The Long and Solitary Trip
Author Dani Shapiro, author of the novels Black & White and Family History, the bestselling memoir Slow Motion, is coming out with a new memoir, this one about her spiritual journey, called Devotion. Recently she wrote a terrific piece in the LA Times about the difficulties facing writers today. I wish I’d written it myself. In fact, she says many of the things I’ve been saying in this blog for some time now. Here it is:
In the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student working on short stories and flirting with the idea of a novel, I came across an essay that was being passed around my circle of friends. It was titled “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years,” and the author was the legendary editor and founder of New American Review, Ted Solotaroff.
Ten years! In the cold! Solotaroff wondered where all the talented young writers he had known or published when he was first editing New American Review had gone. Only a few had flourished. Some, he speculated, had ended up teaching, publishing occasionally in small journals. But most had just . . . given up. “It doesn’t appear to be a matter of talent itself,” he wrote. “
Some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is what I call endurability: that is, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without.”
The writer’s apprenticeship — or perhaps, the writer’s lot — is this miserable trifecta: uncertainty, rejection, disappointment. In the 20 years that I’ve been publishing books, I have fared better than most. I sold my first novel while still in graduate school and published six more books, pretty much one every three years, like clockwork. I have made my living as a writer, living off my advances while supplementing my income by teaching and writing for newspapers and magazines.
As smooth as this trajectory might seem, however, my internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can’t do it. This time, the voice taunts me, you will fall flat on your face. Every single piece of writing I have ever completed — whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review — has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.
Call it stubbornness, stamina, a take-no-prisoners determination, but a writer at work reminds me of nothing so much as a terrier with a bone: gnawing, biting, chewing, until finally there is nothing left to do but fall away.
I have taught in MFA programs for many years now, and I begin my first class of each semester by looking around the workshop table at my students’ eager faces and then telling them they are pursuing a degree that will entitle them to nothing. I don’t do this to be sadistic or because I want to be an unpopular professor; I tell them this because it’s the truth. They are embarking on a life in which apprenticeship doesn’t mean a cushy summer internship in an air-conditioned office but rather a solitary, poverty-inducing, soul-scorching voyage whose destination is unknown and unknowable.
If they were enrolled in medical school, in all likelihood they would wind up doctors. If in law school, better than even odds, they’d become lawyers. But writing school guarantees them little other than debt.
The instant score
Rereading Solotaroff’s essay, as I did recently, I found that he was writing of a time that now seems quaint, almost innocent. By the 1980s, he bemoaned, the expectations young writers had of their future lives had “been formed by the mass marketing and subsidization of culture and by the creative writing industry. Their career models are not, say, Henry Miller or William Faulkner, but John Irving or Ann Beattie.”
With the exception of Irving, most of the writers referenced by Solotaroff (Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Joan Chase, Douglas Unger, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alan Hewat) would draw blank looks from my students, and the creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today’s young writers don’t peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller — and did.
The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn’t reward persistence, that doesn’t see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn’t trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: “So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?”
The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry — always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media — has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.
I recently had the honor of acting as guest editor for the anthology “Best New American Voices 2010,” the latest volume in a long-running annual series that contains some of the finest writing culled from students in graduate programs and conferences. Joshua Ferris, Nam Le, Julie Orringer and Maile Meloy are just a few of the writers published in previous editions, but now the series is coming to an end. Presumably, it wasn’t selling, and its publisher could no longer justify bringing it out. Important and serious and just plain good books, the kind that require years spent in the trough of false starts and discarded pages — these books need to be written far away from this culture of mega-hits, and yet that culture is so pervasive that one wonders how a young writer is meant to be strong enough to face it down.
The new bottom line
At the risk of sounding like I’m writing from my rocking chair, things were different when I started. My first three books sold, in combination, fewer than 15,000 copies in hardcover. My editor at the time told me there were 4,000 serious readers in America, and if I reached them, I was doing a good job. As naïve as this may sound, it never occurred to me that my modest sales record might one day spell the end of my career. I felt cared for, respected. I continued to be published, and eventually, my sales improved. I wrote a bestselling memoir, appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and published a subsequent novel that found a pretty wide readership. My timing has been good thus far — and lucky.
But in the last several years, I’ve watched friends and colleagues suddenly find themselves without publishers after having brought out many books. Writers now use words like “track” and “mid-list” and “brand” and “platform.” They tweet and blog and make Facebook friends in the time they used to spend writing. Authors who stumble can find themselves quickly in dire straits. How, under these conditions, can a writer take the risks required to create something original and resonant and true?
Perhaps there is a clue to be found near the end of Solotaroff’s essay: “Writing itself, if not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer’s main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer’s main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger.”
The writer who has experienced this even for a moment becomes hooked on it and is willing to withstand the rest. Insecurity, rejection and disappointment are a price to pay, but those of us who have served our time in the frozen tundra will tell you that we’d do it all over again if we had to. And we do. Each time we sit down to create something, we are risking our whole selves. But when the result is the transformation of anger, disappointment, sorrow, self-pity, guilt, perverseness and wounded innocence into something deep and concrete and abiding — that is a personal and artistic triumph well worth the long and solitary trip.
Could not have said it better. Now, I’m off to buy her new book.
Thanks for this, sad but true. I thought I was the only one who couldn’t figure out how to twitter And write given the same 24 hours/day.
Here’s another on the same topic:
Hi Linda, thanks for commenting. I see you teach memoir writing in Buck’s county. I’d be interested in how your students feel about publishing these days. So many of my students want to jump into self-publishing instead of spending years learning their craft. Thoughts?
In 2004, when I first started writing, I did not wish to contemplate the self-publishing route. At the time, I thought it meant giving up on truly “getting published.”
Now, I’m re-thinking my options. E-publishing has arrived!
If a regular publisher expects authors to create their own websites, blogs, keep up on Facebook and Twitter, speaker events, book signings, pay for their own expenses etc., aren’t we pretty much being pushed into a situation where we might as well self-publish since we are facilitating our own promotion? Be our own publicists?
That said, having to do all of the extraneous marketing stuff, takes so much of our time away from the actual writing!
The world of publishing has undergone a huge change during the last five years.
Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing.
Hi Vivian, thanks for commenting. Nice to see you here again. I understand the temptation to self-publish, when many doors seem closed and so much is asked of writers by mainstream publishing these days. Still, when it comes to novels, I don’t think it’s the best choice, depending on what your expectations are. If you want to publish for friends and family, and perhaps sell one or two copies elsewhere, fair enough, otherwise I fear you will be disappointed. It’s different for poetry, where poets are used to hand-selling and have low expectations (sadly), and for non-fiction where the book is an adjunct to the product or lecture series or whatever. For fiction, it’s entirely different. For one thing, we need editors..the books I’ve published were SO different from the ones I first submitted to my agent and my editor. Of course, you can sometimes find and hire a good editor (expect a fee of $10 – $12 a page). It’s possible.
And I still think a writer should be paid for her work, not be forced to pay to have it published.
And yes, although we are more and more our own publicists, we are not our own distributors. Don’t believe what self-publishing companies tell you…I have yet to hear of a single one that truly offered great distribution. Barns & Noble? Chapters? Sure, if you count one book on the back shelf of one store acceptable. Beware.
My advice to emerging writers these days is to be patient, and use the time to truly hone your craft. I believe the industry will sort itself out in the next few years, and really good writers will find it easier to publish again. Don’t rush. Enjoy writing. At the risk of beating a dead horse, you might want to read an essay I wrote on self-publishing a while ago… https://laurenbdavis.com/blog/?p=148 If you do choose to go that route, better to be forewarned.
Whatever you chose, I hope you’ll keep me posted.
Most of my students these days are senior citizens and interested mostly in writing for their children and grandchildren. But I have been on panels for two writing organizations, and it’s quite discouraging that the audience is generally not interested in learning to write well. Just tell me how you got your agent/publisher is a top question. The competition from ‘sister’ writers is also discouraging in these public forums. After the last one, I felt like a circus dog dancing on her hind legs. Not eager to do it again.
BTW, two of your recent students are friends of mine: Vicki W and Marcia S. And I see you are hosting Susan Tiberghien, a lovely, gracious woman who I will be co-hosting the very next day in Philly!
So funny you know Susan. I’ve known her ever since I lived in Annecy, France, and attended the Geneva Writers Group she started. That was back in 1996, I think. And Marcia and Vicki are lovely people. I was delighted to have them in my classes and hope to see them again.
I know what you mean about the discouraging atmosphere in public forums and networking sites. Although writers have, alas, always been envious and competitive (nature of the business, I’m afraid), it’s become far worse since the “look at me!” mentality has overtaken everything. I actually see it as a spiritual problem. We don’t know how to be still, how to be grateful for where we are; our priorities are out of whack — we think publishing is the most important thing in our lives, even at the cost of…well…sometimes our better selves. I once thought if only I published, all would be well…how wrong I was. It’s nice. It’s lovely, in fact, but it changes very little in one’s interior landscape.
At any rate, very glad you’ve popped up here.
It’s just my impatience glancing sideways at the self-publishing option…
Have you ever heard of Authonomy? (It’s a website affiliated with Harper Collins)
Books that “earn” a high rating by readers are supposed to get the attention of their editors.
It took me all day to load up 10,000 words of my manuscript.
Soon as it was up there, I started getting messages.
I realized it was “Survivor” for writers and deleted my entry post haste!
I have to be patient for a while longer? What’s that saying…
In for a penny, in for a pound.
I wish it felt like a pound of downy feathers instead of a pound of russet potatoes.
