I Asked Myself What Was More Important: Being Published, or Being Read
And Other Observations of Holding Onto a Love of Writing
Writers — Real Writers — want to be Published (capital P).
I didn’t know that until I was in an MFA program. There, in the workshop library of Minnesota State University Moorhead's Weld Hall, the red hardbound bindings of program graduates’ theses — for many, their first real “books” — on subtle display on the shelves near the entrance (and exit), we learned more than how to professionally critique and be critiqued. We also learned, in that casual, contextually appropriate way, that the goal of writing was to create something “publishable.” Stories were for literary journals and magazines; books were for publishers. To be a real writer, i.e., a writer to be taken seriously, one sought and achieved publication.
It made perfect sense at the time, because at that time, we were pumping out original stories and their revisions knowing we had only a temporary guarantee of an audience in our workshop peers. There was no Kindle, no CreateSpace, no Nook, and Lulu and Blogger were too young for any of us to understand how to make use of them. Unless we planned to get together after graduation to swap stories (we did not), the days of writing for built-in readers would come to an end. For new work to be read following graduation, someone would have to publish it.
As common-sense as that was, it added an entirely new dimension to what I’d experienced as a writer up to that point. In the fifteen-plus years I’d been writing prior to entering the MFA program, it had been something I was doing because it was fun.
My first short story was a romance.
Synopsis: Man and woman fall in love over glasses of red wine. I, the writer of these characters, was an early teen who’d swiped plenty of my step-sister’s Harlequin romances but was still a few years from a first kiss and hated the taste of alcohol. Lying there on my flokati in my wood-paneled attic bedroom in Neckarsteinach, Germany, though, writing in a spiral notebook with my blue Bic pen, I, the all-ways virgin and not-yet-drinker, was inside the minds — and determining the behaviors — of two wine-drinking, infatuated adults.
There was freedom in imagining. Power in directing. Glee in sneaking into a world that wasn’t quite meant for a teenage girl.
None of that hooked me on writing. What did is still a mystery. What compels math kids to play with equations? Whatever it was, over the next decade, between weeks or months of doing things having nothing to do with writing, I was writing everything. In middle school, it was terrible poetry (the only writing I’ve ever, eventually, thrown away). In high school, while otherwise a reluctant student perfecting the art of forging notes and cutting class to hang out in downtown Heidelberg or on the bank of the Neckar River, I was happy to contribute student paper op-eds and sweat over essays for English class. After high school, when my diploma was a shining symbol of finally being done with mandatory schooling and my only plan was to never fucking go to college, I was writing vignettes to capture the Heller-like dynamic of my GI boyfriend and his GI friends housed at Patton Barracks. At one point, there was even an unfinished attempt at a novel.
But I didn’t consciously want to be A Professional Writer.
I didn’t look at author names on book jackets and think, “Someday, that’ll be me.”
I just wanted to write, and I wanted to do it well — whatever that meant. I had no plans, no goals, no aspirations beyond that, so when, at nineteen, I married that GI boyfriend and moved with him to an Army post in upstate New York, I simply carried my high school job into young adulthood by continuing to bag groceries at yet another post commissary.
To my surprise, four years of bagging groceries and learning nothing at all wasn’t as exciting as I’d thought it would be. A move from New York to Minnesota after my husband left the Army was fleetingly invigorating, but my atrophying brain craved an intellectual challenge, and I didn’t have enough direction to create one for myself. Thus arrived I-guess-I’ll-go-to-college-or-whatever and the university’s course selection book. It was filled with dreaded and dull-sounding E classes and F classes and other categories essential for a degree, but nothing that—
Wait a minute. Glory of glories, what is this? Introduction to Creative Writing?
