I Had It All Wrong
My early fantasies of the writing life bore no relation to reality, saturated as they were with a determined sentimentality. I must have gotten my ideas from photos I came across in which writers were always pensively portrayed in workspaces that overlooked meadows and streams drenched in dappled sunlight.
I envisioned these writers living in unearthly serenity, happily insulated—probably by wives. Since I wasn’t a man, nor had I a wife, I don’t know who I thought would be earning money for me or handling life’s bothersome details—which admittedly were less onerous 25 years ago—while I was gazing out on a verdant landscape from my writerly haven.
By the time I moved to Boston in my early twenties, I was penning stories and essays, which I rarely completed. I know now that that was because I knew neither how nor where to publish them. I’d had it drummed into me that it was virtually impossible to get anything in print if you lacked important contacts. Publishers, I was told, were terribly selective, and no one understood exactly how they weeded people out. But, weed me out these disapproving, deskbound gatekeepers would.
Get Make My Start
So, I read a great deal, and I wrote all those things I didn’t complete. But now I see they were all practice. I was learning to write better and building up my confidence until one day, I offered to write brief reviews for a regional art paper. I doubt if I formally queried or got paid for those reviews, but I got my name in print.
A local feminist paper let me write my first feature article. In the end, I was dissatisfied with the piece, because it didn’t accurately reflect my views. Even the photo they took of me on a neighbor’s lawn (well, here at least was my pastoral setting) was unflattering. But the experience took me from writing for myself to writing for others, and I learned to work with editors.
My town library needed someone to promote a literary lecture, so I interviewed the Cape Cod author and submitted a feature article, which was published in the local newspaper.
All the while, I took writing classes.
I Arrive at My Goal
I produced a blog offering creative writing tips for my alma mater. I wrote, under pseudonyms, first-person columns and an article about being overworked for two national higher education papers. Then I had an essay published in a women’s paper that’s circulated in a number of cities. More Magazine online published my essay about joyfully leaving organizational life to teach creative writing.
I managed to become a writer, publishing two dozen articles and essays, even though I had no idea how to do it. As writers, we have to make our own opportunities, and now more than ever before, we can do that.
The Real (and Rewarding) Writing Life
Neither I, nor anyone else, ever foresaw the major publishing houses disappearing or morphing into something else, with even greater strictures against risk taking. Who guessed that a writer would need a strategy as sophisticated as a business plan to get published? (And I thought it was hard to get published way back when!) Who suspected that we writers would have to learn to repair our computers, sometimes moments before a deadline, and distribute our work on things called web sites, and use keywords and tags, Facebook, Twitter, digg and delicious?
But at the same time that we couldn’t imagine the Internet, we couldn’t imagine that we’d perhaps be discovered electronically by a total stranger who might be an agent or an editor. Or, we can bypass them, distribute our own work, and maybe be discovered by them after the fact.
All this has liberated writers from those unknown publishing house denizens as remote and incomprehensible as the anonymous authorities in a Kafka novel.
I teach writers the tricks of our trade, so that these teens, parents, engineers, business owners, and military veterans don’t have to spend decades, as I did, figuring out how to publish the work they’ve waited a lifetime to see in print.
And there’s another benefit of being a writer today: if we post our work on sites we control, then realize we haven’t said what we meant, we can correct or replace it altogether. That’s professional freedom.
You are so right, Lynette. I am just beginning to see how convoluted a writing career is but alas, I have chosen and if I had to choose again, I would pick the same. I really like what you’re offering and I’ll be following your blog from now on out.
I especially like what you say about professional freedom. Believe you me, I have that down and even overstep my boundaries sometimes. But I firmly believe that we can blog about and however we want because it’s what makes our blogs unique. And if you can bring expertise to the blogging table, kudos to you!
It’s a gruesome path, no doubt. I myself am just budding my way into it and I am excited to read about other writer’s experiences. Keep up with the honest and the helpful (and please don’t mind my blatant use of the poor unsuspecting English language). Thank you!
Lynette Benton says
I’m always happy when I hear someone’s taken the risk to do what they really want to do. It’s hard. It’s scary. It’s sometimes madness. But good on us for doing it. Working for an organization can be its own kind of death, anyway.
And there’s nothing wrong with your English, BTW!
Shakirah Dawud says
As I tweeted, I love how you crossed out “get” and changed it to “make” your start, Lynette. It’s true a lot of those pre-“writing for real readers” drafts I wrote as a teen and college student I can really see as practice. But I know I wouldn’t have been shy to publish those things on a blog had I had one then!
At the same time, the period I spent deciding who I wanted to be as a writer has been priceless as I learned to speak a couple of different audiences, which type of writing I can use for business and which for pleasure, and how to “push” my writing promotionally.
Everyone starts at the beginning and works their way up, even though some of us can make the process look like teleporting!
Lynette Benton says
I love that, Shakirah. It might look like teleporting, but we writers know it’s anything but!
Thank goodness I *didn’t* have a blog way back when. My writing was juvenile and predictable. I’d be terribly ashamed now if I’d let it loose on the public.
That’s very interesting. I am a writer myself, and my pipe dream of what a writer’s life was like burst long ago. I think my image was most influenced and built by movies. Like Romancing the Stone, where Joan Wilder is a rich and accomplished romance novelist who cries as she types up the perfect ending to her book before sending it off to her extremely complimentary publisher, who also cries and sends it off to be published right away without an editing process or saying anything could be wrong with it.
Thus is the fantasy I went into the writing world with 10 years ago. I thought I would just sit down at my computer and type out masterpieces, send them off to publishers, and voila! I’d be a successful writer in no time. But I was surprised to find that I couldn’t finish my work, never felt it had that “acceptable” feel for a publishing house to read (and thus never sent it to them to find out), and never quite worked out the monetary aspect of things.
I’ve changed my outlook a little now, and am working on a particular project as well, that I am determined to finish and send off to a few publishing houses, until the day comes where I can see it in print.
Thanks for reminding me of how much I’ve learned over time and how much more I’m sure to discover as I go out and make this writing life my own! Have a great day and happy writing!
Margy Rydzynski says
You’re absolutely right, Lynette – and an inspiration to boot. Thanks for posting and for sharing.
Convoluted – a word I would never have dreamed of applying to writing, until I found out what writing really is about. Is it liberating, empowering, motivating to wake up and realize the truth about what the business of writing is? On the one hand, it’s information we didn’t have before, and that’s always useful. But with most author websites I’ve visited being little more than “buy me now!” ads for their books, it makes me feel like I’m working towards becoming nothing more than a simple drone.
Denise Murphy says
Lynette, this post is full of the wisdom you share in class regarding publishing. You opened my eyes and dragged me out of my ancient sentimental idea of being discovered by a publisher and having them do all the work! I know better now!
As far as the writing life goes I finally understand the appeal of those writers retreats/ colonies where an author goes to do nothing but write in a placid atmosphere. There is someone to cook there meals and clean their rooms! When I was younger I remember reading about Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers Marge Piercy among others going to such places and wondering why they would bother. I could write anywhere. Now as a true adult trying to balance a household, life responsibilities with serious long hours of writing how I long for a stint at a writers retreat. Oh and a generous grant to live on as well. Dream on…..