Do you ever worry that getting published—that worrying about the business of writing—might sully the purity of your artistic expression and dampen your passion for the craft? Many writers struggle with the concessions required of the publication process, but you needn’t fear them; it’s all part of the experience.
One of the more interesting things Alice Hoffman told me when I interviewed her for the first time many years ago was how “strangely pure” her MFA experience was. There was no talk of publishers or agents or markets, no talk of genre or trends or readership. According to Hoffman, in her MFA program they only talked about writing.
By the time we met, Hoffman had published over 20 books and I’m sure she had had a lot of conversations about those books that had nothing to do with writing. It’s inevitable. As Don, my very first writer friend often said, “Don’t forget that publishing is a business!” I knew he was right about that, but when we became friends I had not yet published anything and so the whole business thing felt very abstract.
This was just fine with me. I did not see myself a businessman, which in my private lexicon was a dirty word. I considered myself an artist, and artists, I believed, were more interested in what they made than what they made was worth. Except I also very, very much wanted to be paid for what I was writing, and I hoped that when I did get paid I would get paid a lot because, you know, food on the table and all that.
There were, you see, some advantages to not getting published. As long as what I wrote wasn’t published I would not have to sully the pure writing experience with the ugly, businessperson’s question of value. As soon as someone bought one of my stories, I would have to contend with the number assigned to it, would have to decide if that number was it’s true value. I liked numbers, but the problem with them is that there is always one larger. If my story wasn’t published, its value could remain unmeasured.
This was hardly the only advantage. If I didn’t publish my stories, I would also never have to work with an editor. If you work with an editor, you must allow someone else to have input on your story. You spend your whole life dealing with other people and their ideas. You go to the page so you can hear your ideas. Then along comes this editor and you’re back to listening to other people. If I didn’t publish my stories I would never have to subject my writing to society’s ceaseless idea competition.
And if I didn’t publish my stories no one would ever be able to criticize them. I would never have to read a bad review in a newspaper or blog or on Amazon. I would never have to decide whether this stranger who didn’t like my story was delusional or incisive. No one would get to tell me my stories weren’t interesting, or funny, or useful, or profound. As long as I didn’t publish them, the only opinions about my stories that mattered were mine.
Finally, as long as I didn’t publish the stories they would always belong to me and me alone. I knew what happened when you read a story you loved: It became yours. It didn’t matter if you didn’t write it. If you loved it then you’d imagined, you’d felt that story’s grief and joy and desire, and no one could possibly tell you that that experience didn’t belong to you. As long as I didn’t publish my stories, I would never have to share what I loved; I could have it all for myself.
There was, however, one significant disadvantage to not publishing my stories, and it wasn’t the lack of money or recognition. As long as my stories remained unpublished, I would never understand that the publishing was less important to me than the writing. Until I began publishing my work regularly, the question of whether my stories would be published, and where they would be published, and what people would think of them when they were published, dominated my writing experience. Until all those questions were answered, I felt as if I was forever waiting for test results from a doctor.
When those results did come back, when I sold my first story, worked with my first editor, received my first bad review, heard from my first appreciative reader, you could say I did not bother to read my diagnosis. Nothing that happened after I began publishing my stories actually changed my relationship to writing, which had been my greatest fear all along. The real question I wanted answered was, “What if writing’s not fun and interesting and inspiring anymore? What if it just becomes another job?”
I am happy to report that writing is still a pure experience as long as I allow it to be. As long as I only think about writing while I’m writing, I enjoy it as much as I ever have. But if I think about writing and publication, or writing and my platform, or writing and my bank account, it’s no fun at all. In fact, if I try to think about two things at once I usually want to quit everything. That’s okay. The instant I forget about the business of being an author and bring my attention back to the story I want to tell, I remember where I want to be and who I have always been.
Learn more in William Kenower’s online course: Fearless Writing — How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence