Writing as Self-Indulgence: Is Publishing Really Necessary?

June 29, 2018 § 52 Comments

zz lynette bentonBy Lynette Benton

Many writers, perhaps most, believe that publication of their books would represent a badge of accomplishment and acceptance, an event that would bring them fame, catapult their lives into new and desirable directions, or at least validate the talent, time, and energy they invested in their manuscripts. Rejections of their work by agents and publishers can have a shattering effect upon them. I point out to them that the publishing world’s misjudgments are legion; note the many rejections of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which went on to best sellerdom and box office success; Tinkers, by Paul Harding, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner, which the big publishing houses declined; the 22 rejections for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the 12 for Harry Potter. Sometimes the letters accompanying the rejections even contained snarky comments about the writer, the manuscript, or both.

Though I sympathize with their pain, it’s impossible for me to relate to it because rejections don’t upset me. Sometimes when my work is rejected I actually think it’s the publisher’s loss, not mine. Believe me, this isn’t arrogance. Like other serious writers, I generally feel my writing comes up short of my vision. I work like hell on it, and do everything I can to improve it, including carefully considering feedback from freelance editors and writer-friends. I think my writing’s good, but not as drop dead good as much that I read or as I want it to be.

But I have little interest in publishing my full-length manuscripts. I just finished a collection of essays I worked on for three years. I should be arranging them into an appealing order. I should be pulling out my list of publishers of similar collections and possible agents, and querying them, even though I know it’s difficult to get a collection of essays published. But the urge to write the essays was the propelling force behind the project, not the urge to publish them. The itch has been scratched. Anyway, plunging into the query frenzy would take away from the time, creative focus, and just plain mental fortitude I need in order to produce. To submit, I’d have to suit up for a distracting stint in the Twilight Zone.

The same holds true for the two memoirs I’ve written. One of them is long-since complete after eight years of work. When an excerpt was a finalist in a contest four years ago, an agent agreed to read the entire manuscript; I’ve yet to send it to her. My other memoir needs editing. But I suspect that after I’ve revised it, I’ll lose interest in taking any further steps. The thought of strangers reading my books, even enjoying them, gives me an unpleasant, curiously weighted feeling in my midsection. I don’t welcome the exposure and publicity—no matter how mild—of publication. Publicity, for this introvert, is noise, or perhaps like being bitten by barracudas. In any case, my memoirs aren’t going to make me famous, unless it’s through lawsuits.

And yet, writing isn’t my hobby. It’s my profession, my very identity. So I know my lack of effort to publish the memoirs seems an appalling, inexcusable waste, writing them an indulgence. It’s just that I believed those stories needed to be told, if only to myself.

For me, the writing is the reward. Nothing’s true, valid, or even comprehensible until I write it, whatever it is. It calms the chaos, salves the deepest psychological and emotional lacerations. It’s the infallible healer that makes everything all right. Recently, I was in the middle of my usual nightly routine: eat, brush, floss. Somewhere along this familiar route, a deep inexplicable sadness assailed me. It was not only terrible but mysterious for one who isn’t given to depression. Frozen, with the floss still stretched between my hands, I searched my mind for a cause. Nothing came up. I reached for my mechanical pencil, and wrote: “Sudden depression just hit. No idea why.” And just like that, I felt fine again. For me writing represents relief. The fantasy writer Jeff Goins describes a similar experience:

“The other day, I was feeling depressed and didn’t know why. My emotions were all out of whack… So I turned to the only activity that makes sense when all seems lost. Writing.”

I don’t fear failure or rejection when it comes to writing, never have. My feelings of writing success are independent of others’ opinions. If I’m pleased with what I write, I don’t care what an agent or publisher or audience thinks. Writing is the one area of my life that’s all mine to judge.

And yet, I’m hoping Brevity will accept this essay for the blog. Why? For one thing, I have no problem submitting my short works for publication. Over the years I’ve had a fair number of them published—at least 20—not without my share of rejections. But the rejections didn’t undermine me. As long as I’ve said what I wanted to say, as best I could I’m satisfied, even if no publisher is interested in it.