Okay, I’ll be patient…
I had not heard of Authonomy, so I found it and registered, to get a sense of the culture. I actually think it’s quite a good idea, if one wants to get a general reaction from potential readers. I read the comments on a few of the books that made it to HC’s attention and was impressed with the criticism HC’s editors provided. Right now editors are looking for excuses NOT to publish, especially unknown writers, where the risks are great. Still, the comments I read from HC’s people all seemed geared to making the work better, and seemed valid. Certainly the ms had been given a thoughtful read.
As for the comments from readers, they seem less helpful, as virtually every one I read was glowing, and where there was a suggestion for improvement, it ran to punctuation and spelling. Not terribly useful. Being a reader and being able to edit are entirely different things, and few readers are decent editors. I wonder if people are being overly positive because they fear critical revenge? It’s too bad, because certainly not all these ms can be wonderful and it’s not fair to encourage writers who need to do more work (or perhaps just don’t have the talent after all).
Your experience seems to have been different…you say it was a “Survivor” for writers. I’m not sure what you mean by that, but assume you received harsh remarks? Dare I ask what kind of criticism you got? And how do they stack up next to comments you received from your Humber experience (as I recall you were a students there, yes?)
While you’re being patient (snort — none of us do that very well!), are you starting something else? Really the only thing we can do as writers is to keep writing; everything else is out of our hands.
I’ll explain my “survivor’ comment:
I received a few comments. From fellow writers who actually did read a bit of my manuscript, the comments were encouraging. As for some of the others, I sensed a desperation underneath, wanting to ‘earn’ enough votes from fellow writers (and possibly readers). As I understand, it’s by getting the votes to be ‘shelved’ that will get a writer’s project up and in front of the HC editorial staff. Some of the other commenters had not read a single word of what I had written. The message was more a “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. I need to stay in the top five until the end of the month.” Thus my analogy to “survivor.”
Another writer creates free book designs for his fellow writers. What a great way to get votes to be shelved!
I am certain there are a few good writers amongst the mix, but I was put off by some of the comments I read about some of the other manuscripts. There were a couple I tried to read, but could not get past the first page, and yet all of the other writers gave glowing reviews! You’re right – they don’t want to rock the boat in case it costs them votes against their own writing.
I think this type of forum would work better if writers (who have a manuscript loaded up on the site) could add their comments and votes, but as a separate forum, something that has nothing to do with how HC gains their information for potential manuscript review.
Including the authors does not provide an objective selection. The actual ‘writing’ gets lost in the fight for obtaining votes.
While I’m being “patient” – I have another book in the wings. It needs editing and a bit of re-working. I’m reluctant to forge ahead with it, while I’m being “patient.” Perhaps I’m waiting for a sign of encouragement from the outside literary world.
Hi Vivian… you confirm my suspicions. “Survivor” indeed. In that case… it’s useless. People have the misguided notion success in publishing is a popularity contest, rather than a reflection on the quality of the work. Sure, there is an element of luck and who-you-know about getting published, but no amount of this sort of toadying will gain you a spot you don’t deserve.
I wonder if it would make a difference if people could only comment anonymously? Or you could only comment if you weren’t submitting? Pity, since I can see what HC’s trying to do.
And you also make my point about self-publishing. Those couple of ms you tried to read but could not get past the first page…what do you want to bet the author’s will self-publish? And thus, the industry is clogged with even more terrible books. Sigh.
Vivian, I do so encourage you to get on with the next project. We all have a book or two in a drawer somewhere. A very famous author once told me that for every decent book she writes, she has one that fails, is never published and ends up in locked trunk in the attic. I’ve had work that didn’t sell. It’s part of the writer’s life. And although I believe and say (probably too often) that I write better when I’m encouraged than when I’m harshly criticized or rejected, the truth is that there’s precious little encouragement in this business, and the psychological effects of praise aren’t nearly as long-lasting as the corrosive power of rejection. We have to learn to get on with it in spite of the lack of cheering. We learn to be better writers as much by our failures (perhaps more) as by our successes. Now, go on… back to the page! I’m cheering you on, for what it’s worth!
One more thing about Authonomy – they are sponsored by CreateSpace (the self-publishing branch of Amazon) Talk about a trapped target audience.
Anyway, I will get back to my other manuscript. You’re coming through loud and clear. Thank you for the “get up and go get ‘em” push forward.
Aha, Vivian! I did wonder why there seemed to be a number of self-publishing articles on their ‘blog’. It seems a bit disingenuous to me, doesn’t it to you?
Ah well… the important thing is you’re getting back to writing. CONGRATULATIONS. Keep me posted.
Thanks so much for this, was turned onto your blog because you’re listed on the mentoring site,
I’m inspired simply by the content.
Welcome, Bailey. I assume you mean I’m on the mentoring site for the Geneva Writers’ Group?
Yes, the Geneva Writer’s Group mentoring site.
This is such a wonderful article. Its meanings will linger a long while.
I keep looking for writers who have poetry in their genes. I do believe I have
stumbled upon another.