Marshmallows, Delayed Gratification, And Publishing Traumas

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, psychologist Walter Mischel pioneered fascinating studies with children on “delayed gratification” and self-control. Various versions have been tried through the years, but, in the classic, now iconic case, children aged 4-6 entered a room where their chosen reward (a marshmallow, an Oreo, or a pretzel stick) sat on a table. They could eat it right away, but, if they waited 15 minutes, they’d get a second one. Only one-third waited for the full fifteen minutes necessary to reap the greater reward. Age had a strong positive correlation with ability to wait, but it was far from the only factor. Some kids were simply better at putting off pleasure in the moment for greater pleasure down the road, for whatever mysterious and intriguing reasons.

Through the years, follow-up studies have shown that the kids who held out for the “better” reward tended towards a host of advantages later in life—greater academic success; higher SAT scores; more money; lower rates of addiction, obesity, and jail time; greater overall happiness and health.

I’ve long found these studies interesting because delayed gratification is one of my few talents. I’m virtually sure I would have passed that test and gotten my second Oreo, marshmallow, or pretzel. But I’m not bragging. I think this trait could ruin my life if I don’t keep it in check.

The twist is… I probably could have won the Wait For The Better Treat Olympics. What if, when the time to reap my prize of two marshmallows or whatever arrived, I was told: “If you hold out an hour more, you can get two of each treat”? No doubt, I would have waited. I probably would have had a hard time deciding which of the three fit my particular mood at the time, so that problem would have been solved.

So far so good. But what if the tester came back at that point and said: “If you starve for two days, I’ll bring you Oreos, marshmallows, pretzels, and the most delectable grilled lamb chops this planet has ever known”? I would have waited; I know it. I would have sat there, clutching my stomach and resting my dizzy head on the table, because if I gave in, I’d never know what kind of joy those lamb chops might have brought.

And if the tester had come back in two days and said that if I fasted for an additional week, I’d get the aforementioned delicacies plus the world’s most amazing cheeses paired with perfectly delicate and crispy crackers, I probably would have been a casualty of the experiment. True, I was a culinary adventurer even as a child. And the point is not that my willpower was (or is) so excellent. If I somehow managed to hold out until my cheeses, lamb chops, and snacks arrived, I almost surely would have stuffed it all in, no matter how full I started to feel. I’ve always differed in this respect from my maddeningly disciplined (but adorable) younger brother, who probably would have failed the initial test because he didn’t even want a second treat.

The real message is… I would have waited too long. The whole thing would have killed me. I would have wound up with nothing at all, and I would have suffered on top of it—while my peers would have popped a delicious marshmallow into their mouths and moved on to fun adventures far beyond the walls of that experiment.

I just had a real-life experience that mirrored this test, and while it didn’t kill me, I ended up with less than zero. The final result was negative one thousand, to be exact. Well, no, that’s a gross overestimation. When I factor in the heartache, disappointment, and blood curdling anger, I’m probably millions behind where I was before I encountered this particular misfortune.

I wrote a novel. You’ll probably say that’s fabulous, but… not so fast. I didn’t write it just to enjoy the process, or to share it with a few friends who’d discuss it with me over a delightful afternoon of tea and scones. My goal wasn’t self-publishing either—though that could happen quickly, with no gatekeepers in the publishing business to impress. Doing that would be like taking that first marshmallow right off the bat, without waiting for the second one, let alone the juicy lamb chops and tongue-revolutionizing cheeses.

To summarize a long and dismal story filled with multiple Oreos, pretzels, marshmallows, and even high tea at the Four Seasons, I found a publisher. They loved the promise of the book but wanted changes, and they sent me a contract to sign so I could work on the project as part of a concrete agreement. Perhaps that put me at marshmallow number two. The contract didn’t offer enough compensation to qualify as lamb chops and I certainly hadn’t reached electrifying cheese plate level, but two marshmallows are two marshmallows. They’re puffy and spongy, and they could lead to something more, like at camp, where, if you got lucky, your counselor would appear with graham crackers and chocolate just as your marshmallows finished toasting in the fire. If I had signed the contract and sent it right back, I’d be working towards publication.

But I didn’t. Everyone I’d ever known who’d published a book had a professional—either a lawyer or a literary agent—look the contract over. Since I don’t currently have an agent, I found myself a publishing lawyer.

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Some people go the volunteer lawyer route, which costs a minimal amount: maybe $60 to join a writers’ organization. Me being me, that didn’t appeal to me at all. What if the volunteer lawyer overlooked something important and I was out of luck at some harrowing future point? So I hired a publishing lawyer who also works as a literary agent. She charged by the hour, and by the time we finished examining the contract together, I owed her $1000.

My friends who used the volunteer attorneys probably thought I was nuts, but I am who I am. Saving $1000 at a time like this would be like taking that first marshmallow and pronouncing the game over. I needed to put myself out a bit now to ensure my future protection and happiness.

I sent the contract back with the lawyer’s suggested changes, assuming that I would have the same experience everyone I know who has published a book (including myself with my first book) has faced: we’d negotiate. I asked for more money: a higher advance. I didn’t think I’d actually get what I was asking for, but most people in my family are attorneys or accountants, and they tend to get paid for their time. I simply thought I’d see if something along those lines might be possible for me. Well, that’s putting it too strongly: I don’t think anyone else in my family would work for the amount of money I was asking for. But I guess you could say I was requesting an amount that might have made a little difference in my life or at least my mood, as opposed to one that felt like a token. I wasn’t particularly hopeful, but I figured the worst possible outcome would be that I’d get the original offer.

More important, I asked for a deadline in March, and for emails that I’d thought were just get-to-know-each-other chats to be removed from the contract (the lawyer and I were quite surprised to find them there, as an addendum). This was happening in October, and they wanted me to rewrite the entire book and hand in an edited copy by the end of December. I have a heavy teaching load in the fall. I certainly couldn’t take the semester off and live on the money the publisher had offered. There was no way I could have had a polished new book by the end of December. I saw this as a grand opportunity, and I wanted the time to play with ideas, experiment, philosophize, and come up with my best possible writing. After discussing things with my lawyer, I decided to ask for a March deadline—with the understanding, once again, that we could negotiate if that wouldn’t work. From what I hear, that’s how things normally go in the publishing world.

Not this time. The publisher called me and, very smoothly and calmly, told me he was revoking the contract for now. The “curveballs” of the advance request, the deadline request, and the emails’ deletion from the formal contract were too much for him. I told him it was all negotiable, but he didn’t seem to hear me. If I rewrote the first 50 pages, he would reconsider and offer me the original advance and the March deadline. If I rewrote the whole book before submitting it, he’d offer me twice the original advance. But he wasn’t signing anything for the moment. I’d just written the lawyer a check for $1000, for examining a contract that no longer meant anything.

I was angry but, weirdly enough, I was still excited. I had already rewritten over 160 pages; the publisher’s vision for the novel had inspired me to think, imagine, and even enjoy. Ever since my first discussions with them over the summer, I’d been rewriting. I wanted to get as much done as possible before teaching work needed to take over.

So I polished up my pages and sent them off, feeling hopeful. The publisher told me he was really looking forward to reading my work, and would have a conversation with me when he returned from a trip. He already liked the previous version up to the point I had reached, and all my changes were tailored to the publisher’s and the editor’s comments. I figured the contract revocation thing was just some kind of formality. Soon we’d be working together, and I’d be exulting in my favorite activity (aside from eating): honing my words and ideas to share with all kinds of readers.

But our promised conversation never happened. The publisher sent me an email to tell me he now felt that he and I were on “different pages” and my work didn’t “resonate” with him or the editor. I asked for more information and received nothing but a generic description of their goals when evaluating books.

So that was that. I had no contract despite my work. The only person who benefited from the whole sorry adventure was the lawyer. May she indulge in something splendid with my $1000. Maybe she’ll use it to go skydiving, or take her family for an amazing holiday lunch, or spend a day at some incredible spa that pampers her and makes her feel like the soul at the center of the world. Someone should get something special out of this saga, even if it can’t be me.

Walter Mischel and his colleagues would say I did everything exactly right. I declined many enticing gatherings and adventures to work on my “book” (in quotation marks because I no longer know if it will ever be more than a file on my computer). I even gave up this website’s fantastic fall party, which I had joyfully anticipated for months. “The book comes first,” I told myself whenever I sent regrets. Jeopardizing that even for a fabulous party would be like taking that first tiny marshmallow and not holding out for the real prize.

Now I’m prizeless. And I just hope I can learn something from it all. Aside from my horror at the prospect of losing my consciousness, I fear death mainly because it throws a huge glitch into my drive to hold out for the future. One day, the future won’t exist. Everything I’d renounced for the days and years ahead will shrivel at that point. Sometimes, what is may just trump what could be. Sometimes, the right and wise thing might be to seize the hour and savor what’s in front of me. One fresh, delicious marshmallow may be sweeter than the promise of a feast.