a career of helping writers with their second and third and fourth drafts, I must have been harboring hopes that my first try would displace Shakespeare from his perch atop the literary pantheon. Evidently not.
My editor informed me that my next draft also needed work. Then I missed my delivery date, and with it the marketing opportunity to which I’d tied my star—the 75th anniversary of the movie premiere of The Wizard of Oz. I took a long break to find fresh perspective. After a third draft flew wide of the mark, I decided to narrow my focus to the wisdom in Oz, moving my own life story and tales of working with famous authors to the background. This time, as if by magic, everything fell into place.
The publisher loved the new manuscript. I was relieved but not yet an enthusiast myself, until I noticed something in the manuscript I hadn’t seen before. Nine large pieces of wisdom stood out from the many insights I’d found during my frame-by-frame analysis of one of the most-watched films of all time.
Then I made a remarkable discovery. When you consider these nine emeralds of wisdom in the same order that they appear in the movie, something astonishing happens: their power is activated. Suddenly, whatever problem you’re facing shrivels up like the Wicked Witch of the West under a bucket of water. You’ve awakened your inner Dorothy.
I made some last-minute changes to the manuscript highlighting this new discovery and fell in love with my own book.
By writing a book for the first time I’ve learned a great many things. Here are three: First, expertise is overrated; it’s certainly not as transferrable as I thought. Second, whatever my destination may be, it is on the far side of uncertainty. And third, by not giving up my quest despite the unexpected challenges of writing a book, I’ve located in The Wizard of Oz a sextant that can help us all navigate those dark moments when the shore dissolves and the sea seems to extend boundlessly in all directions. Sharing that discovery with the larger world is the next step on my Yellow Brick Road to becoming a published author. This time, I’m aware of just how little I know.
Peter Guzzardi is an independent editor. His first book, Emeralds of Oz: Life Lessons from over the Rainbow, will be published by HarperCollins in May.