Publish and Perish Anyway

I will forever associate the idea of being a writer with John-Boy Walton. Even while writing these words I’m thinking about him typing in the garden shed with the old typewriter he borrowed from the bootlegging sisters. I remember his rejections slips, his getting tricked by a vanity press, being intimidated when he first met other writers, selling his first stories, working on his novel. This all might be before your time. You’re forgiven.

When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said “writer.” I wrote all the time, just like John-Boy, for no other reason than I had to write. But I was also infatuated with the romance of it, sending an envelope with so much of myself packed inside to someone far away who might like it, like me, and not only pay me for it but publish it so many people could read it. The lovely lonesomeness of being a writer. The living inside my head where it is cozy and strange. And, of course, all of the fabulous artistic angst and existential yearning for … things and stuff, whatever.

I tried to learn everything I could about writing and being a writer. I read books about writing (and being a writer). I read all the magazines for writers, every word. I know I wasn’t the only twelve-year-old to know what SASE meant but I’m pretty sure I was the only twelve-year-old in my neighborhood who knew what an SASE was. I learned after a while that, sadly, I wasn’t unique. I had thought, or wanted to believe, that writers were called to it, like John-Boy and Ray Bradbury and me. But after a few years of wanting to be a writer it seemed to me that everybody in the world wanted to be a writer. In fact, there is a good chance that if you’re reading this, you wanted to be a writer at one time or another or you are a writer now or you think you might be a writer someday.

It’s a kind of epidemic.

When I was in grade school and said I wanted to be a writer, adults smiled or raised their eyebrows or nodded thoughtfully (except for teachers … teachers almost always gave me a hug). There was always some sort of reaction because I wasn’t saying pilot or firefighter or police officer or lumberjack. When I reached junior high my teachers remained enthusiastic but not-teacher adults felt the need to say something like one of these three things:

“A writer, huh? I thought I might be a writer too but then I had to buckle down and accounting was calling my name.”

“Oh my husband is a writer. I mean, he’s a CPA but he writes all these little stories.”

“Hey, I’m a writer too. I’ve written three historical novels set in London in the late 1700’s. I should let you read one, if you don’t mind reading dot-matrix.”

Everybody was a writer but very few had ever published anything and I didn’t meet anyone who earned their living just from writing until I met Ray Bradbury when I was twenty-thee. If writing was a calling, lots of people seemed to be getting the call but doing other things. The reality, the odds, began to settle into my bones.

Just like you, I love stories about talented people who are persistent, never give up, work hard, sacrifice, and eventually achieve their dream. I also know, have always known maybe, that for every person who has such a story there are thousands upon thousands of people who had the same dream, sacrificed more, worked harder, still refuse to give up, are more persistent and more talented and never achieve their dream. All the inspirational memes and posters hung in homerooms will not change that fact. I’m not saying I was one of those people. I am saying  I grew to understand the idea of being a writer and the reality were two different things and I measured the gap.

As we like to say when our narrative is a lot like everyone else’s, life happened. I had many opportunities to spend time with published writers over the years, some of them very successful. And still, almost none of them could earn a living from creative writing alone and those that could were not making as much as I was doing other things. To this day, Ray Bradbury remains the only wealthy writer I have ever met in person who became wealthy from writing. For most of my adult life, doing nothing but writing and publishing fiction would have meant a pay cut. Of course there are the exceptions, the best sellers, the novels that are optioned by Hollywood. But relative to the number of novels being published, this level of success is a tiny percentage and compared to the number of novels being written it is a percentage too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Going to graduate school only reinforced these realities and as grateful as I am for the people I met and the things that I learned, receiving my MFA sent me into a 10-year funk where I wrote almost nothing at all apart from poetry and the writing I did for my job. The truth of it, the thing I’ve been trying to say for the last 800 words, is that my desire to be a published writer bled out and never returned. One of the lessons of graduate school is that published writers are often just as good at the business of being a writer as they are at the writing itself, and sometimes they’re not even very good writers, just really good at the business of being a writer. Nothing close to that level of ambition remained inside me.

But slowly, so very slowly, I started trying to tell stories again. Not only did the writing return like revenge, I woke up one day and found I was writing a novel. And I loved writing a novel, something I could not imagine doing, even when I was in graduate school. It wasn’t easy. It took a really long time. But I did it. Now what?

I began going through the motions of trying to publish my book. My heart wasn’t in it. Not even a little.

I started writing the next book and my heart was in it, all the way inside of it and bleeding everywhere.

What remains inside me from forty years ago as I watched The Waltons, or twenty-five years ago when I was carefully folding bad poems and worse stories into an envelope and sending them off to magazines, is the mad love of writing and hoping someone else will enjoy reading what I write.

If an agent agreed to represent me and my work, and if that agent sold my book to a publisher, and if I was given an advance, that advance would be a great deal less than I make on a two week consulting project. Even if the book sold better than the average novel, it is unlikely it would earn out its advance. It is possible, perhaps even likely, to publish fiction regularly and live below the poverty line if you don’t do anything else.

Basically, if you achieve the statistically improbable and get published, your total take might be a few months of car payments. And the likelihood of a first novel ending up on the shelf of my local independent, let alone a big chain bookstore? Low. Hundreds and hundreds of books compete for every single book-wide space on the shelf in a bookstore. So why do it? Why try and get someone to publish my book?

I don’t know. I really don’t. With so many barriers to entry, actually making it into print and being paid anything could be considered a stamp of legitimacy. I’ve tried to care about that. I can’t seem to manage it. I don’t care. Not even a little. A few weeks ago I went into a Barnes & Noble for the first time in a few years. I wandered through the ever shrinking fiction aisles and tried to imagine how it would feel to see the spine of my book on a shelf. There was a time when I thought few things could be greater than that, seeing my book in a bookstore. Now, all those books seem like orphan children to my eyes, waiting to be adopted. I thought about all the people I have met who have published novels and seem a little disappointed.

I should pause here to say, yes, absolutely, I would be thrilled to see my book on any shelf anywhere. Of course I would. What I’m saying is I don’t place much value on that little thrill anymore. I’ve measured the gap.

Back when I was watching John-Boy pound out words on what was an ancient typewriter even in 1935, wanting to be read was very nearly synonymous with wanting to be published. Publishing was the only way to be read by more than a few people. That hasn’t been true since the first Clinton presidency. I love to write. I would like people to read what I write. I’m just no longer sure what to do with that.