Magic and Metal: On Writing and Publishing

by Angela Doll Carlson April 24, 2014

Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.” - Stephen King 

I had intended to write today about a dollhouse.

What I wanted to write about was this dollhouse I had when I was a kid. It was a DuraCraft kit, the VH600 Victorian model, painted porcelain blue by my own unsteady hand when I was about 10. I pined for it for years, envying the one my cousin Susan had in her room until I finally got hold of my own.

I wanted to write about that dollhouse but the words wouldn’t come.

So I considered other things, writing about growing up Catholic or about that time in the 4th grade when Miss Costa called me stupid in front of our class or about the snow on the ground outside my window this fine APRIL day in Chicago.

But the words didn’t come and so I surfed Pinterest instead of writing.

I learned that if I wanted to, I could make a wreath out of long dead sticks in my yard, old wool sweaters or empty cardboard paper towel tubes. I didn’t make the wreath of old wool sweaters or long dead sticks or paper towel tubes. I closed that computer window so that I could open that brain door to let loose the magic and put words on paper because I’m a writer. This is what I do.

I wanted to write about that dollhouse but the words won’t come. I’m thinking too much today about the rejection notices I’ve gotten already this week. I’m consumed today not by the “magic” of writing but by the messy business end of this writer’s life. It could be that it’s on my mind because of the most recent failed submissions or the agent email saying he’ll “take a pass” on reading my work. But more likely it’s on my mind because I spent some time at a writer’s conference a few weeks ago.

The Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a familiar haunt for me. The first year I went was cathartic, even though I spent the whole time hiding away, making myself small and unnoticed. I was intimidated and a bit lost.  But it was cathartic because it was the first time I admitted out loud to other people that I am a writer. And that was important because to say it to a group of fellow parents, firefighters or grocery store clerks is one thing but to say it in a group of writers is something else.

Though I spent most of the time that year soaking in the advice and inspiration, cowering in corners, it was difficult to avoid the persistent question of “Are you a writer too?” when standing in those close circles between sessions. Whenever I’d been asked that question I’d hem and haw, or laugh, and hope that someone would drop a tray of cookies or an expensive vase nearby just to get me out of answering.

Finally, near the end of that first conference 14 years ago, my friend and traveling companion forced my hand when we stood talking to other participants. After Karen introduced me, the question came up again “Are you a writer too?”   Karen piped in quickly, “Yes, she is!” and I nodded reluctantly. And we went on talking then- just a bunch of writers standing in a circle, discussing our work, our hopes, our publishing credits or lack thereof.

I admit, I struggle still in those writer-ly circles of conversation, even after 14 years of actively striving to feel legitimate about saying, “I’m a writer” in public.  Only now it’s not so much the admission of being a writer in that context, it’s the question that comes after, “what do you write?” and then the question after that, “where do you publish?” Nothing kills my metaphysical writing buzz more than the business end of the process. Look, I’m busy channeling that magic Stephen King promised, that all-powerful wordy life water held out in glimmering cups offered by writers and poets I love: Luci Shaw or Jeanne Murray Walker reading their work ten feet from me, Bret Lott laying down wisdom about metaphor, Anne Lamott telling me to get my butt in the chair and just write.

The encouragement is vital; the inspiration is thick, hanging at eye level like helium balloons tied to a chair at a birthday party. I need that. I go to conferences like the Festival of Faith and Writing precisely for reminders of the magic made manifest in the writer’s work and thankfully it doesn’t disappoint in that area.

But the publishing part is a shiny distraction—t’s a trap for me and I walk into it like the Scooby-Doo gang every single time. I lose track of myself and start believing it’s all about the book deal, the networking, the meetings I have to score or the business cards I ought to have had printed but overlooked because I was too busy surfing Pinterest for wreath ideas I’ll never attempt. I don’t even like wreaths.

What I really wanted to write about today was that dollhouse but instead I’m thinking about networking and lost opportunities and business cards and rejection letters and the hard work of “selling.”

My first job when I was a teenager was selling picture packages through cold calling for Olan Mills’ studios in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was profoundly bad at it, and I got fired. My problem was that I took “no” for an answer sometimes even before I got a response. I’d feel the invisible hostile vibe coming from the other end of the telephone receiver and I’d give up, mumbling, “sorry to bother you” just before hanging up. The “writing versus publishing trap” feels that way and I spend too much time wary of those pesky questions about publishing and networking and previous experience and elevator pitches.  If writing itself is magic, networking is mechanical, man-made and cold metal and I’m profoundly bad at it.

What I really wanted to write about today was that dollhouse.

At some point I’ll sit down, “butt in chair” as Anne Lamott would say, and I’ll write about that dollhouse and the attention to detail, the long awaited prize, the meager attempt to put it together myself because I was impatient, the glue that ruined the rug in my room, the stain that tinted my fingers long after the house was completed. But for now I’ll take the gift of time spent with fellow travelers hammering away at the craft of the work we do and the stark contrast that makes with the stiff business of publishing and networking. I’ll take the wisdom I bring home with me each time. I’ll take the small victories won, that at least now I cower in the middle of the room instead of the corners and I’ll celebrate that when asked, “Are you a writer too?” I gladly answer, “yes.” I’ll take the magical water when it’s set out on the table for me and I’ll even take the rejection notices and the “thanks but we’ll pass” emails when they come.

Maybe I can weave a wreath from them.

Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson


Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She has published two books, “Nearly Orthodox” and “Garden in the East.”

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