If the folks at Brevity say “no,” I’ll be okay. I own my self-worth—at least in my writing life. No publisher or agent can to take that away. As Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I’ve done the work and, right now, for me, that’s enough.

Lynette Benton is a published writer and writing instructor. She guides others in writing about their lives or families.  Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how she wrote her memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as the Brevity blog; Women Writers, Women’s Books; and local newspapers. An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit her web site, Tools and Tactics for Writers or connect with her on Twitter @LynetteBenton.

§ 52 Responses to Writing as Self-Indulgence: Is Publishing Really Necessary?

  • Erin says:

    Thank you for sharing this thoughtful essay! The author captured the way I (and I suspect many authors) feel about their writing.

  • CareSA says:

    Good to know, and strangely liberating !

  • ccbarr says:

    Superb! I was writing thinking that some stories are private-like a family history. Others I would submit. This clarifys things for me. Thank you

  • Elizabeth Losa says:

    Thank you. That’s how I feel about writing. The activity is freeing and healing. I have become aware lately of how getting incolved in any of the arts can be a healing experience for the person who does it.

  • The difference is owning your story—thank you.

  • staceylauren1226 says:

    I relate to this so much. I actually DID fantasize about getting published when I was in my teens and early 20’s. Then my ego basically died, and I realized I was still writing…for myself. Like you, I couldn’t remain balanced without it, and I write down my feelings every day after work (teaching in a TItle I high school) as a matter of survival.

  • […] via Writing as Self-Indulgence: Is Publishing Really Necessary? […]

  • bethcogswell says:

    What a refreshing perspective! I am plagued by feelings that I must justify time spent/change the length/rewrite the entire thing, but your essay is freeing me of these nagging thoughts. Thank you.

  • Melanie Holmes says:

    Ditto bethcogswell – feeling “plagued,” feeling I must justify time spent on getting emotions onto paper. And so, with your words in mind, I will try to get okay with writing just for me. Thank you.

  • Thank you for this perspective, one that’s all too often minimized or trivialized under the assumption that being published is the end-all of writing. While I’m at ease–and actually enjoy–others reading my work (I’ve published four books, one professional non-fiction, three novels; and I blog and write poetry practically daily); I write because I write. Writing itself is the goal, the process, and the reward. The feedback readers offer is a pleasure for me and often feels like a form of instant friendship, but it is a bonus. It’s a cherry on top of the already worthy process that writing itself allows, provides, and matures with me. Wishing you much continued satisfaction in your writing! Na’ama

  • Thank you, Na’ama. I love your perspective, especially since you’ve had your books published. I will keep your words in my mind: “I write because I write.” It needs no further justification.

  • I really appreciate your thoughts about publication. I’m not quite as evolved as you are — sometimes I still wish for a wider audience. But more and more I recognize that my joy is in the act of writing and explaining something to myself. THAT is reason enough to write. But I confess, I’m intrigued by your voice and would like to read your work. However, I respect that you’re not interested in sharing it. But if you ever change your mind, count me in!

  • Commonpiece says:

    Thanks for sharing your point of view, all interesting food for thought. Great quote by Maya Angelou at the end as well.

  • SurjotKaur says:

    Lynette, thank you for your wise and lyrical expression here. Your experience resonates with mine. My heart is singing. Sending love and respect!

  • I share my work with two or three friends only, though I have begun to send some of my poems to my siblings. (I make it clear that they never need make comment.)

    I have to admit, though, to holding this ridiculous fantasy that my writing will be of some interest when it’s found after my death. (How many of us will admit to that?!) I write poems and compose stories in my head all the time, but what I write down is what I’d like to share with kindred souls—if the process weren’t so awful (from my point-of-view.) In the end, I think the dead handle fame, disappointment, controversy, disagreement, and book tours far better than the living.

