Tell me about your journey as a writer, whether it’s your journey toward publication or you’ve set that goal aside so you can better enjoy the process of creating.
Writers often approach me for help in getting published. The conversation goes something like this (I’m going to put it in music- rather than book-terms to give the conversation a little clarity): “Hi there! Thanks for accepting my FaceBook friend request two seconds ago! I’ve never actually read your blog or listened to your album, but I notice you belong to the record company I want to belong to, so here goes. I’ve been playing guitar in my bedroom for two years and have written several things I call songs which have never been workshopped. I would like to put out an album immediately and need your help. Thanks so much! And if you offer me any kind of help that isn’t about personally introducing me to your agent or publisher, I just want you to know I’m going to tell everyone you’re an asshole. Okay, get back to me right away!”
Do you get these, too? I’m sorry if you do.
Not all the requests come with this sense of ego and entitlement. Some ask for help in the loveliest, most humble ways, but the hope is the same: Can you tell me that my writing is ready, that it’s beautiful and engaging and important, that it can be published without any more hard work, that there’s a shortcut in this business, that I won’t feel the pain and humiliation of finding out I’ve written something that no one wants to read?
I wish I could answer, Yes. I wish this process could be easy and painless. But the truth is, it’s not. The above photo shows three decades of my work—a poem here, an essay there—and quite the ratio of rejection slips to publications.
I once had the confidence shown in those letters I get. In third grade, I declared in an autobiography assignment that I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. I said the same, and more forcefully, in seventh grade. In high school, I was the poetry editor of our school’s literary magazine. In my senior year, I interviewed President Reagan’s Press Secretary, Jim Brady, at the White House. Later that same year, I was chosen along with one other student to study with the Poet Laureate of Virginia. When I was an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, I won an Academy of American Poets Prize and money from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette for an essay I wrote. I was twenty years old and assumed the trajectory in this field went upward, but I still had so much to learn, and it would be almost two decades after that poetry award before I started feeling like I knew what I was doing.
For me, being a writer has looked something like this: writing poems, flash fiction, short stories, essays, novels, and throwing away the bulk of them; workshopping my own and other people’s stories; taking and teaching classes; entering and judging contests; going to readings as both a reader and a spectator; attending and speaking at conferences; blogging; editing at a literary magazine; editing book-length manuscripts; writing book reviews; interviewing authors and publishers; receiving and delivering rejections; writing for anthologies that never ended up being published; writing for magazines that no longer exist; writing blurbs and then getting bumped by bigger authors; and most importantly, reading; always reading.
In short, what I’ve learned is that…
- a writer is forever a student.
- shitty first drafts are what take you down the path to a great finish.
- nips and tucks do not constitute a real edit.
- rather than trying to pump life into an old story or an already-published book, it’s better to focus on writing something new.
- it helps to take breaks on the weekend.
- it’s possible to write and also live a full life in the present world.
- grit and endurance matter.
- the secret to that grit and endurance is being part of a creative community.
If we judge our journeys by rejection slips and publications, we’re likely to view ourselves as failures. But in all likelihood, our journeys have taught us about ourselves and the world, developed our empathy and our writing ability, sparked imagination and wonder. There is more to this life we’ve chosen than a book deal. Writers are my favorite people, not because of their publications, but because they are observing, recording, analyzing, and transforming all they see and experience.
I’m going to leave you with a few hopeful thoughts: Harper Lee only wrote one book (To Kill a Mockingbird). E. Annie Proulx published her first novel (Postcards) when she was 57, Frank McCourt published his first (Angela’s Ashes) at 66, and so did Karl Marlantes, who worked on his (Matterhorn) for 33 years.
You still have time to tell your stories.
By the way, if you should ever need some company or inspiration as you write and try to sell your manuscript, I wrote about my journey of publishing UP FROM THE BLUE at the links below. Sometimes the road to success looks suspiciously like constant failure: