In mid-December, we now stand about halfway between Thanksgiving, a time when we give thanks for the ways in which we feel blessed, and the new year, when we resolve to rid ourselves of those habits and personal qualities for which we feel less than thankful.
Writing can often be called a thankless task. Writers face indifference, rejection, time constraints, writer’s block (if you believe in it) and the isolated nature of the task itself.
And yet writers rarely make a resolution to stop doing it. Not at the new year; not ever.
So….why do writers do it?
Why Do Writers Write?
Is it an unnatural madness in writers’ imagination that, lacking outlet, would otherwise have us running naked down the shoulder of I-95 screaming Burl Ives Christmas carols at the top of our lungs? Is it the coward’s version of “action”? Or is it the ruthless dictator’s obsession with inventing the world? Remember, Adolf Hitler, after all, was a failed painter and I can’t think of too many people who would refer to him as “soft”.
Regardless of what reasons compel writers to write in the face of so many thankless outcomes, the most sought-after tribulation for writers is publication.
Ah, yes, another reason to write: the ego boost and shot of adrenaline that courses through the bloodstreams of writers when their names get emblazoned in lights–or at least on the covers of books–before the eyes of countless strollers, mostly strangers, browsing the shelves of bookstores or, increasingly, clicking through the web pages of Amazon.
Publication is validation. It is the checkered flag, the Vince Lombardi trophy, the round of applause that comes after a writer has brought, tinker-like, his or her wares into the bustling, sweaty, overcrowded market of literary cattle, is jostled by elbows, humbled by accusing stares, tripped by intentional feet but who finally finds someone pushing through the rabble to consider the writer’s story, point a finger and say “YES!”
It is hard enough to sell an idea packaged as a story, to a world resistant to change. Change threatens. The idea that we might immerse ourselves (willingly, for god’s sake) in the perspective of someone other than ourselves, by delving into the pages of a book, can threaten our ego. But then, out of nowhere and seemingly without warning or even expectation in that unforgiving market, comes a resounding YES.
Publication introduces writers to the world of validation, acceptance and, occasionally, tribulation.
2014 has been a year of celebration for my writer friend, Lisa O’Kane, who published her first Young Adult novel, Essence. Here is my interview with Lisa. She has spent countless hours touring, promoting, blogging, reading, hitting the social media airwaves and posting stories aboutslacklining all by way of immersing readers in the world of Autumn Grace, Ryder Stone and their friends in Yosemite National Park.
Is publication the one reason all writers should give thanks?
Why Should All Writers Give Thanks?
While publication is the sought-after prize that results from writing and finishing a book, ALL writers, including those who have not yet experienced publication, should give thanks for one reason: because they have appreciative readers.
These can be the readers of the writer’s published work, friends, members of a writing group or anyone willing to commit to and give oneself up to the words of another person. Lisa does so in Essence. Her Acknowledgments page is filled with gratitude for those who helped her on her journey to publication. Mutual friends who belonged to our Denver-based writers group are recognized on this page. Writers must first be readers too.
This same writers (and readers) group supported me when I lived in Denver and then through the years beyond. Their participation in my writing life became so rich, they became and remain genuine friends.
Unfortunately, 2014 has been personally challenging. My wife and I separated in March. That event flipped my world upside down, turned me into a single parent, created new demands on my time.
The agency search I had begun for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, largely got sidelined as well as a long short story, Wichita Snake, which I started writing as a way of getting back to doing what I loved while a large part of the rest of my world went up in smoke.
Nevertheless, the demands on my time and attention continued to make writing that story challenging and then I just put Wichita Snake aside for a while. And so a good part of the last year or more has been spent trying to find the time and mental bandwidth to write.
But this week showed just why I need to remain thankful. Despite my recent struggles with getting done in life what I want to, I have been writing for many years and have had several articles published in various magazines or online journals. The other day, I found one of my colleagues reading at her desk during lunch hour. Never one to hold back in such moments, I had to ask what she was reading. She showed me the cover: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois .
Perhaps my colleague had been meaning to read that book for some time. Or perhaps the highly publicized deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, which spotlighted ongoing racial tensions in the country, put it in her mind to read more about the black experience in America.
Back in the mid-2000s, I wrote an article about the time that the poet Langston Hughes spent in Washington, DC before heading up to New York to become one of the central figures in the Harlem Renaissance. DuBois was a mentor and sponsor for many of the younger artists who participated in that movement, which showcased the breakthrough talents of many black artists, writers and musicians.
When I saw my colleague reading the book by DuBois, I recounted what I remembered about Langston Hughes. She wanted to read the article so, after I returned to my desk, I emailed her the link.
The following day she sent an extraordinarily flattering and complimentary email; she said she had learned a lot about Hughes, as well as the experience of the black community in the DC region back then as a result of reading my article, and she had forwarded it to members of her family. It was a stunning email to receive.
As I mentioned, this year has not been good for my writing. Yet, when I was invited to share something I had written in the mid-2000s, I received positive feedback.
What Never Changes About People
Several months ago, I read an article published by the American Society of Association Executives about how humans continue to like to “sit around the campfire”, converse and share stories. (Unfortunately, I can find no link to the article, sorry!). The article suggests that technology will never replace the fundamental human need for interpersonal interaction, that human beings continue to be innately wired to connect in person despite the existence of social networks and blogs, etc.
Writing and reading are a similar tradition (dare I say ceremony?) of human exchange and sharing. We read and like a book, and we pass it on to a friend. We talk with our friends about the book after we have all read it, and the story becomes part of the meaningful exchange that acquaintances have enjoyed since the dawn of time. When I saw Stephen King speak in Washington, DC last month, one audience member explained that while he and a family member never really got along, that they could always bond over a Stephen King story.
Publication is the prize that writers seek for their books. It is tangible proof that what they do really does, in fact, matter. And yet so many unpublished writers remain who, despite the adversity, the lack of recognition, the rejection and, in my case, the personal challenges that sidetrack us as a result of various forms of adversity, nevertheless continue to write stories and seek engaged readers willing to (and in some cases, eager to) partake of their stories.
Any writer who puts pen to paper, or fingers to keys, has the potential to find those readers. Writing and reading create meaningful human contact and interaction; writers forge links. Writing is a way of improving how we talk to each other.
I was eternally grateful and appreciative that my story from several years ago happened to find an appreciative reader. As a writer, I still may have some personal hills to climb. But evidence of my writing remains, and no matter how or where readers find it, if they come back and tell me they read the story or article, and learned something or were entertained by it, then I am truly thankful.
I want publication as much as the next writer, but the gratitude that comes from a reader in any scenario creates such a deep appreciation, it quickly makes me realize what’s important.