A Dreaded Question

Occasionally, when I share my writing with students, they ask, “Are you published?”  The question is a compliment, and I should say, “No, not really.”  Instead, I slip into evasions.  “I haven’t really tried,” I reply, or “I’d like to, but it’s hard.”  Or, “I have a blog” with that strange half question mark at the end to test whether it counts.

It’s embarrassing to love writing, teach writing, and write as much as I do with little public work to show for it.  It’s especially awkward because ambitious students want role models, proof their goals are reasonable. They’re asking if I put myself out there and try to reach my dreams as I encourage them to.

Or, at least, that’s the way I hear them.

I’ve come up with multiple reasons for being (largely) unpublished, but none satisfactory.  Here they are, in order, from most dishonest to least:

1. “Getting published is a full-time job.  I’m too busy teaching to send stuff out.”

This response is a lie and an excuse but, worse, it’s horrible for them. Anything worth having is worth working hard to achieve, and students need to know that.  I have time.  Time is not hanging me up.

2. “You’re nice, but when you read more literature, you’ll see I’m not that good.”

Some part of this statement could be true.  More than 10,000 hours writing here and elsewhere have made me capable… but publishable?  Who knows?  This answer is unproductive too.  If I mean to improve as I want students to, hearing from editors could move me closer.  Otherwise, my self-deprecation is affectation—untested, false, turning myself down before anyone else can.

3. “It depends on what you call ‘published’—a blog is enough for me.”

One of my colleagues at school is a published writer… a very talented, unabashedly public, and locally celebrated writer.  He’s suggested he dislikes blogs because being approved by a publisher carries more weight than clicking “publish.”  He’s right—ratification matters.

Still, my answer could be true if the second half were true.  Publishing won’t fulfill any material needs for me—I don’t desire more respect, greater income, stature, popularity, or renown.  Watching my colleague experience these rewards makes me think they’d be okay—and I’ve fantasized about Terry Gross interviewing me on Fresh Air—but as motivation they haven’t been enough.  Nor has envy.  Only a nagging question makes this answer suspect —“How could a blog averaging  under fifteen readers a day be better than a book?”

4. “I hate collecting rejection.”

No one likes rejection, and I don’t know how I’d feel about squirreling it away in three-hole binders as some former MFA classmates do.  As infrequent and sporadic as my publishing efforts have been, I’ve heard from enough editors describing how short my work fell or totaling submissions as if chiding me for wasting their time.  Those experiences move some people to try again, but friendly audiences keep me posting each week.  Maybe I’m too unsure, too sensitive, too fearful of failure to be a real writer.

Or cowardly.  I sometimes wish I could tell my students so, but I never do.  I’d like them to believe I can bear rejection.  More importantly, I’d like them to believe they can.  They turn in work to me despite what awaits them.  I wish I were as receptive.

5. “I don’t know.”

In the end, I can’t answer their question because I can’t find an answer myself. Part of publication is out of my hands, but the part I control is twisted in contradictory emotions.

The truth in having so many answers is having no answer at all.

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7 Comments

Filed under Anxiety, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Education, Envy, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, life, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

7 responses to “A Dreaded Question

  1. I figure if you get enough rejections, one day you will get an acceptance. 😉

    Certainly true. Somehow the work of getting those rejections (and that one-day acceptance) aren’t getting done right now, but maybe preparing material for publication wouldn’t be so onerous if I had your optimism. Thanks for your comment.

  2. If the question is “Are you published,” the answer is “No.” Right? Are they asking “Why not?” or are you anticipating that they would? I see: You’re asking yourself “Why not.”
    Maybe you just don’t want . . . need . . . that badly enough.

    Maybe #3 should be #5 . . . and let the students do with that what they will. If the ambitious ones want it more than you do, maybe it would challenge them.
    Are published authors necessarily better writers?
    A thing is worth whatever somebody will pay, if what you’re selling has only commercial value. What is the value, to you, of the exercise of writing?

    Great questions, and you’re right that selling my work would only give it commercial value. Commercial value means little to me. The practice of writing is far more satisfying than money. Maybe if that practice were respected more, I’d never worry about the question.

  3. Your self talk is interesting – in the end, saying “I don’t know” to why you’re not ‘out there’ hustling your words for profit is probably the most truthful answer. It’s mine, too, though I’ve been published in minor ways. When people (students, co-workers, well-meaning friends and family) ask me the same question, I come up with a… shrug. I don’t know either and I keep resisting untangling the tangle of reasons/excuses without really examining why. At the age of 65, I’m finally becoming okay with that. I write for my own pleasure and blog for the same reason. I read for that reason, too. For now, it’s enough. When it becomes not enough, perhaps I will take a new route. Perhaps you will, too.

    I like your perspective. When it finally comes down to it, I’m not out hustling because maybe it isn’t important enough. I’m still untangling my reasons and excuses and wish I were a little farther along accepting where I am. If they were all reasons, I’d be okay. It’s the thought that I’m making excuses… Thanks for your thoughtful and understanding comment.

    • Pauline uses a telling word in her comment — pleasure. Writing for pleasure, examination of ideas, passing along or creating a story, practicing your craft, “polishing a stone,” thinking or feeling your way through the darkness of the unknown, these and many more are good enough reasons to write.

      As a freelancer who must be published to carry on, seeking publication and promoting my work provide very little pleasure. I would rather read, gather material, research, write, clean the toilets and shovel snow. Yes, I do need to have readers and when I haven’t published something in a while I get cranky. And I also find that, for the most part, editors improve my work, which means what gets published is both my work and theirs.

