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.

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