I was the first to class on the first day of the semester, early by many embarrassing minutes and so humiliated by my eagerness that I opened my spiral and started writing, writing anything…
I just walked into my creative writing class — 15 minutes early — and no one is here yet. On the chalkboard are words like “thesis,” “thesis statement,” “metaphor,” and “submerged metaphor,” which has an asterisk next to it. Silly me — I thought this would be the kind of class that simply required maybe a book on writing, and all you had to do was write…
But first days are always intimidating. (I would almost quit college at the start of year two after buying the books required for my English Lit. class, one of which was the million-page Norton Anthology of English Literature. “We have to read this whole thing,” I incorrectly assumed, “in one semester?”) Intro. to Creative Writing, instructed by author Alan Davis, ended up not only being unintimidating, but enrapturing, my attentiveness to every lecture and lesson best compared to the fever some women feel when they see babies. I was bewitched, ravenous, greedy. There was no such thing as a boring assignment — a cornfield as a story prompt? I’m on it — and the hour spent in that room was never enough.
While the creative writing class fed my obsession with the challenge of writing, it took English 101 and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” to breed the equally powerful desire to be read.
By that time, the GI and I had separated.
But we shared the same basement apartment, each of us with our own bedroom. I’d known from early on that we probably wouldn’t last, and I would have fantasies, now and then, in the final of our three married years. Maybe he would die on the way to work. Or, maybe he’d be arrested for something and go to jail. Maybe he would cheat, give me an easy out.
Those fantasies naturally made me feel like a terrible person, even after we’d ended things.
And then my class was assigned “The Story of an Hour,” in which a married woman named Mrs. Mallard delights in the freedom she’s granted by the (assumed) death of her husband. She loved him, sure, and he was fine enough, yeah, but even better, he was gone.
It was a revelation to discover that what I’d thought was uniquely abhorrent about me had existed in someone else, someone who’d been so familiar with it that she’d turned it into a story that someone like me would read over 100 years later and be so affected by that it would forever inform my writing “what”s and “why”s.
The What: Something true. The Why: To make someone else feel the way Chopin had made me feel.
I took creative writing classes throughout my undergraduate years, treating every comment on a story as a micro-education.
When the time came to graduate — something I hadn’t even known was coming until my dad asked, one phone call, how close I was to having all the required credits — I was stunned (stunned!) to learn there weren’t many jobs for someone with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
I figured if there wasn’t any work for me out there, anyway, I should probably apply to the MFA program and do some more writing.
People have many things to say about the MFA program. Many of those things aren’t complimentary.
All MFA writers write the same shit, they say. Workshops are cruel, what with all that criticism, and professors want everyone to write like Hemingway, they say. Professors in MFA programs never teach anything about genre fiction; it’s always that “literary” crap, they complain. Oh, and you can’t teach good writing, anyway, they insist.
I can only speak to my own experience, and in my experience, the MFA program was a place for writers to write (key feature) and then have their writing read and critiqued — and, too, to be the reader and critic — with revisions and improvements in mind (equally key feature). Knowing every assigned story I wrote would be read and analyzed by my peers was such fuel that I could spend nine hours straight working on a story at the desk in my apartment, the sun rising and falling somewhere behind me and a cigarette on constant burn. I’d forget to eat, or simply ignore it, too deep into an exchange of dialogue or a transitional scene I was trying to perfect to bother with food.
I spent two and a half years that way, even bringing my graduate thesis stories with me to Tennessee in early 2003 so I could work on them in the hotel where I was spending a week with Ian, my then-boyfriend and now-husband, before he deployed to Iraq. (Yes, another soldier. What can I say?)
That joyous (some might say naïve) dedication to writing for pure writing’s sake lasted until about five years after I graduated from the program.
First came the first novel.
Conceived of as a short story, because short-story writing was all I’d done, all I’d been interested in doing, and something I’d also had some success publishing in literary journals, Pretty Much True (originally Homefront) was the first thing I started that absolutely refused to confine itself to a short-story word count. While working on it, I wasn’t thinking about possible publication. All that mattered was getting it right.
More obsessive hours followed at the office desk, which moved from Tennessee to Alabama to a different part of upstate New York. Ian asked, when I finally finished all the revisions and cut-throat deletions of dragging scenes and unnecessary darlings, “Are you going to try to get it published?”
I wanted readers. Books went to publishers, who distributed to readers. “I guess?”
Among the many agent rejections the manuscript received, two stood out. One was a phone call from the owner of the agency. “You should be proud of this book,” she said. She'd called because she'd wanted to tell me personally how much she’d liked it. She'd also wanted to tell me personally why she couldn’t represent it: It was literary, she said, and I was an unknown. It would be too hard to sell. The other rejection, this one from an agent at a large UK agency, was similar. “Publishers are looking for something more commercial, these days, but ordinarily this is something I would love to represent.”
Print-on-demand hadn’t existed, to my knowledge, when I was still doing workshops. But in 2007 I discovered Lulu.com, which by that time had been operating for two years.
The agents' feedback had assured me the novel was ready for public consumption, and the subject matter was, I thought, important at a time when so many troops were continuing to deploy, but no one was taking it to publish it for me.
Because it made no sense to me to stuff in the Drawer of Rejection something I’d put so much work and time into and that agents had told me they liked, I self-published.
Self-publishing, I learned, is mostly marketing.
Even as a novice I knew readers couldn’t possibly know about a new book to read if they weren’t being told about it, so in the upstairs office of our Rochester, NY house where I’d finished the book, I learned how to write press releases, targeted appropriate audiences on MySpace (yes, MySpace), contacted local radio, newspapers, and TV stations, and “Why not?” wrote Oprah and the Today show. When we moved back to Tennessee, I designed fliers and left them on the doorsteps of Army post housing units.
In a movie, my character’s efforts would be portrayed in a montage of try, hustle, and bustle with peppy music in the background and a determined bounce in my character’s step. Look at her go! Get yours, girl! With perseverance, all dreams come true!
In real life, because the outlets with substantial reach weren’t interested in self-published work, any time I heard something relating directly to what I’d written on a radio or TV station that had ignored my emails, I’d stomp around, swear a lot, and then sit down to punch my keyboard until it delivered a fresh press release.
Over the next ten years, off and on, of promoting Pretty Much True, that frustration persisted
- regardless of any positive reader reviews, even though affecting readers had been my goal
- regardless of the agent it finally hooked because she liked it enough to believe I could write something different, something she could sell
- regardless of its inclusion in a professor’s college course curriculum and, some time later, that professor’s textbook on contemporary war stories.
It’s confusing to achieve things that usually aren’t possible without a publisher and to still have a sense of being not good enough for “Them.”
If anything, the novel’s success with non-Traditional Publishing only made me more bitter that it hadn’t ended up with a Big Publisher. Why didn’t it deserve a logo on the binding and copyright page that would communicate to all (okay, mostly my workshop peers and professors and others in graduate writing programs and people with books published by traditional presses ) that I was a Real Writer, a Writer to be Taken Seriously?
I tried to be good enough with my second novel, the one the agent was waiting for.
“I was hoping you’d write something more commercial,” she said after reading it.
Not a quality judgment, but a marketability assessment.
To be published, I understood then, I would need to write not what and how I loved to write, but what would sell.
Publishers need to make money, so of course marketability would be their focus. That meant I’d need to think less about my preferred approach to the story and more about where the book would sit in a bookstore — romance? mystery? fantasy? erotica? I would need to write to the genre, and also for the agent or an editor when the people I really wanted to write for were readers.
It was a nauseating revelation.
My relationship with my agent ended, and I stopped writing for four years.
- - -
I don’t remember what it was that made me come back to it, but I can only assume the nausea had finally worn off. I really missed writing.
Don’t think about publishing, I demanded of myself. Write for the love of it. Do it for the love of it. And then, only once you’ve written it the way you want, try to get it published. What the hell. If no one publishes it, no one publishes it. There’s always POD, and you got pretty good at press releases with the first book.
I wanted to believe the “what the hell” part, but it wouldn’t take. I revised the book the agent had hoped would be more commercial and tried for a new agent, but none took it on. (The revisions weren’t incorporated to make it more commercial.) In the end, I self-published it. Not only that book, but the one that came after it, too, when I discovered Little, Brown was soon to release a novel whose story catalyst was similar to the one in the novel I was at that moment submitting to agents.
None of this self-publishing was done without feelings of professional inferiority.
Writers around me, on Twitter and elsewhere, were announcing publishing deals, and I wasn’t.
