I got interviewed this weekend for an article about a writer who had transitioned into writing from another creative field. The journalist asked me if I thought the literary community had accepted this person. This spurred two lines of thinking in me that I thought were worth expanding upon here.
The first is that I have no clue what being “accepted” means. Does acceptance mean getting invited to book parties or being asked to do readings? Or getting into residency programs? Is it getting being published in a zine versus a small, highly-regarded academic press versus a major commercial publisher with offices in midtown Manhattan? Is it getting reviewed by a cool blog versus a women’s magazine versus a newspaper in a small town versus The New Yorker? Is it having people be nice to you to your face (and maybe mean behind your back) or saying gushy things about you on twitter? Is it being nominated for awards or being on the bestseller list or what? Does it have to be all of those things? What if you only get one of those things? Are you only partially accepted then? The literary community is vast and small at the same time, and we are all scrambling for pieces of the tiniest pie in the universe. Personally, I would like acceptance to mean summer-long house-sitting gigs in beautiful locations, and then I would want you all to throw your arms around me.
I actually believe if you can accept yourself, first and foremost, as a writer and a human being, then you’ve won half the battle.
Also, I just don’t even know who the gatekeepers are anymore. People can get reviewed in the Times and it can change their lives forever, but people can also get reviewed in the Times and they won’t see their Amazon numbers move, not one inch. A famous athlete who basically doesn’t read ever but has a million twitter followers can get people to buy thousands of copies of a book his mom liked, but brilliant writers with immaculate taste can tweet about how much they loved a book and it won’t mean a thing, except maybe to the person who wrote the book. I am thrilled and grateful whenever anything nice happens to me, of course, but I remain fuzzy on who is in charge. (Is it you?)
As for getting published: Before I sold my first book, I had one forthcoming publication in a small, now-defunct literary magazine and had written for a few websites and published some zines. I worked in advertising, not even fancy traditional advertising where you got to write TV commercials, but interactive advertising where I wrote like, banner ads. I didn’t have an MFA. This is hardly the resume of someone with serious literary connections. This is not the resume of someone who had been accepted. Start with yourself, I’m telling you. You’re the one who has to push yourself to write all the way to the end of the book and take rejections and bad reviews and all of that. Nobody’s going to hold your hand except maybe the person who sleeps next to you at night.
The second thing I wanted to talk about was the idea of when you start writing. I’ve read books by people who got MFAs right out of college and who have been published in all the literary magazines, and some (but obviously not all!) of these books are dry and dull and dusty. They are imitations of other books. They are imitations of life. And yet I recently read (and blurbed) a book by a man in his forties who had been working in advertising for his entire life and finally gave it up to write fiction, and it was like someone gave me a present, that’s how fun his writing was to read. He was energized. He was finally ready.
To be clear here: I understand the idea that it takes you a long time to perfect your writing. I am a much better writer now than I was ten years ago. You cannot pick up a pen and expect it to be perfect immediately. There is much work to be done. I give much respect to people who put the time in for decades before they get their recognition in whatever form it takes.
But plenty of people don’t start focusing on their writing in a formal way until they are in their forties or fifties. I think that can make complete sense, especially when you think about all the wisdom they’ve acquired along the way. I didn’t start truly focusing on my writing till my early thirties, though I always sort of dabbled in it after I graduated from college. Donald Ray Pollack started when he was fifty, and he knows things none of us will ever know, and it shows in his work. On the other hand, my dear friend Stefan Block published his first beautiful book when he was twenty-five and now he is famous all over the world. It doesn’t matter when you start. If you are a writer you have been a storyteller your entire life in one way or another. Maybe you have just been writing the stories in your head. Edward P. Jones writes it all in his head and then eventually puts it to paper, years after the fact. The point is, don’t tell me there’s a right way or a wrong way or a right time or a wrong time. Either accept you’re a writer or don’t. Just do your work already.
As if there is any sort of correct path in this life. As if anyone else knows better. Goddamn, people.