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.
But it’s so easy to get trapped! The measures the world uses for worth (the name of your agent, the size of your publishing house, reviews, sales numbers) don’t give an accurate reading of true value. “I don’t trust the publishing world to determine the worth of your book,” I told my student.
“Ah,” she said. She’s Sufi and a long-time meditater. I watched her return to center.
What’s the real value of our writing? Others may answer this differently, but here is my take: Does the act of writing help you come more alive? Then it’s valuable. Does your writing help even one other reader come more alive? Then it’s valuable. Do you believe your writing contributes even incrementally to the wellbeing of the world by adding beauty or wisdom or healing or good fun or radical justice, even if you have no proof, even if you have no readers? Then it’s valuable.
Yesterday a writer I respect immensely told me she uses Writing the Sacred Journey as part of her theology classes for women in prison, and that they’ve done amazing work as a result. “Your book is on ten shelves in a prison in Georgia,” she told me. I was so grateful! Ten women are using my book as a door into their own stories. That, I believe, is a trustworthy measure of worth.
Of course a publisher accepted and printed my book and made it available for this professor to buy. While I’m grateful to Skinner House for investing in my work this way, I’m increasingly unwilling to stake my worth or the worth of my writing on the judgments of any organization that needs a margin of profit or must kowtow to the whims of the consumer. It’s not healthy for me, for my writing, for my students or their writing, for literature itself or for our culture at large. I can appreciate my publisher, but I must remember to locate worthiness in the most worthy locations.
Writers can follow any number of paths into or away from publication. Just as there is no one path to God, there is no one way to bring your work to fruition. Thomas Merton wrote, “Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” We writers must not forget to live. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
After a lovely hiatus from teaching over the summer, I’m eager to dive back into school! I hope you can join me at one of these upcoming events.
September 26, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.: Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art & Practice of Spiritual Memoir, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
October 16, November 20, December 18, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in classes.
October 31, 9-12 a.m.: Revision Revolution workshop, The Loft Literary Center.
SAVE THE DATES:
June 26-29, 2016: The Inner Life of Stories: Writing as Deep Listening retreat at The Christine Center.
September 12-16, 2016: Alone Together writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts.
I’ll also be leading a retreat called Writing about Transformation, Transforming our Writing for the first time at Tanque Verde, a ranch outside of Phoenix, in early February. If you’d like more information about this or would just like to stay posted with my offerings, please sign up for my infrequent newsletter at the bottom right corner of www.elizabethjarrettandrew.com.