Does this ever happen to you? You get involved in a new endeavor—a different line of work, an unusual hobby, a new practice in your faith tradition, whatever. You read about it, talk to people who’ve done it for years, attend conferences, email the “gurus” in the field, etc. After a while, you start hearing the same information over and over. So now you figure you’ve heard the basic parameters or, in the parlance of college-level courses, the 101.

Then you get deeper in—and you find that a lot of the 101 doesn’t work, or isn’t even accurate. You start craving 201.

I noticed this while seeking a publisher for my book. According to the 101, to get your book published you need an agent. To get an agent you need to send out queries and proposals. You will be rejected 99% of the time. But sales do happen. What you need, more than anything else—beyond the ability to write compellingly and (for nonfiction) a built-in audience—is perseverance.

I did this for quite a while and got nowhere. At some point, I reevaluated the parameters of my writing: my calling to write books, my goals in light of that calling, my age, my financial and career situation, etc., etc. Right around this time, an author who had read my Huffington Post blog offered to introduce me directly to her publisher, SkyLight Paths Publishing. The result has been a delightful author-publisher relationship that breaks many rules of the 101—but has worked very well for me.

What does this have to do with dialogue? The answer, for me, lies in the lessons I learned:

  • Push beyond the 101. For a great example, consider the current controversy over gun ownership. The 101, in this case, consists of the clichés and well-worn arguments that the various “sides” reiterate whenever the issue arises. But between “there is no reason whatever to own an assault rifle” and “guns don’t shoot people, people do,” there is a vast spectrum of nuance and complexity that an authentic dialogue could reveal. To reach across divides, to arrive together at a way forward, we must explore that spectrum. In the process, we will gain a clear-eyed, deeper view of where the 101 is correct—and where it’s not.
  • Talk to someone else. After getting nowhere with the 101, I talked with some authors who, I knew, had taken a dramatically different path. Their wisdom expanded my understanding of book publishing in a way I could not have imagined otherwise. To take this back to guns: how many advocates of stringent gun control have talked to residents of rural areas in which self-defense is the only viable option in the face of crime? How many gun owners have heard the stories of those whose lives have been devastated by gun violence?
  • Refine the questions. Maybe, when faced with the 101, I should have asked questions like How much perseverance is enough? How much audience do you need for what kind of book? What if I want to do this some other way?  Deeper dialogues, I suspect, come from deeper questions.

Have you had experiences like these—where it seemed impossible to break through the 101, but only the wisdom at the 201 level would satisfy? What did these experiences teach you? Please feel free to share here.