|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 his own 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 a column 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 Alzheimer’s Disease.
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, " 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 has been difficult. Although I had a couple of near sales, I haven't yet been able to sell the novel. (Although I now have an agent who is very excited about its sale) 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. For me. I would be sad if I had never written Petersburg; however, I would not be the person I am today—a person I am very glad I uncovered!—if I had not written Mistress of the Labyrinth. (I further explore my experiences with Mistress of the Labyrinth in my book, The Art of Fiction Writing.)
Through the journey I am taking with 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.
Part 2: The Journey of Being a Writer Is the Biggest Payoff of All!
About the author:
Emily Hanlon is a writing coach who works with writers all over the world on the telephone. She is the author of 8 books of fiction, including Petersburg, translated into several languages and reached the best sellers list in England. She leads writing retreats for women and workshops in this country and abroad. Her websites are: http://www.thefictionwritersjourney.comand http://www.awritersretreat.com
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