So You Want to Be a Published Author . . .

I met once with a friend of a friend who was writing a book and wanted to talk about getting it published. I make it a policy not to give publishing advice, mainly because I don’t have any reliable advice to give. But for some reason I met with this writer. Perhaps I had not yet established my not-talking-about-publishing policy. Perhaps this meeting was the very reason I established the policy.

This writer was getting close to the end of her manuscript, she said, and getting it published was the most important thing in the world.

The most important thing? I asked. In the world?

Yes, she said. She had poured her all into this book, and she would be crushed if it never got published.

I asked her what she thought publication was going to do for her.

I don’t remember the exact details of her answer, but you can probably guess. Most of who have ever hoped to be published have felt the same things: getting published will reassure us that we’re good writers, that we have something to say, that we haven’t been wasting our time. Getting published will prove the doubters wrong. Getting published will feel like an invitation into a club that includes many of our heroes, dead and alive. It will feel like being loved by people we don’t even have to love back.

As I said, I don’t remember exactly what this friend of a friend said she thought publication was going to do for her. But whatever it was, I told her that publication wasn’t going to do it. If you feel insignificant, publication isn’t going to give you significance. If you are riddled with self-doubt, a published book just gives you wider scope for doubting yourself. When you sell a few books, you immediately start comparing yourself to the people who sell more. If you sell a ton of books, Imposter Syndrome is just around the corner, seeking whom to devour (namely you).

I was eloquent, I don’t mind telling you. And when I was finished, my writer-friend of a friend told me that she heard what I was saying, and thanks for the input, but in her case it was different. Getting published actually was going to solve her problems. I went away sad.

To be clear, I’m not saying that things like affirmation, belonging, self-assurance, and love can’t be had. I’m just saying that if you aren’t getting those elsewhere, you won’t get them when you get published. Publication doesn’t turn you into a different person. It exaggerates what you already are.

I got to thinking about all this when I read a letter that Kurt Vonnegut wrote to a group of high-school students who had written to him for advice as part of an English-class assignment:

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut would die the next year. After a long lifetime of doing the work, this is where the old soldier arrived: Make art, well or badly, “not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.” 

As I said above, getting published isn’t going to change you into a different person. But writing, like all creative work, can change you into a different person.

Cyborgs. Spies. Overly Correct Grammar.

A few weeks ago I got an excellent question from a Habit Weekly reader named Todd Thurston. His question came in response to my discussion of subordinating conjunctions during a three-week series on clauses. I had been talking about the fact that subordinating conjunctions (like when or because) are one way of joining one clause to another:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder, I am sad.
  • I am sad because the squirrel raids my bird feeder. 

Those subordinating conjunctions when and because turn the independent clause “The squirrel raids my bird feeder” into a dependent clause that can’t stand alone as a sentence. These are now sentence fragments:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
  • Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder.

In response, Todd wrote:

If someone asked me the question – “why are you so sad?”  Could my answer not be “Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder”? Or if a questioner says “At what point do you find you are most sad?”  might I say “When the squirrel raids my bird feeder”?   If those are proper answers then are they standing alone as a sentence? or are they incorrect altogether?

I love this question–or, rather questions. I’ll take them one at a time:

  • If those are proper answers, then are they standing alone as a sentence?

These dependent clauses (“Because the squirrels…” and “When the squirrels…”) are indeed proper answers. But no, they still aren’t sentences.

  • or are they incorrect altogether?

While it is true that our dependent clauses aren’t complete sentences, that doesn’t mean they are incorrect altogether. Otherwise, native speakers of English would be altogether incorrect most of the time. It is perfectly normal and acceptable to answer questions with sentence fragments, whatever you were told in elementary school. It is so normal, in fact, that I would be suspicious of a person who always answered questions in complete sentences.

Terence: Why are you so sad?
Wendy: I am sad because my bird feeder is empty.
Terence: At what point do you find you are most sad?
Wendy: I find I am most sad when the squirrel raids my bird feeder.

I wouldn’t blame Terence if he began at this point to suspect that Wendy is a cyborg or possibly a foreign spy–somebody who did not learn English by having healthy relationships with native speakers of English.

I read a story once about a Russian spy who got caught when the interrogators asked him to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” in its entirety. He thought he was doing a great job because he made it through the third verse without getting any words wrong. But, of course, that was how they got him: what American knows three verses of “The Star Spangled Banner”? There is such a thing as being too correct. It’s helpful to know that a subordinating conjunction turns an independent clause into a sentence fragment. But when it comes down to a choice between being technically correct and sounding like a robot-spy, I know which one I’m going to choose.

All this reminds me of a Facebook conversation I participated in a while back. My friend Abe Goolsby (who illustrated The Bark of the Bog Owl and The Charlatan’s Boy) asked the following question about subject-verb agreement:

Please help me get straight once and for all on the following:

  1. Lynrd Skynrd have/has agreed to perform at my nephew’s bar mitzvah.
  2.  A gang of notorious outlaws decide/decides to improve their/its standing in the community by providing security for the annual Sunshine and Daisy Glitter Club Bake Sale.

