Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why I Should Not Have a "Career" (and why I do)

I've seen a lot of gloom and doom lately about the state of the literary publications market. Last week, for example, The Review Review published a story aptly titled "New Yorker Rejects Itself" in which the author takes a lesser known New Yorker story, replaces the author's name with an invented one, and submits it for publication there and several other highly regarded journals. At each one, it is rejected.

My friend Jeff Newberry (author of Brackish) saw the article and said it reminded him of this piece from, in which a novelist resubmits his own best-selling novel (name & title changed) to his own publishing house's slush pile, only to have it rejected.

Both articles seemed to confirm what so many of us feel in our darkest hours. It was the old Catch-22. Namely, that the odds are impossibly stacked against us, that one can't get published without a name and one can't get a name without publishing.

In the face of such stories, it's easy to give up hope. As painful as writing is, why keep doing it if there's no chance it will reach an audience outside ourselves? Why did we sign on for this? Where is that bottle of Bourbon?

I've been there. Sometimes, I admit, I still feel that way. I talked to an author last summer whose first short story collection is garnering huge praise everywhere (major awards and prizes, full color spreads in popular magazines, etc, etc), who told me that she had never had her work in the slush pile. A few years ago, her MFA director had told a highly reputed literary magazine's editor-in-chief to look at her work, which he did. That editor published her story, and her career was off and running. Sometimes, editors asked her to send to them directly. Sometimes, friends put her work in their hands. Either way, her stories skipped the slush pile altogether.

The thing is, I know that kind of treatment doesn't happen unless you have incredible talent, and, knowing that, I wanted to be happy for her. This writer struck me as a thoroughly cool person. As fellow strivers, shouldn't we all be cheering each other on?

Instead, I felt the cold gut punch of jealousy. There was no one in my life who had that kind of clout, no one willing to stick his neck out that way for me. I was doomed.

I got over it. She is talented and amazing. I don't want to be a bitter, jealous person. I want to cheer her on sincerely because she, too, is a writer, and even if publication might have come a little easier in the end, the words never do. She got her reputation because she sat down to the keyboard like all the rest of us and wrestled phrases and images into the magical spell that is all good short fiction. She worked--and that's something none of us should take lightly.

What's more, I've come to see it as much role as a writer much differently. I'm not a person who's ever known people in high places. My role, instead, is to claw and scratch my way through the backdoor of the publication world. And I have. I've gotten pieces in journals I'm incredibly proud to be in (Ninth Letter, Quarterly West, Versal, etc)--places whose editors were willing to take a chance on a girl they'd never heard of just because they liked her words. My first novel is coming out from New Rivers Press in October--the same press that published Charles Baxter, one of my all time favorite writers--for the same reason. Somehow, over time, my work has begun to find an audience.

I'm going to be honest: back in those undergrad days, my writing did not stood out above that of my peers. I had no discernible talent. By the time I began my Master's degree, I recognized how poor my own writing was compared to my peers. I spent the next six years struggling to be better. Slowly, my work was starting to get acceptance letters.

What I have going for me isn't untrained ability, and it certainly isn't "connections." What I have is perseverance and a willingness to learn. What I have going for me is a world in which editors do care and do want to find new voices. What I have going for me is a writing community of people who support each other, even when things look bleak. And you know what? It's enough.