Publish or Perish: It’s Not Only for Academia
knowing your heart
is the best treat
life has to offer
I am the daughter of an obsessed writer. My father, a math teacher by vocation, a writer by avocation, brought me up believing that writing is a fine passion and that the highlight of a writer’s life is being published. He gave me his love of the English language, great literature and great writers. He instructed me on the importance of realistic dialogue, creating characters we remember and good plot twists. I was drawn to his typewriter before I could spell. In fact, one of our memorable photographs is of me at about age three, kneeling on a chair at the table where he wrote. My little hands are poised above the keys of his sturdy, black Underwood. My expression is thoughtful and fixed. By the side of the Underwood is a bottle of Schaefer beer.
When I was a child, I breathed in my father's passion for writing and being published. Before I was old enough to read his stories, I filled the manila envelopes with his manuscripts (the onion skin carbon copies ceremoniously filed away), pasted on the stamps and, holding the precious envelope in one hand and his hand in my other, walked to the mail box where together we slid the envelope into the slot. Then the wait began, ever hopeful, for the news that his story had been accepted. I’m not sure I knew what would happen when it was accepted, but I knew it would make him, and thus me very, very, very happy. Invariably what happened, of course, was that the manuscript was returned. I felt his dejection as if it were my own.
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” I remember telling him. “When I grow up, I’m going to put all your stories into a book and publish them myself.” It was a palpable dream for me.
When my father died, he left suitcases filled with short stories, only two of which had been published, both in Esquire. In addition, he’d written three novels about a private eye named Michael Oliver O’Toole, who remained his companion during his final years in a nursing home. Even when my father couldn’t remember who I was, he talked about Michael Oliver O’Toole.
This durable friendship with Michael Oliver O’Toole is one of my favorite memories of my writing father, and I have come to the conclusion that it is better to have a friend like Michael Oliver O’Toole than the memory of signing a fat publishing contract.
I wonder if Dad would agree with me.
I'm not so sure he would. He wanted so desperately to be well-published. He wanted fame and fortune and, I believe, felt terribly despondent for not having had them. He was a victim of the “publish or perish" syndrome as surely as if he'd been a college professor.
I am as much heir to those longing as I am the recipient of his love of writing. The disparity between these two inheritances has made for a lot of angst in my own obsessive drive to be “well” published.
I did publish, often, well and once very, very well. I was thrilled that my father was still alive when I sold my novel Petersburg to Putnam for a lot of money. I usually don't talk about the money I have received for my books, and surely doing so seems antithetical to an article such as this; however, the memory of what happened because of the sale is vital in my memory and cannot be told without reference to the dollar amount of the sale of Petersburg. For as if by the kindness of the Muse herself, even though my father lay lost in a fog of dementia, I was able to make him understand. Leaning over his bed in the nursing home, I said over and over, “Dad, I did it. I sold my book for $250,000!”
Finally, he turned to me, his blue eyes more vibrant than I had seen them for a long time. He opened them wide to show delight and his mouth formed a big O shape. “A quarter of a million dollars! OHHH!” His smile was wonderful. For that moment, I had my father back—he’d even, amazingly, translated $250,000 into a quarter of a million! But the light soon vanished, the O of his mouth deflated and he turned away. He was gone, lost behind the shroud of dementia.
I was ecstatic though. I’d gotten through to him. He’d understood. I’d done it! For me and for him. Fame and fortune were on the way. Nothing was going to stop me now.
But it did. Several months later, I proposed my next book to my editor, a novel set in the Middle Ages and she said, (I will never forget) “Don’t write this book, Emily. You don’t want to follow up Petersburg with something like this. It will never sell. No one wants to read a book set in the Middle Ages.”
I wrote it anyway. It was a book waiting to be born. In one way—commercially—it turned out the editor was right. Although I had a couple of near sales, ultimately, I have not been able sell the novel—yet! Were these rejections difficult for me? Anguishingly so. Am I sorry I wrote the novel? Absolutely not. Mistress of the Labyrinth had to be written. The heroine, Lyra, emerged and changed my life forever. Looking back, it seems as if she gently reached out and offered me her hand and said, “Come, don’t be afraid. I have something marvelous to show you.” But such images come with hindsight. When she first came to my mind’s eye as a priestess, a pretty typical one, I thought, with long wavy, dark hair, a turquoise robe and a golden snake choker and bracelet; I wasn’t impressed. I tried dismissing her. Priestesses weren’t my cup of tea (at the time, 1988); they were odd relics, and besides, I had no interest in the ancient.
But Lyra wouldn’t go away. Neither would she move or speak to me. She stood on that vast inner stage where the invisible becomes visible and stared at me. I tried to ignore her, to forget her, but I could feel her gaze, I could feel the pull of her dark eyes. And thus, in a effort to appease this messenger of the Muse, I allowed her to guide me. First, in order to appease my intellect, I researched priestesses(!) – and, finding what I found fascinating, I allowed her to lead me in the writing of the book. But what is more important is that Lyra has become my inner guide and the personification of my Inner Writer.
Through the journey I have taken with Lyra and Mistress of the Labyrinth, I have come to understand that a far truer aphorism than “publish or perish” is “write or perish.” Am I free of “publish or perish?” Not completely, I still have days when I cannot face going into bookstores or bear to read a highly regarded best seller. There are days when I lament, "Why me? Why isn't my book published?" But those days are increasingly more rare. In my heart and my gut—it is my mind that sometimes has trouble with this—I feel that the journey I take in being a writer is far more exciting and valuable than the experience of being published. Which is not to say that I believe it is unimportant to be published. When one of my students completes a story or book, I do everything I can to help her or him find a publisher. And I still hope that Mistress of the Labyrinth as well as the novel I am currently writing will be published. However, I no longer fear, as I once did, that I will give up writing and fall into hopeless depression if this doesn’t happen.