This is a question about collective nouns, and one’s treatment of collective nouns depends on what country one lives in. In the United States, we treat collective nouns as singular, so we would say “Lynyrd Skynyrd has agreed…” and “A gang of notorious outlaws decides to improve its standing…” In the United Kingdom, where people also speak English (or, in any case, a variety of English), collective nouns are treated as plural: “Lynyrd Skynyrd have agreed…” and “A gang of notorious outlaws decide to improve their standing…”

I’m not sure how Canadians handle collective nouns. I know they indulge in a few British misspellings, including neighbourhumour, and centre, but I don’t know whose side they’re on with respect to collective nouns. Canadians readers, enlighten me.

But the real reason I brought up this somewhat arcane point of grammar is to put this and all grammar questions into a larger context. I always tell my writing students that the best thing is to stay out of situations in which your reader will even think about your grammar. In American usage, “a gang of notorious outlaws decides” is technically right, but your reader will most certainly pause to think about whether you’re right. And that pause is itself a problem. So I’d probably go with something like “A notorious outlaw gang decides…” or “The notorious outlaws decide…”

All things being equal, correct grammar is better than incorrect grammar. But the best grammar is invisible grammar–the kind your reader doesn’t have to think about one way or another.

Where Does Originality Come From?

Why do you want to be original? That may sound like a rhetorical question, but it might do you some good to answer it.

We appreciate and admire originality when we see it in other writers. One reason to be original, then, is to be appreciated and admired. But that’s not an especially good or sustainable reason. You’ll never know whether you’ve been original enough…or, for that matter, whether you’ve been appreciated and admired enough.

A less self-centric, more reader-centric approach will be helpful here. Why do you as a reader appreciate original writing when you see it? I think it’s because you feel that the writer has given you something that you couldn’t or wouldn’t have gotten for yourself.

When you’re the one trying to be original, originality feels like a moving target. Most of us don’t feel very original most of the time. And sometimes when we do feel that we’re being original, we aren’t as original as we think. But the reader’s experience doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the writer’s feelings. You’re  better off not thinking about your own originality one way or another. Think instead about how you can give your reader something she can’t get for herself.

Perhaps you think that giving the reader something she can’t get for herself is just as daunting a task as being original. I don’t think it is. You know a lot of things your reader doesn’t know (what your grandmother’s house smelled like, for instance, or where your junior high math teacher snuck off to smoke cigarettes, or how the owls in your yard call to one another after dark). You have taken the time to think through things your reader hasn’t thought through. You are interested in things that your reader doesn’t yet know to be interesting. 

The particular combination of things you know and understand is unique. Nobody has seen exactly what you have seen. And even if they had, they wouldn’t have your particular perspective on those things. Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “What one sees is given by circumstances and by the nature of one’s particular kind of perception.” If you can just give an account of what you have actually seen in the world, originality will take care of itself.

We tend to think of originality as something that happens between a writer’s ears, as if truly original writers have minds that can do things that most of our minds can’t. It’s true enough that different people have different gifts. But leaving aside the originality between your ears, your experience is original. If you give an account of what you have seen with your own eyes, if you tell the truth the best you can–if you resist the temptation to package up your experience according to familiar formulae, to tell what you wish you had seen or what you thought you should have seen (or what you think a more original writer would have seen), you have an excellent chance of giving the reader something she couldn’t have gotten for herself.

You probably don’t have a time-management problem.

Are you a procrastinator? I am. I’m not as bad as I used to be, but I’m bad enough. I recently read an article from the BBC titled Why procrastination is about managing emotions, not time. As author Christian Jarrett points out, we have traditionally thought of procrastination in terms of bad time management: if procrastinators were just better at prioritizing their time, if they better understood how much time tasks are going to take, if they paid better attention to how much time they’re wasting, they would stop procrastinating and get productive. 

But the truth is, any procrastinator worth his salt is fully aware of how much time he’s wasting. He may or may not fully understand how long a task is going to take but that’s not why he hasn’t started yet. And nobody’s priorities are so confused that he actually values cat videos over productivity.

The issue for the procrastinator is not time management, but mood management. The task in front of you makes you feel bad. It’s boring or hard. It stirs up fears of failure. It arouses self-pity.

John Prine Loved Meatloaf.

As you have probably heard, songwriter John Prine died last week, of COVID-19. He was a Nashville treasure–the kind of songwriters whom other songwriters revere. 

I was listening to John Prine’s Tiny Desk concert a few days ago, and he said something that revealed a lot about his approach to writing and to the world. Speaking of his frequent songwriting partner Pat McLaughlin, he said,

We usually write on Tuesdays in Nashville, because that’s the day they make meatloaf. And I love meatloaf. So it’s kind of our carrot on the end of the stick. We get together early in the morning, try to write a song before they start serving the meatloaf. Then, after lunch, we come back and record the song.

