The False Promise of Acceptance and Publication

The week before Thanksgiving, I went to an event at Orr Street Studios here in Columbia. It’s called Hearing Voices/Seeing Visions, and happens every third Tuesday of the month. Writers Scott Garson and Chad Simpson were reading from their work, and they both have amazing collections, so I was looking forward to it. Scott read first, and at the intermission, I asked him to autograph my copy of his book, and to talk shop a little bit.

I asked Scott what he was working on now. I usually ask writers that, though, over the years, I’ve found this to be a poor question. Most writers give very vague answers (“Oh, I’m working on a novel” or “New poems”) with little to no detail on the project. I’m one of the rare writers who doesn’t mind talking about my current project, so I’m always hopeful someone will take the bait, but, of course, they never do. Anyway. I asked Scott this question (my brain was bean dip, otherwise I would have come up with something better), and he looked up from the book, a bit dazed, a bit amused.

He said, nothing. I haven’t really had time. He said that this reading was the last one he was doing for the book and that he was looking forward to the promotional events being over so he could get back to writing.

I completely understood. I did the last promotional event for my book in early November, heading to Oklahoma to hang out with Bayard Godsave at Cameron University. Especially with this being my first book, I pretty much said Yes to every offer to read somewhere or talk publishing or juggle chainsaws or whatever. But it has been almost a year since my book came out, and I was feeling sluggish. I also felt bad, a little guilty, for viewing the five events I’ve done this fall as skulduggery.

And it’s not just a complaint that writers like Scott and I have made. National Book Award finalist Meg Rosoff said the same thing. Promoting a book and writing a book go together like oil and water.

Of course, this seems like a good problem: trouble to find time to write because your book has been published and found an audience. I don’t imagine these concerns will generate a ton of sympathy, nor should they. After all, most of us are always struggling to carve out time to write around our jobs, our families, and the day-to-day demands of our lives.

I guess what I’m interested in here is the After Publication period is kind of a false end in the publication to promotion spectrum. Whether it’s your first story, your first poem, your first book, or your first “big success” (whatever that entails), there is a bit of a surprise when, after all is done, how quickly it feels over and inconsequential. Perhaps you’re shaking your head; maybe you accept success better than I do. But I find more satisfaction when the work is done, not when the work is accepted or published.

It wasn’t always this way for me. At first, it was receiving an email or phone call from an editor, telling me that my story had been accepted for publication. Then it was having a book accepted. Then it was the box with copies of my book in it. Then it was the first review that seemed to really understand what the collection was attempting to do as a book. But with a little time, a little age, a little perspective, all of this, in hindsight, is fleeting. It’s far too dependent on others, all these things that have nothing to do with the writing that I can’t control. When I see my work in print, I can’t read more than a few sentences before thinking “you know, I can write this better, if I just had one more crack at it …”

Publication and promotion, while good (of course) and necessary (definitely), pales in comparison to getting the story right. The apex of the writing process is before an editor or agent has seen your work, when you have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve gotten it right. Once the story is in their hands, perhaps well enough to be published but also perhaps prematurely, it is out of yours. Sure, there is the editorial process, a critical component of putting together an excellent narrative. But the satisfaction of finishing it on your own, as a writer, at your desk or coffee shop or couch or wherever it is that you write from, is what should be cherished and praised. Recognizing and getting back to that state of mind is the challenge for all of us.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye