A good friend of mine begins writing fiction again, after 25 years of not. And if anyone should be writing, she should be. She’s a friend I’ve kept close since college, and her work has always been so good, deeply emotional, grounded in settings of poverty and despair, but always with some hope glimmering around the corner.
I’m excited for her and ask about it the next time I see her: didn’t she say she was revising? And submitting to literary journals? She says yes, but these are stories she wrote more than 20 years ago. She feels like an imposter, she says, even though it’s her work, work she never had the courage to submit in the past. She recently received a very encouraging letter from a top literary magazine, but it ended up depressing her. Why bother now, after all these years? And will success now mean anything about new work she might create? She’s not sure that work from grad school, from her 20s, should count, because it’s not her current work.
Knowing how good her stories are, I’m inclined to say that they’ll get published and that she should be satisfied when that happens, even if they aren’t her most recent work. They should be read, because they’re worthy. It seems like hoarding to hold onto beautiful work that was meant to be shared.
And so what if they’re not new? So what if she never writes another good thing? I think she will, now that she’s back at it. And yet, it feels like another question is lurking here. Something about quality and how to measure it.
I find myself irritated and over the course of few days the ruminating begins to feel like an existential crisis. I’ve been writing fiction, and occasionally submitting, for those same 20-plus years. Sometimes I get something published, but mostly I’m just writing because it’s all I know to do with what free time I have, limited by the kids and the job. I could use an encouraging letter from a lit mag right about now. I wish I’d gotten more than a dozen or so in the last 20 years, but that’s my success rate. That’s about it.
If my friend thinks she’s a fool to bother, I muse, a fool to come close but not immediately hit the mark with this new effort, what about those of us who have been doing this same thing year after year for 30 years? Sure, I’ve had some hits or two, even a published short story collection, but that was a long time ago, and the novel drafts are still being revised. By my friend’s proposed math, I must be an exponential failure.
You hear it all the time in fiction classes: publishing is rare, publishing something that gains critical attention is even more rare, and don’t expect it to pay your bills, even it does get published. So with all these warnings, why is there also this idea that if you’re not publishing right at this moment, then you must not be any good? Do we judge people who keep at a sport they love? We know they won’t make the majors. But we don’t assume they’ll quit playing once they’re past their prime, nor do we assume they’re terrible players. So why with writing would we think there’s something wrong with trying for minor successes?
Of course writing is different than sports. Aging players can’t keep going to scouting events, into their 50s, to see if they’ll be tapped for potential greatness. They can’t take an impressive play from their 20s and show it to a talent scout for evaluation today. For writers, those lit magazines are like talent scouts. And if my friend is successful, she may want to maintain fresh momentum, and that may prove as difficult as she fears. In the face of all her measurement I can see how it might get depressing.
In the same friends’ circle, those of us who continue to write sometimes bring our work to each other for feedback. Another lapsed writer is in the group, also talented, but unremorsefully uninterested in writing. Her quitting writing doesn’t change the fact that she’s a great reader (or a great writer, either, despite her choice). We’re always eager to hear her critiques.
But a few years back, she started asking during these discussions, “What is your objective for this piece?”
I flinched the first time I heard it. I’ve worked corporate jobs for a long time, and this sounded like something in a war-room discussion about a product we were about to launch, one that had millions of dollars and years of R&D and market research behind it. My little short story had no such advantages. It just had this writer, and whatever I could do with the feedback my readers would provide.
My friend had a follow-up question to fill the bemused silence. “I mean, do you want to get it published, or is it something you just want to share with your kids someday, or …”
My ego was tweaked. Was she saying that the work would never be good enough for publication? Or that she would only provide rigorous commentary if I was willing to be more aggressive with my edits? And if I wanted it to be good, really good—if I wanted it to be published in The New Yorker and chosen for a Best American volume (which every writer wants, whether it makes sense or not) —then would she opt to bow out gracefully from this critique, like a lawyer who knows an unwinnable case when she sees one? Maybe she thought I’d need a professional editor, or a different story. Or I’d need to be a different author.
Or, on the other hand, if I set my sights lower—like if I just want my family to one day know that I sometimes tried my hand at writing—does that leave me free to revise one time and be satisfied with any old shlock? That doesn’t seem very kind to my family.
Dear friend: I want it to be beautiful. I want to work at it until it’s as good as it can be.
Or, more truthfully, I want it to set me free. By which I mean, I want it to sing for some reader, for many readers, so much so that the stories and novel drafts buried in the many corners of this house can be resurrected, that the undiscovered work of my 20s, 30s, and 40s will be found, and that I can feel satisfied that the world has finally caught up with my brilliance. Yes, that’s it. I want the world to show me that it gets me, and yes, I admit I want the world, I want more than my family. I want the world finally to let me be free in my expression.
I wish that I had said that to her.
But that would have exposed the dreamer. And the dreamer is vulnerable.
It’s true that I have more chance of my writing setting me free than if, with the same high hopes, I took up a pastime like knitting. There’s some reality to the dream. But even if my writing has better odds than knitting, the odds are still very, very low that I’ll achieve the kind success we hear and dream about with writing. And so, I have to also be okay with the dream not being realized.
The writing life, at least for me, is not like other avocations that can be measured in terms of sustainability or certified “new” material (my first friend), nor by the writer’s plan for the writing, a plan we can compare against later when evaluating the success of the piece (my second friend).
I tell myself it’s a hobby, sure, the one that works for me. I tell myself I’d rather have one story out there, one published story (and I already have a few of those) that moves a few minds, than a sweater I knitted, tucked away in my niece’s drawer, attracting moths. That’s it: my preference is that one story in a forgotten journal is better than one sweater in a drawer. (Nothing against knitting.)
Maybe the point is that we writers should appreciate writing for the very way it keeps us trying, keeps us dreaming. There’s no moment in writing, I hope, when it should become clear to the fool that she’s wasting her time.
I keep missing, I keep trying. It hasn’t set me free yet, but I still believe in it.
There’s a beauty to that. After all these years.
Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kim