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Talk to Strangers

I’ve heard a lot of people say that when the time for social distancing is over, they’re going to do a lot more hugging. I don’t know how much hugging I’ll do, but I do plan to talk to a lot more strangers. As I have written elsewhere, talking to strangers opens up whole new vistas for a storyteller. Everybody has a story–many stories, actually.

For me, talking to strangers comes pretty naturally. What doesn’t come naturally is writing down what they say. Something remarkable happens, or I hear a remarkable story, and I think, “I’ll remember this for as long as I live.” But it’s not true. I’m amazed at what remarkable things I manage to forget when I don’t write them down.

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Don’t Waste Your Quarantine!

In this time of social distancing, I am exceedingly grateful for social media and videoconferencing and other online technologies that allow us to have some human contact without, you know, human contact. Nevertheless, I hope you’re using this time to root down, to connect more fully with the life you actually live in the flesh (and not just on the computer).

I have loved looking out my front window and seeing families and couples and individuals walking and biking and scootering up and down our quiet street. These people have been here all along, but they’ve always had more pressing things to do. Those kids, I imagine, were running from school to sports to chess lessons to violin lessons. Now they’re riding their bikes and scooters.

My wife and I went for a walk a few days ago with our neighbors (we in the left lane, they in the right lane). We’ve lived three houses apart for ten years, and it was the first time we had ever taken a walk together. We found a walking path none of us even knew about. It’s one street over! We saw bluebirds and an American redstart, just back from Mexico. I’ve been saying for a while now that I need to get more serious about my “local life,” since my paying work doesn’t require much in the way of locality. Things have gotten a little more local than I was imagining, but this limiting of scope has been doing good work in me. 

Over at The Habit Membership forums, I asked folks what they were doing to redeem the time during their quarantine, and I got some great answers. People are going outside more, writing letters by hand, journaling, home-improving (you should see our closets!), praying, going out on the porch to sing the Doxology with neighbors (who are on their own porches), reading “someday books,” doing crafts and puzzles with their kids. 

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Walking Around in Other People’s Skins

I’ve been re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my upcoming Writing With Atticus class. A well-known line from Atticus seems especially relevant in these unusual times: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” The ability to see things from other another person’s perspective is Atticus’s superpower. It keeps him from despising his opponents, or even his enemies. Just as importantly, the ability to walk around inside another person’s skin gives him (and the rest of us) a way to strike a balance between the individual liberty that we value and the common good, which we also value.

I thought about that line from Atticus last week when I read an Atlantic article called “A Trick to Stop Touching Your Face” (subtitle: “Instead of thinking about your health, think about the well-being of your community”). The gist of the article is this: when it comes to getting people to change their health-related behaviors it turns out an appeal to self-interest (“Wash your hands or you might get sick and die”) isn’t as effective as an appeal to altruism (“Wash your hands or the people around you might get sick and die.”)

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On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen

I once sat next to a writer at a school concert. I knew she was a writer because she had her notebook and pen and was actually writing during the concert. She looked to be about ten or eleven, and she was essentially live-blogging the event, writing down everything she noticed. I could hardly watch the concert for looking over to see what my neighbor was writing. It was this kind of thing:

  • After the violin players are finished, some singers come up and sing a song about the red river valley.
  • Then a band comes and sings a rock and roll song. They all have glasses except for the drummer.
  • Two boys come up to play a song, but one of them forgets his guitar and has to go back to his seat and get it. Everybody laughs, but not in a mean way.

I love the fact that this young writer wasn’t waiting for something fabulous to happen before she started writing. She just gave an account of what she saw. There’s a whole worldview there: she believed that the things she saw in the world around her were sufficiently meaningful to be worth writing about. And in writing about them, she dignified those seemingly mundane events.

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Remembering Charles Portis: A Writer Who Makes Me Want to Write

I am forever asking writers, “Who are the writers who make you want to write.” For me, the first and best answer to that question is Charles Portis, the novelist best known for True Grit. I don’t suppose I could ever do what he did as a storyteller, but he has always made me want to try. I am sorry to say that Mr. Portis died yesterday, at the age of 86, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

In 1998, Ron Rosenbaum published a paean to Charles Portis in Esquiremagazine, praising him as “our least-known great writer”: 

Perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America. A writer who—if there’s any justice in literary history as opposed to literary celebrity—will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a twentieth-century Mark Twain, a writer who captures the soul of America, the true timbre of the dream-intoxicated voices of this country, in a way that no writers’-workshop fictionalist has done or is likely to do…

Tom Wolfe once spoke about the way city-born creative-writing types go directly from East Coast hothouse venues to places like Iowa City, where “they rent a house out in the countryside, and after about their fifth conversation with a plumber named Lud, they feel that they know the rural psyche.”

Charles Portis is the real thing to which these grad-school simulacra can only aspire in their wildest dreams. He is a wild dreamer of a writer.

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