Recently I’ve been asking a literary version of the perennial question about a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear: If a creative work is complete but unread, does it wield any influence in the world?
I’m curious because writers spend a lot of angst and energy wondering whether their writing has value. I feel confident saying that the writing process is valuable; if engaged with an open heart, writing transforms the writer. And we all know that stories with the capacity to move readers are valuable. (more…)
I read this story recently in Poets & Writers. It may be a parable about stick-to-it-iveness, or perhaps it’s an invitation to apply the vision of hindsight to our current ambitions. Bear with me.
Daniel Wallace, the author of six novels including a New York Times bestseller, has tried for more than thirty years to publish in The New Yorker. When he first began submitting work there in 1984, The New Yorker defined literary success for him. His stories landed on the desk of the fiction editor, Daniel Menacer, who eventually began jotting “a little something” on the rejected pages. “I had no idea who this person was,” Wallace writes, “and it didn’t really matter because at that time in my life, editors were all-powerful demigods whose approval would allow me entry into the world I hungrily watched from afar.” Over the first six years, Menaker’s rejections grew personal and encouraging. One story he even called “very good…as far as it goes.” He actually invited Wallace to continue submitting. Writers call such comments “good rejections.” (more…)
Okay, folks; hang on tight: I’m going to go metaphysical on you today. I think I’ve located a fallacy within how writers think about creation, and I want to unpack it with you. This fallacy is relevant to all artists and everyone committed to transformation, of self or society, so even if you’re not a writer, come along for the ride.
When writers work, we imagine ourselves as the source of an idea or at least as the channel for inspiration. We identify closely with our idea; we generate text; we revise; we as authors are the dynamic moving the project forward. At the other end of our project, we imagine a publisher acting as a gatekeeper to an audience, who will read our work and be entertained or educated or transformed by it. We picture this timeline like this:
Twenty-two years ago I started writing a monthly column for my church newsletter. I appreciated the immediate feedback. If a member of my congregation disagreed with something I’d written, I’d hear about it on Sunday. Usually I received a lot of encouragement.
As people outside church expressed interest, I sold subscriptions to the column for $12 a year, printed out copies, and put them in the mail. Eventually the internet arrived, and the blogging phenomenon; I posted my “column” for years before I deigned to call it a “blog.” Nine years ago I added a second monthly entry on writing. A tally of my slow and steady posts is around 370—a figure that stuns me today. Here are some thoughts on the hidden value of all that writing: (more…)
For years I’ve preached Robert Frost’s advice, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” as my writing gospel, so last month I was taken aback in the middle of a class when I realized yet another marvelous dimension of this philosophy: If genuine, open-hearted engagement (that is, the willingness to be surprised) is the basic ingredient of the creative process, then we all, each and every one of us ordinary people who write, have the capacity to move a reader.
Yesterday I was yet again talking with an emerging writer about her first steps into publishing and ran up against that all-too-common resistance to self-publishing: “I just want to know that someone other than myself thinks this story is worthwhile,” she told me.
There are many arguments for and against self-publishing, none of which I want to tackle here. Instead I’m interested in her (and our) bare desire to receive external affirmation for our creative work. We seek it from agents, from publishers, from an audience. This is not necessarily bad. We’re human. We want to know we matter. We want to do good work. We want to make a difference. (more…)