“Being published is being published. Being a real poet is being a real poet. Sometimes they intersect.” Deborah Keenan
Being an author is a terrible job for a writer. All the skills we practice to write a book—comfort spending long periods in solitude and silence, avoidance of the commercial, reliance on revision to access true expression, introspection— require their opposites once you’re an author signing title pages: exposure, recognition of commercial opportunity, spontaneous grace and wisdom, enthusiastic and intimate engagement with strangers.
We already know getting published and being published are a lot of work—a side job to the already side job of writing. Frankly, I think getting and being published are more work for the writer now than they have ever been. For most of us, there are no readings unless we schedule them, no social media campaign unless we can tweet, and no second book unless we (and our families) can somehow double-down our time to accommodate the writing and the business. If you want to be a published author, plan to be running your own small business.
My first book came out in early April.
I’ve had a release party in a requisitely hip venue, attended a literary conference as an author, given readings, signed those cover pages, taken compliments from strangers. I worked hard to get my book published: spent a decade rewriting, sending agent letters, researching small presses and first-book prizes, submitting to slush piles, getting to know editors, publishing excerpts, paying people in coffee and beers and lunch to read the manuscript and give me feedback, and doubting, doubting, doubting.
At one point, I asked one of my mentors, an author of seven poetry collections, when to give up on publishing it—when to put my energy into accepting the book’s work had been teaching me rather than speaking out. She said, “If you need to clear the deck, clear the deck. If leaving this lingering is keeping you from getting other work done, then do whatever you need to do to publish it: self-publish, upload it to your website, whatever. If that’s not the case, I don’t know what to tell you.” The most predictable thing we know about publishing today is it’s unpredictable.
And I don’t feel today any more like a writer than I did before. In fact, I feel more like an imposter than ever—more unfit and further out of my league. I’ve found myself wishing for a hazing so I’d at least know someone in the literary Greek noticed my presence on campus. Mostly, though, I don’t have any greater confidence my work is good—that it’s real writing—than I did before the galleys.
So what does it mean to be a “real poet”— a real writer? If publication doesn’t turn out to tell me anything essential about myself or about my work, what standard am I pursuing?
That I tried? No.
That I feel good? Certainly not.
That it was hard? Nope.
I don’t have a generation or two to wait and see if the work sticks; I need to know now if what I’m writing is worthwhile—if this essay or that essay is the one to revise, the one to campaign for in the world. Because I don’t think there are many invitations anymore, or even much of the backhanded welcome of criticism. There certainly aren’t paychecks; and mostly no one is even paying attention. But I’m spending real time and real money to make what might not be real work.
Part of the trouble with real
is there’s no authenticity without contact with shit. Think of farming or gardening: No fruit without compost (which is just a polite word for excrement of some kind, whether from cow or bacterium). We understand the real farmer to be the gal with dirt in her nails and tan lines on her biceps, whose shoes we’d rather have left on the stoop. The real photographer is that guy with the tiny, round acid burns on the sleeves and chest of all his t-shirts. The real musician is the one with calluses.
In many creative endeavors we recognize the authentic practitioners by the marks the work leaves on their bodies. (This may be why we still struggle, falsely, on some level to feel adoption is real mothering—the mother’s body doesn’t hold marks from this child—or, falsely, that fathers, without having hosted or nursed a child, can be as nurturing.) So what’s the dirt of writing?
How do we know the real filmmaker, the real graphic designer, the real poet when our media [how has that word come to connote mostly the virtual?] isn’t physical in the way of a potter’s or woodworker’s?
I wonder if it’s time: Do we know a real poet by how much time she spends in her craft?
This is demanding (since time doesn’t guarantee fruit the way dirt guarantees fruit), but there’s also something fitting about that physical and metaphysical pairing. We already understand art is somehow transcendent—that the real poem or song or play will transcend region, tribe, and era.
The stuff-artists among us tussle with decay—the architect needs to design an idea of space that transcends fashion, but also construct it with materials that can withstand the weather. Words are hardy. We writers don’t need to weatherproof. But this may mean we tussle with time in a different way. In being safe from the peripheral demands of time (“How do I keep from singing flat as I get fatigued in the Agnus Dei?”) we writers may be required to face time as essential. The real writer is the one who spends the most time in her craft. The real writing is the work that takes the most time.
Maybe this is why it’s not just inconvenient when our society asks writers to do their work on the side (of teaching, clerking, serving, etc.), but tragic. Time is the one thing we absolutely need to do this work authentically. (Not that good writing can’t come from part time work. My writing has always had to be part-time work. That’s no claim it’s great, but clearly I believe enough in the possibility of good to stay at it under those circumstances.)
The Nobel Prize in literature, the National Book Award—two of our shorthands for marking literary transcendence—are granted to the work of full-time writers. That’s not a requirement of the entries but a consistent record of the results.
Real writing takes time. The more time you give it, the better the writing will be.
Publication? Time doesn’t guarantee it (nothing does—not even brilliance) but keeping at it is the best you can do. In graduate school, that same mentor told me the only difference between the published and the unpublished writers she knew was that the published writers kept trying. Knocks a fair bit of the shine off the crown of publication, but sure makes it more accessible. As I usually find to be the bothersome case, answers may lie in the cross: that pesky emulsifier, the ultimate intersection.
Want to save the world? Put your body in it. Want to write a real poem? Put your body in it. Want to get published? Put your body in it.
Be ready to be tired, to be left alone, to be tried, to be misunderstood, to have the whole damned thing go on for unbearably too long, to find just before the breakthrough that everyone agrees only on their confusion and disappointment, and, finally, to be marked.
The stigmata of the real writer isn’t an ISBN, it’s the bite of time writing chomps out of his life. You may see it in her absence on Pinterest, his cluelessness about hashtags and HBO series, the store-bought cookies she brings to the PTO picnic, his consistent absence at happy hour, her consistent absence on committees.
To the writers: Walk away a bit. Shut the door. The desert and the tomb bear us fruit.
To the rest: We’re not doing nothing in here. We’re trying to write you something worthy of your wild, brief, and precious time.
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