If being published were the main reason that we write, then very few of us would be writing. (It is my suspicion that today writers far outnumber readers.) Yet many writers are haunted by the feeling that the only way to gain validation as a writer is to be published.
“If only I were published, my husband, wife, children, I myself, the world, my high school English teacher, college roommate, ex-boyfriends, etc. etc. would take me seriously.”
“If only I were published, I would quit my job and write full time.”
“If only I were published, I would ___________.” (You fill in the blank.)
And when we are published, as exciting as it can be, the experience rarely lives up to our expectations. As Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird, “I tell you, if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you’re lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent. Don’t get me started on places where one is neglected. . . .”
To this, I would add: When we hand over our validation as a writer to the industry of publishing (which today is, by-in-large, hopelessly incompetent both as judges of good writing and as business people) we hand over our creative passion, and are in mortal danger of losing our connection to the joy of the journey.
There are ways, too, to share our writing short of being published. Several come to mind. I think of Terry, a writer in one of my weekly workshops. He’d been working on his book for several years and during that time, the make-up of the group hadn’t changed much. All five of us had pretty much been with Terry throughout the creation of his novel. When he read the last chapter for what he hoped would be the last time, we listened, wanting it to work for his sake, but knowing if it didn’t, we would tell him that, too. I remember my heart beating faster as he read. It’s working, so far… so far… I kept thinking. And it was! When he finished, we spontaneously burst into applause and cheering—there were even a few wet eyes! The ending was perfect.
Grinning, Terry said, “This is as good as it gets, isn’t it?”
I have to agree with him. For what agent, editor or reader is going to know all that it took for Terry to triumph as he did? No one else, but Terry himself, can love his characters so deeply as those of us who had shared in their creation.
I think, too, of my own experiences during the writing of Petersburg. My daughter was a freshman at the University of Vermont. She was quite unhappy the first semester, so my husband and I made the seven hour trip to Burlington at least twice a month. During those drives, I read chapters and chapters of the book. He gave me feedback. We talked and argued over characters. He challenged me, as he is wont to do. Our love for the characters as well as the characters themselves grew with the sharing. And together we developed the plot. (I called him “The Plot Meister”.) We cried, too, as events brought pain, sorrow, joy, redemption and finally resolution into the character’s lives. I remember the day I read him the last chapter of Petersburg. We were driving down a highway banked in snow and tears were flowing so furiously, my husband had to pull over to the side of the road.
Another memory… It was eleven o’clock at night and the phone rang. I picked it up and my daughter shouted at me, “How could you? I’ll never forgive you! Never!”
“What? I asked. “What did I do?” She was very angry and I couldn’t imagine why.
“You killed him! You killed _____!” (I won’t tell you who, in case you haven’t read Petersburg yet and would like to. Don’t want to ruin the suspense!) “How could you kill him off? I loved him. I’ll never forgive you for that. Never!”
I smiled. My Inner Writer and I were taking flight!
Even now, writing this brings back the intensity of these experiences, none of which would have been diminished if the book had not been published. And each of which hold far deeper, more tender places in my heart than any publication kudos.
One of the great challenges that we face as writers is to understand in the core of our beings that thejourney of being a writer is the biggest payoff of all. That’s when the magic happens, when unknown corridors within open, when writing becomes the song of the soul. There is inexpressible pleasure that comes from the unleashed imagination; the effortless flow of words; the appearance of characters who say the unexpected and do the unpredictable. There is inexpressible pleasure in waking up in the morning, hungry to return to my characters and their stories. Then there is no such thing as a “bad writing day.” Then there is only the writing, and my doing what feels as natural as breathing.
I have come to believe that the “bad days” only seem more prevalent than the “good days” when I am dry of passion. And that only happens when the insidious brute, Publish or Perish, sneaks up on me. I hope one day soon to be fully free of the brute, to know as surely as I breathe that every day I write will be a good day, simply because I have written.
In closing, I am taking lines from a cumulative poem, “Why I Write” from online members of The Fiction Writer’s Journey.
Why I Write…
A cumulative poem
Writing is soul, breath, it is the way into
self and the universe.
Words become like one-way mirrors,
our characters see their reflection,
while we see through the mirror,
in search of the I
I do not know I am.
Giving life to imagination,
filling it with color, texture, passion.
Sipping the wine of words with the Muse
I am emboldened, enlivened,
at one with the Universe.
Inside there is chaos waiting to be understood ...
waiting to be written into order.
And there is also order waiting
to turn into wildness and freedom through words.
Writing is a WOW!
It is the punch of life pulsing through minds.
To add flames to a fire that burns inside.
To explore parts of my soul that I have not yet touched.
To satisfy something with-in. To find a voice. To dig deep. To be.
To revive the lilting, longing
of the impervious soul…
To feel my pen glide across the paper
To become more human
And somehow less.
Less afraid to be the real you,
Less willing to give into others.
More willing to grow as a person,
More able to fight your demons.
I write because then I can be heard, and fully known
....heard by the universe of my mind.
To give in to the desperate longing
of my soul to reveal itself.
To provide a voice
For silent thoughts
That scream to have a choice
I write to remember who I am.
to drink in the light of the moon…
to illuminate the day
and extinguish the night
to fight fright.
I write quite simply, because my characters want me to. They have a tale to tell, and have chosen me to tell it. Who am I to ignore such generous offers of story telling?