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I’ve come up with multiple reasons for being (largely) unpublished, but none satisfactory.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.