      But if you can cultivate readers here on the web and carry on a conversation of ideas while keeping it all pleasurable, why not make something like this your answer: “I don’t enjoy participating in the process of getting published. I write for pleasure and for many other reasons that are my own. And I find readers through my blog, which preserves the pleasure and keeps me writing.

      It is definitely pleasure for me—a satisfying struggle to think carefully and express myself engagingly and accurately. I could be satisfied with your answer… and will very likely soon be passing it off as my own.

      But sometimes I think it might be nice to have the respect a real writer has. I was out with some colleagues the other day, and two of the people around me (both MFAs, by the way) started having a conversation about writing, one on one side of me and the other on the other side. He was fresh off an interview about his poetry in a Chicago magazine and she was preparing her work for a contest in Colorado–and they just talked around me as if I were a post.

      I don’t worry about reporting the moment because they’ll never read this account. They weren’t deliberately trying to exclude me from their club. Any insensitivity was entirely unconscious. They know I write a blog, but it just wouldn’t occur to them that blogging is writing too.

      Ego and jealousy, I know, but I’d love to be taken seriously as a writer and be given credit for all my experience at it. I couldn’t make a living as a writer as you do, but if publishing could make me count, I wouldn’t mind that.

      • I don’t make my living solely as a writer. Few, very few, do. Most of us do many other jobs.

        For what it’s worth, I take you seriously as a writer. Who, after reading your posts, wouldn’t? As for wanting “the respect a real writer” has, my experience is that I can’t get enough, and respect always hangs on the piece I’m writing now.

        That said, you may want to lose your publishing cherry, just to get it over with. Afterwards, you can lean back, take a few long self-satisfied drags, and ask “is that all there is?” Then you’ll continue to delight the readers of your blog.

        You’re a wise man, Paul. Thanks for your kind comments about this blog.

  4. Peter Newton

    David,

    Publishing . . . An interesting and all-too-consuming subject if you’re a writer. Or if you’re someone who happens to meet a writer. Especially, a poet. How many times I’ve been introduced by friends (who are not writers) as “a published poet.” And it always makes me feel like I asked them to say that. As if writing a poem in and of itself requires the immediate approval prefix of “published poet.” We need to debunk this dread. A dread that fades the more committed one becomes to the act of writing. The more writing becomes habit.

    Sure, the need to get published is a way of validating this habit. The hours, days–okay dammit years of holing up somewhere to write out what’s inside. But publishing is all a matter of determination. It requires a relentless effort fueled in part by the biological need to see your masterpiece prominently posted on the fridge. At least it was for me. Of course, it helps if one has something to say. A little song to sing that people might want to hear.

    Being on the editorial team of tinywords.com has helped me understand the role of editor from a whole new perspective. There are a lot of good poems out there. Only a small percentage will appear in print. Or in on-line journals. What stands out for one reason or another gets published. But the reason the stand-out poem stands out is subjective. Editors are human. Have I just read three hummingbird poems in a row? Do I have an undiagnosed issue with persona poems? Am I a fanatic for proper grammar, correct spelling? Who knows? That’s why there are so many levels of readers tackling the pile of submissions.

    Back in the day before on-line submission forms, the volume of paper must’ve been overwhelming. No wonder so many manuscripts often got returned to me in my SASE as if it hadn’t even been read. I could go on and on but suffice it to say that publishing nowadays is on-demand. If you blog and blog well, you get read. And getting read means your published in my book.

    Best,
    Peter

    My first thought reading your comment was, “Have I written a hummingbird poem?”

    I’ve received a number of wise responses to this post, and your perspective adds to my growing sense that, to get your work published, will might matter most. I can collect enough will to write and edit a weekly post (and find plenty of satisfaction in it most of the time), but I somehow never get to sending things away. Maybe I don’t have the refrigerator impulse you speak of, but I also know enough about psychology to worry something deeper is in play. If I could put that worry to sleep I might blog happily forever.

    In the meantime, I will be looking for the artistic opportunities that spring up before me. If it’s on demand as you say, then I’ll look for demand… and avoid hummingbirds.

    As always, thanks,

    David

    • Peter Newton

      David,

      Please don’t avoid hummingbirds. I didn’t mean to send the wrong message. About submitting work or hummingbirds. I love hummingbirds and hummingbird poems. (see below)

      To clarify, I mean only that publishing one’s work requires a wholly different side of the brain, I’ve found. The editor, then the secretary, the collator and courier (off the post office for that post mark). The deadline oriented side of the brain, which is antithetical to the free-flowing spirit of poem creation. And when your busy living your life and trying to find the space in the day, the freedom of mind to actually write, taking on all those other tasks is a pain. But, the internet has made all this easier. Much quicker, for sure.

      As I gather from your post, you’re currently putting together a book of your haiku, is that correct? As I recall from reading on your haiku blog you are planning to incorporate your artwork as well? I am doing the same right now. No art just haiku. After years of writing, at what point does the writer show his work? For me, the answer has been when I feel like I’ve said one thing well. And on the next page, another. And another.

      If I can help, let me know.

      Early on, the Atlanta Review took one of my poems (pre-haiku), titled appropriately:

      “The Hummingbird”

      At once a rage of wings
      and emerald stillness
      hanging from the fuchsia
      here to repair the flowers
      tinkering
      until each bloom
      is a bell again.

      –Peter Newton

      What a wonderful poem! Thank you for sharing it.

      I was just kidding about the hummingbird–it’s funny how poets gravitate to subjects… but always for good reasons.

      So far, I haven’t found the time to work on my haiku project, but I deeply appreciate the encouragement. Sometimes I think that’s all it’d take for me to get to work.

      David

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