Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The House of Words (no. 1): On writng and publishing

The House of Words: On Writing and Publishing

In which Marly-and-friends answer questions that readers and writers young in the craft often ask, with musings on persistence, giving up, luck, doing what you want to do, home and the writer, print publishers, the internet, and other topics of interest…

1. Print publishing: persisting and giving up

Much in the print publishing world is random. Good things are “black swans,” highly unusual events. So are bad ones. This element of being a writer is impossible to control and is a given of the vocation.

My most memorable good black swan? It ought to be winning a national award, I suppose. Probably more dramatic was parting with my second agent, being entirely too busy to look for another, and then receiving requests for books from seven publishers in quick succession. I was being lazy, and yet fruit kept dropping into my lap. I could say that it was a reward for my persistence, but I could also say that it was luck and coincidence. My most memorable bad-swan example: The Wolf Pit came out right at a major historical event (9-11), its editor departed before pub date, and it was on the very same list at Farrar, Straus & Giroux as The Corrections, that air-eating monster of a book by a man who shoved his foot in his mouth in a way that entertained the nation whenever said nation was not busy reading books about terrorism (in consequence of that same major historical event.)

To combat the truth and the mighty power of randomness, a writer can only persist. Write what one cares about in one’s own way and ignore the randomness of the publishing world. Write for joy. Ignore the scene and trends and keep writing because a writer is only a human being who is writing, and to stop means that one is no longer a writer. Alternate possibilities: become a frothing lunatic (bad, but it happens); give up (better.)

People don’t talk much about quitting, and that’s exactly what I want to talk about here. Because a question that comes up often for a writer of any age is whether it is the hour to cease, give up, pack up the toys, and flee the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (i.e. that pesky randomness again.)

I would like to play devil's advocate and praise flight for a moment. Giving up is good in some ways--more time for other pursuits, more time to chase something else with end results that are not as aggravating as what happens after the writing (which involves publishing, which can involve various agonies, and also marketing, which often involves keen frustration.)

Giving up writing is easier than persistence because--surprise!--nobody much will mind if you give up. It's not like giving up a job with a salary; there are few reproaches, and in fact many of your near-and-dear will heave great buffalo sighs and snort with relief. People will be glad to think that you may be a solvent person some day, rather than a struggling writer with the usual garret, heaps of foolscap, and bargain Toshiba laptop.

When I was much younger and shot through with despair and anguish and other black humors, I often thought of giving up as a writer. But giving up turned out to be hard; I just wasn't any good at it.

Nevertheless, I approve of turning one’s back on something and walking away in style. Since I approve, you can guess that that’s exactly what I did, long ago. That's human nature for you, a stuff that tends to look kindly on its own wayward decisions. I turned my back on achieved tenure-and-promotion at a time when such prizes as professorial salary-with-bennies were rare--right about the scarcity of hen's teeth, and everybody knows those little gleamers are hard to find. Nobody thought I was doing the right thing. In a worldly sense, it was definitely not the right thing. My luck was that I had both some hard-earned savings and a pronounced unworldly streak.

Turning one’s back on something can mean to face something else, to go somewhere new, to have a transformed outlook. Metanoia. It’s not the end.

* * *
Stay tuned for 24 more posts on persisting, giving up, and other topics. Photograph courtesy of sxc.hu and Jenny Rollo of Sydney, Australia.

10 comments:

  1. I love this post and am really looking forward to the series!

    I think what underpins persistence is decisiveness--deciding to keep writing, again and again, for as long as you have it in you. It sounds like it was the right choice to make a space when you did, and then to return (for here you are!).

    I also made a pledge to myself that I will never complain about writing. Yes, writing is hard, but life is harder, and if we don't want to write, we don't have to. We have to decide to want to.

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  2. randomness - yes. Do we just accept the randomness, or try to figure ways we can usefully resist it, and take charge, in at least some measure? I'm a nanopress fan! Thanks for starting the conversation - Nic

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  3. Hannah,

    Yes, I agree with you! And then at some point you quit thinking about it and so there's not even choosing or not choosing: it's just what you do.

    And, hmm, if you want to write a post for the series, feel free to pitch an idea. The more the merrier.

    Nic,

    Do you want to write a short piece on your nanopress project? Or on how to organize for a nanopress book? That would make a great addition to this series--I'd probably stick it in after Corey Mesler on small presses.

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  4. Here is a very relevant post related to the publishing and decisiveness themes:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/03/reject-the-tyranny-of-being-picked-pick-yourself.html

    I am also thinking about a longer response, but written on my blog so I don't clutter your comments area with my ramblings.

    Gary

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  5. Gary,

    I always like your ramblings.

    Shall read--have read some Godin before.

    Nic's nanopress concept is interesting as well...

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  6. Hi Marly - love to! Sent you an FB msg. Best, Nic

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  7. Nic,

    Oh, good--I do think it is interesting. And you know, you got more editing that way than most poets when they go through publication. Really, one doesn't usually get editing for poetry. The challenges of layout and typesetting (or whatever we call it these days) get more attention.

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  8. Giving up made me feel worthless and unhappy. Even if no one wants to read my stuff, at least I am happy, puttering away.

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  9. Robbi,

    Yes, I'm sympathetic to the idea that it might make a person unhappy. I don't quite grasp how to live without it, though I see that most other people do.

    I would not say, "Even if no one wants to read my stuff." A lot comes down to the idea that Paul Tree articulated in the no. 2 post--just because you make a discus doesn't mean you want to be the one to throw it.

    Finding out how to get the word out is a major job for a poet. And it's not easy. I think there will be some ideas that might work for you later on in the series. I'm working on that right now.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.