Thursday, May 05, 2011

Taking Care of Your Work

The Newburyport Literary Festival was a wonderful occasion to sit and talk about books with friends and strangers, and my panel with Michelle Hoover and Steve Yarbrough went well. (Steve and I also got to talk about Mississippi Delta accents versus Tennessee mountain accents, and how both our families have Lena's, and that felt a bit like home.) A 9:00am talk brings out a certain kind of audience--a bright, listening audience, ready to go, and I like that. They asked good questions, mostly about process and publishing challenges. At the end, the three of us sat at a table and signed books--fielding more questions and listening to the struggles of the writers in the audience, trying had to find a place for their work, an agent, an editor, even a bit of attention.

During the talk, there was some discussion of how our (or maybe just my) work was repeatedly deemed "unpublishable" or "without an audience" or "difficult." Michelle warned against self-publishing because you are tired--tired of coming up against these walls, tired of rejection after rejection, most of them with no reason as to why you were rejected, you just were. It made me think about my own time fighting with the desire to self-publish, and subsequently getting the call from my agent that someone was interested and could I wait maybe two more weeks for them to make a decision.

This made me think of this trend toward e-self-publishing, or digital-self-publishing, or whatever they are calling it these days, as a way of twarting the difficulties of the Publishing Business, and maybe--maybe--making a quick buck. Lots of attention has been paid to this new model--sell on Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc, and charge 99 cents, and make a mint. The theory of microtransactions. But I want to say to authors considering this model: Know what your work is worth, and know that readers will follow your lead.

The other part of me--the more radical, lowlife, street rat part--feels like this is Scrooge-y and coming from a more knowledgeable place, and young writers (read: younger than me, and not that different from my limited experience) need to find audiences however they choose. Not publishing kills you inside, I know. But please don't rush to publication until you've thought a lot about what you want from it.

Publishing is difficult--it takes something very intimate and specific and blows it up into something that people will take as vague and "for their consideration." They'll say its autobiographical when it isn't, and fictitious when it's pure realness. They will write horrible things about you personally on and GoodReads and B&, and other places where democracy is at its worst. They will write things like "I strongly recommend that you don't waste your time on this one" and "I kept thinking to myself, 'Who Cares.'" This is all if you're lucky.

Then, once you've been published and all these wonderful things start happening--and they do, really incredible, deeply fulfilling things do happen. The rewards are many, though mostly very personal and intangible. But the thing that happens after that, is that you have to figure out how to write for yourself again. Because suddenly, you're writing for the world, which, at least in my case, was never who I wanted to write for in the first place. You will have to figure out to make it back to the fearless place, to the courageous, invincible-and-vulnerable place that good art comes from.

All of this is only to say: take care with your work. Give it the right foundation, the best pathway to success, give it the most careful ushering into the world. Then you can rest and feel accomplished for about 24 days. And then immediately after that, start working on something else.

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