My graduating class from an MFA program was advised to apply for major grants until we got one. It’s a fact that academic success and public acclaim are thought to be the marks of a successful writer. I have, for years, looked longingly at well-known publications and wanted to see my work there. And it has happened. I’ve published poetry, fiction, and essays. I keep a list of potential submissions. But I’m not sure that publication as I’ve defined it matters.
An influential book in my reading history is The Gift by Lewis Hyde. And it has occurred to me that my efforts to publish defy The Gift‘s ideal. I’ve had it backwards. The product of a consumerist economy, I too often measure success by prestige and sales. Money motivates. More interesting to me now is the need to scatter good words like grass seed.
Competing to publish in big venues satisfies my ego, but where else might a poem, story, novel, or essay distract, instruct, or comfort a reader in a difficult world? (And has it ever not been difficult?) I’m rethinking the issue of publication vs sharing. Who is best served if I parcel out poems to a select few? And what does it mean that I’ve taken so long to examine that advice I heard years ago? Would I turn down publication in a venue with thousands of readers? No, but I will try harder to make my work available to whoever wants or needs it. Fame be damned.
In the big red book The Synonym Finder there’s an inch and a half list of words for taking a break. A poet creates a break in the middle of a line and calls it a caesura. Physiologists call the teeny space between neurons a synapse. Opera goers call it intermission. I call it frustrating.
The rewrite of my novel is done for now. I’m waiting for proof copies to arrive on the front porch and then I’ll wait for my much-appreciated first readers to get back to me with their reactions. Wait, wait, wait. After a year of work, work, work, the waiting feels wrong. I’m restless. I devour mystery novels like bonbons. I scribble in my journal and feel like I’m cheating if I write without a goal.
Waiting is part of writing, my least favorite part. Why am I not creating a text to share with a reader? I guess it’s about recharging, like one of those plug-in cars. Or being pregnant. Driving across country and obeying the speed limit. Some things cannot be rushed. The testing stage of writing cannot be rushed because it now involves other people. In this case, the people who push the buttons on the machinery that prints the books, the folks who see that the books get into boxes with address labels, the people who drive the big trucks that carry the books to me, and the people who will read and take the time to tell me what’s good and what’s not so good.
After all that waiting, I will fix what’s broken or add what’s missing. And then–almost there–I’ll wait for people to buy the book, read it, talk about it and tell me if all this time I’ve invested in it was worth the wait. Writing is not about instant gratification. It’s about interacting with a world beyond my control, and there’s a seven-inch list of synonyms for control.