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The step from notebook to manuscript—even when merely contemplated and not yet taken—can be a terrifying one. The heights are high above and unseeable; the depths are unfathomable.
The story invites. It tugs at the sleeve, inviting the writer to follow. As of yet, there’s no way to know whether we’re being led up a ladder of light or off the edge of a cliff. Scary place to stand.
This space has seen more than its share of notes about holding off the actual writing until the critical mass of the story is near the point of exploding one’s head. The progress of foreplay, building toward an inevitability. At that point, fear is not a factor: compulsion is.
And still, there is one thing scarier than starting a work.
Sending it out.
Searching out an agent, that preening dance of self-promotion, is a horrifying prospect…the story should stand on its own, shouldn’t it? Why oh why must the seeking be so fraught with anxiety?
Fear of rejection. An unwillingness to see the work turned away by “lesser” minds. Blah blah blah. Here it is. It’s good; recognize that. Take. Do. Make happen. Work half as hard for the book as I did in the writing of it. Wake me when someone buys it. Tell me where to go to do readings. Make sure the checks get to the right address. Other than that, leave me in peace. Let me write. That’s why I’m here.
The “just let me write” self is a two-faced critter. One face is real and true: Writing is all I really care to do. The other face looks through eyes of avoidance. I know that. And that avoidance is the cliff’s edge.
The writer regales herself with the many stories of books rejected by umpty publishers before rocketing to the top of the best seller lists. She looks to the horizon at the welcome island of self-publishing waiting to receive the writer if all else fails. She reflects on the sorry state of the publishing industry. She watches as a generation of people refuses to read anything longer than a Twitter feed, and thinks that the right genre-bending approach (hers) might help to remedy that. She dreams of success even as she primes herself to fail. The way of the world.
This is the land of the If-Onlys. If only a friend had a connection who would fall instantly in love with the work and its creator. If only lightning would strike twice, and the writer would find an agent on the first try, and a publisher, too. If only I was free to do what I love to do: Be a little idea factory, leave my guts on the page daily, and leave the rest to the rest.
A book in a drawer goes nowhere, except to the eyes and minds of a few trusted friends. As wonderful as it is, that is not enough.
We write to be read. That’s the damned honest truth of it. That’s what authors do. Which means that I’ve got to suck it up. And put it out there. In a step that no one can take but me.
My ex-agent phoned out of the blue yesterday, the return of a call from August. It was the first time I’d heard from him since he declined The Spiritkeeper. It was a good call, despite itself.
We are in a difficult world, publishing-wise. No one knows this better than H. The industry is facing problems like how to sell from shelves when selling is accomplished more cheaply from an e-platform… how commercial fiction that sells has long carried literary fiction (which doesn’t sell)…the costs of positioning a book near the door…about the industry’s head-in-the-sand confusion about what it is and how to perpetuate itself…about the fact that I effortlessly walked through the door with my first two books—a rarity then, an even greater rarity now. We talked about books like The Help, which have spanned the gap between the popular and the literary. And I reminded H. that the author was rejected by 60 agents before one deigned to take her on.
My feelings about this aspect of the publishing world are akin, I expect, to the approach to childbirth during the 1950s: Put me out NOW, and wake me when the baby’s here. I am particularly sensitive to rejection, right now—that’s the most honest thing I can say about myself. I write to be read. I know what I’m writing is good…and in some ways, perhaps, better than that. But waiting for someone else’s wholehearted enthusiasm to catch up with that knowledge? A lot thornier.
H. noted that my writing, these days, is treading the line between the literary and the commercial. That he saw that was gratifying, although he didn’t exactly mean it as a compliment. Why, I ask, must one value be devoid of the other? Might readers find a new reason to read in the emotional complexities of literary fiction when they are propelled by the fantastical devices of commercial enterprise? Is that combining of the two a failure to fall into a niche—or is it a new niche altogether?
H. and I concluded our conversation with his enthusiastic promise to look at the book-in-progress again once it’s finished. I know that he has faith in my writing, even though he questions my recent attempts; even though he doubts the prospects of work not written for that supermarket slot in the publisher’s realities.
So. Where does that leave me?
Scared. And determined.
My greatest fear? Being one of those amazing-unread writers…someone whose talent is discovered only when it’s too late. We write to be read. We hope to find an open seat on the cosmic ferry that shuttles us to where recognition lives.
In the meantime, we write. We write not because we choose to—or ever did: We write because that is who we are. We do not choose to breathe. We do it because nothing exists without it.