“The end,” I intoned at length, laying bare the pages of story before me. Having devoted the previous six years to almost exclusively writing screenplays and TV scripts only a rarefied few ever actually read, I’d begun fretting over whether I still had the chops to write prose for publication; needed to ascertain to what level of sucktitude my work had now sunk. So I wrote a short story and brought it to my first-ever read and critique workshop.
The writers sat bunched about the Sacred Table of Trust. Two worn tables, actually, edged together lengthwise to accommodate the eleven members comprising tonight’s group. Most turned their attention toward the workshop leader when I finished reading, an accomplished novelist whose quick, crinkly smile inevitably belied the seriousness of his own work to strangers. Before he began his comments, a young woman seated across from me blinked back, her cheeks wet with tears. Then she honked. Or maybe blubbered. It jolted, either way.
The workshop leader’s eyes widened. “Are you all right?”
A couple of the others shifted in their folding chairs as the young woman blew her nose hard into a shred of tissue. She sniffs, knuckling away what few tears remained on her face. “It was just so beautiful,” she says, eyeing me inscrutably. “It reminds me of somebody. Is it you?”
“What?” I say.
“The story, is it about you? Is it true?”
“It’s just a story.”
“Well,” she says, “You pretty much fucking nailed it, didn’t you?”
With not another word, the young woman slipped what pages of her own she’d brought for feedback–not yet read–off the Sacred Table of Trust, tucked them into her shoulder bag, then left.
I never saw her again.
That was back in The Eighties. Reason I recall it so vividly is because that night that one young woman, in this case my reader, affirmed some things that still stick with me:
- The reward is the writing itself, without distraction or expectation of what might, will or must become of it once it’s finished
- Stories have the potential to span a table and emotionally connect with a stranger, sometimes not in the way anticipated
- Stories don’t have to be brilliantly conceived, exceptionally original, or exceedingly well-crafted, they just have to be good enough to satisfy the basic emotional needs of the reader
- I prefer a pseudonym when penning fiction so I can freely write about the essence of truth and not be questioned as to whether it’s literal truth–some kind of personal insight or admission or confession or offering of atonement that requires (likely needed) psychotherapy
For me, there’s nothing like the exhilaration of crafting a terrific line or cracking a tough scene or rendering genuinely fascinating characters who behave in truthful, unexpected manners. When all those elements finally align, resulting in a solid read, a read to be proud of, one’s sense of accomplishment, or sheer relief, is potent. It’s that way for most writers, I believe.
But that was back in The Eighties.
Things Have Changed
Things are different for many writers today. Today, too many confuse publishing with printing. Today, too many conflate craft and quality with “content” and product, commodity and commerce; confidence and cowardice.
Much like it’s long been in Hollywood, today a quiet desperation pervades every realm of the publishing world. It dispirits writers, confounds good agents and acquisitions editors, and tests nearly everyone’s desire to return to the raw purity of writing itself. The rumblings of dissatisfaction confirming it can be found in almost every conversation. Most strikingly so, at least for me, on the final day of our most recent SCWC in Newport Beach. There, entirely without irony, a savvy writer volunteered, “You know, I think self-publishing is just another way of quitting writing.”
Personally, I believe self-publishing is just another option at an author’s disposal, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment. Having witnessed so many writers, so many friends, eschew a traditional path to publication in favor of going it alone, only to suffer the grim realization that one’s book has failed to find an audience; failed, in fact, to sell more than a handful of copies; failed to somehow validate that writer’s effort to author a story that could, would, should be read, but won’t be.
Likewise, many friends who prefer the traditional publishing route have also become increasingly dispirited, even cynical.
Why? It’s a free market. With the ease of publication what it is, anybody who elects to jump in can do so. And as writers tend to be among the most optimistic of people, many do jump in with the earnest belief that they’ll be winners too. I mean, we all know the Cinderella stories about authors who self-published books that have gone on to great success. Thing is, Cinderella stories are the exception, not the rule. That’s why we call them Cinderella stories.
Or Have They?
Celebrated author Ursala K. Le Guin recently declared, “We need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and production of art.”
True, writing is art. However, publishing is a business. Always has been. From Victorian era penny dreadfuls and American pulp fiction to Pulitzer Prize-winning sagas and television tie-in novelizations, stories have been published with the expectation of rewarding readers and earning at least some modicum of profit doing so.
After all, other than in a diary, no writer writes to not be read.
What has not changed for writers is the immutable pleasure of crafting a story that a reader falls in love with, or relishes in its absurdity, or is able to shed real world woes and lose one’s self in.
The thrill—no, the joy–of writing for publication has always been subject to being sapped by self-doubt, siphoned off by the distraction of commercial pressure, the prospect of negative reviews, or maybe unrealistic anticipation of monetary recompense.
Absent an imminent, crushing deadline, it’s often hard for a writer to totally dispel the outside world in order to focus exclusively on the art itself.
Reclaim Your Joy
We must reclaim the Joy of Writing. We must not be discouraged. When one finds his or her self in the middle of a work-in-progress actually dreading its completion for fear that the spirit-killing long slog of marketing the published book—chasing reviews, expanding “brand,” building platform, plugging it shamelessly to friends, “friends,” and followers, somehow outwitting algorithms in effort to otherwise game the system, and all the other excruciating, time sucking promotional activities authors are expected to actively engage in in order to be “successful”—will follow, it’s time to remember why you began writing in the first place.
It’s time to remember the satisfaction of writing a good story well told.
It’s time to remember that tearful young stranger of so many years past.
It’s time to reclaim the Joy of Writing.
I know I’m trying.