Then again, when following many writers on Twitter (writers who also follow other writers), it will happen that publishing deals fall into one’s Twitter feed. And when that happens, it can start to look like just about everyone is getting publishing deals and like getting published isn’t, in fact, akin to a lottery win.
The more writers I follow or see on social media, though, the more I also see that deal announcements are far less prevalent than are publishing woes and crushed souls.
I’ve seen many writers whose books are published with respectable presses struggling with promotion because their publishers aren’t promoting them. I’ve seen writers question why their books, published with big presses and featured in must-read lists, aren’t gaining any traction with readers. (Where are the sales?)
But most often I see writers feeling dejected after yet another agent rejection and, yet, remaining fiercely determined to have their work published by a traditional press.
They refuse to consider the alternative. No matter how good their work, no matter how polished and audience ready, no matter how important or enjoyable or relatable to any number of regular people who might read it, it will remain unseen by anyone but the writer unless and until it is published by the appropriate entity. All around them, singers and musicians release their original work on YouTube, painters and jewelers and sculptors sell their work on Etsy, actors create their own stage or video productions, and filmmakers produce their own films, and the writers wait, their year or more of dedicated work trapped in a file until some other entity agrees to release it for them.
Even though Virginia Woolf herself — the goddess to whom many of those same people bow — was a self-published author.
In Woolf’s day, it took a lot of money, time, know-how, and financial resources to self-publish. Today, writers have a wide variety of free resources and help guides available to them.
Still, they wait.
I don’t know anyone else’s reasons for seeking traditional publication. I do know that my reasons for wanting it were a combination of 1) the antiquated idea that only publishers can guarantee readers, and 2) the inarguable fact that publishers command respect in Certain Circles.
Nothing can be done about the Circles’ opinion of self-published writers or writing, but as for the traditional process itself, which used to be essential for writers hoping to be read, it’s practically ornamental. Authors can get their own books onto bookstore shelves, if they want, and if they try. (The indie stores, that is.) I’ve done it. Authors can also get exceptional online distribution through IngramSpark — no traditional publishers’ channels needed to have one’s book available through chain bookstores online. Customers can walk inside brick-and-mortar bookstores and order them, too, even if the stores don’t stock them. (These stores can’t hold all the books published by traditional presses, either, and those, too, have to be ordered.)
There are limitations, of course. Among them, no reviews in the New York Times for self-published authors. (Then again, there are no NYT reviews for most traditionally published authors, either. One percent of every one hundred books submitted daily to the Times gets reviewed.)
I understand not wanting to accept that certain doors will stay closed, no matter what. That such doors would even consider opening used to be important to me, too. Until the recent death of my uncle, I was prepared to spend the rest of my life feeling indignant about the limitations placed unjustly on my existing self-published work and professionally inferior for having self-published at all, all while foolishly inviting, with every new novel, the 100 percent self-inflicted and wholly unnecessary struggle that is the publisher-seeking process.
- - -
My uncle Larry, who died at 68 in early July, discovered and fell in love with poetry in his early twenties.
I learned this at his memorial service, where his sister Chris told the story of his introduction to poetry. After he’d written enough poems to gather them into a collection, she said, he cut and formatted the pages, made his own cloth hardcover, and bound the pages inside the cover with string, binding tape, and glue. He gave the collection to Chris, who’d been reading and critiquing his poems from the beginning.
Decades later, still writing poetry and with no plans to publish it, he said to his wife, “Writing is just so much fun.”
I learned that by reading his obituary.
My uncle “enjoyed the hell of out life," and part of that joy came from writing.
From the day he started, he wrote because he loved it. It made him happy, and it was something he did for as long as he was able.
Meanwhile, a writer I know online whose work has been published by someone other than himself shared this on Facebook:
been writing since i was 14. feeling it’s pointless to go on with it. it’s all rejections and neglect, with interludes of brain twisting.
But it isn’t writing that’s all rejections and neglect.
It’s traditional publishing.
Writing is fun.
Life is short.
Readers are accessible.
The rest, I learned, was (for me) vanity.
I’d rather have fun.