Don’t Worry about Slumming

One writer’s misadventures in the publishing world.

Photo by Julia Kuzenkov from Pexels

An office at Barnes & Noble.

Some of us start out with ambitions nowhere near reality. We have no idea what we’re getting ourselves into.

“You’re a perky little thing.”

You change your major from Economics to English. And you start hanging out at prose and poetry readings. You try to network, but nobody even listens to you — unless you’re kissing their ass.

That’s not a good sign.

The perky little things never get anywhere in publishing. They become an MFA professor’s mistress for a while. Publish a handful of short stories or poems. Then they age out. Or they finally develop some self-confidence and report someone for harassment.

Not everyone’s cut out for journalism.

Lots of writers begin their careers at a newspaper, or a magazine. At least, they used to. Some still do, probably. Journalism can teach you a lot about style and brevity. You have to get to the point quick.

You become a so-and-so.

And it’s true, all the writing you do does help. It’s great training. You develop a kind of mental endurance.

MFA programs and instant regret.

Just add water; bring to a quick boil. You don’t regret your MFA because you got kicked out, or someone scorched you at a workshop. Totally the opposite. All of your professors predicted a bold, bright future ahead. They loved your work. That’s the problem.

Success at an MFA program means nothing.

Praise from your creative writing professors doesn’t matter. They promise to send your thesis to their agent, and they don’t. Some of them can’t even send letters of recommendation on time. They unleash their diva tempers when you email them reminders about deadlines.

You don’t matter as much as you thought.

You follow all the advice about networking. You cozy up to mid-list authors. Buy their books. Review them for local newspapers. Interview them for magazines. In your own small way, you contribute to their success. You even chat with them at book festivals.

Your first book tour bankrupts you.

You think a starred review in someplace like Publishers Weekly is going to catapult your career. It doesn’t. Everything that can go wrong does.

You decide to take a break.

Creative writing has lost its thrill. Now, you can’t sit down to write without feeling a little nauseated. A dozen literary agents have contacted you, and then sat on your second book for three or four months before sending a form rejection. You thought you were getting somewhere.

You start to self-publish.

Because seriously, what do you have to lose at this point? You’ve run the gauntlet, and you’re no longer sure editors and agents always know what they’re doing.

You start a blog.

Not because you want to get rich. You just want to keep writing. It helps you work through all the unprocessed emotions you’ve been dumping into a landfill in the back of your mind for the last twenty years.

You stop caring about what doesn’t matter.

After fifteen years of struggle, you finally start to understand yourself as a writer. You know what you’re doing now. So it doesn’t matter so much when friends or mentors make dismissive comments. It doesn’t matter so much when some random troll stops by to trash your writing.

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