  • […] women in Buddhism. I am, therefore, grateful to the men and women who wrote this material. When Lynette Benton’s Brevity Essay arrived in my in-box late last week I gained a much-needed perspective on why I write, […]

  • Thank you for sharing your perspective, all interesting food for thought. Finally quote by Maya Angelou.

  • […] To see a different point of view, take a look at my essay, Writing As Self-Indulgence: Is Publishing Really Necessary? […]

  • Billy M. Pullen says:

    Interminable gratitude for this insightful, helpful essay. The third paragraph, in particular, struck me! I have several personal essays. Fortunately, some have published in rather obscure journals, but my very favorite one has been repeatedly rejected–and that’s ok, thanks to your perspective.

  • barbaragoss says:

    Thanks. Other’s opinions don’t matter, really. Maybe I’m just too old to care, and don’t need writing to make a living. If it feels good, keep on writing!

  • Juana says:

    I love this. Thank you for sharing!

  • […] via Writing as Self-Indulgence: Is Publishing Really Necessary? — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Jona says:

    What a lovely post, you’ve left me with insperation to continue my writing, not just as a service for others but a service for myself.

  • justaforeignerblog says:

    Lynette, what your post says rings so true, but I would have never arrived to this knowledge if I hadn’t read your post. Thank you for writing it,

    One of the courses I took when I went back to college five years ago was Creative Writing. The instructor and classmates encouraged me to keep writing and I even thought of turning my passion into a source of income. I have been writing ever since but not on a consistent manner; I let myself get discouraged because I wasn’t doing anything to get my writing published. Recently that changed and I started writing more, and more often, when I finally admitted I was not going to do anything to get published, but that I would keep writing if as therapy, or ultimately as a journal for future generations.

    • lbenton80 says:

      I teach adults life and family writing and I always urge my students to write for future generations, as you are doing. I’m glad you’re no longer discouraged; there’s value to sharing your stories, perspective, and feelings with others—with those who come after you. And writing as therapy certainly works for me!

  • puja mendiratta says:

    Hi, Lynette, remarkably well written piece. Its the creative urge that keeps us going and WordPress has helped immensely to connect with such ideas that is writing for the sake of writing and if it’s liked by anyone, that’s a bonus. Thanks for sharing.

  • lbenton80 says:

    You’re very welcome, Puja. I didn’t think of it as you did, but I do now. “…writing for the sake of writing.” Thank you for your comment

  • jeligne says:

    Sometimes writing is just for the writer. I often ask myself, “Why am I writing this? No one will ever see it.” And I quickly realize I write it because I subconsciously need to.

  • I enjoyed reading this…Thank you!

  • […] via Writing as Self-Indulgence: Is Publishing Really Necessary? — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Thanks to blogging platforms such as WordPress, I never again need to be concerned about rejection. Publication occurs as soon as I hit the button, and that’s good enough for me. I don’t need to have my name on a binding on a library shelf. Yea, I need never deny myself the pleasure of sharing my work with any who are interested. It’s rather lovely.

  • Mary Lou says:

    Reblogged this on Me In The Middle and commented:
    Thank you Lynette Benton! I’m grateful that you submitted this to Brevity. So many of us who love writing and have benefited in so many ways had our thoughts validated by what you wrote. This line made me laugh out loud : “In any case, my memoirs aren’t going to make me famous, unless it’s through lawsuits.” 😀

  • JP Mac says:

    I think it all comes down to the original purpose of writing. Sometimes we write for highly personal reasons, to clarify thoughts, to record events important only to us, or to capture a snapshot of our lives. Those things need never be published. Just about anything else though, if it is a complete work, and you think it’s good enough, you should share it with the world. That could mean being published in a blog, online magazine, or in print form. If you have a genuine interest in telling a story or conveying a message, then try and get your work published with the understanding and acceptance ahead of time that rejection is a possibility. It’s only an ego thing if you make it an ego thing.

  • Margaret says:

    Hi Lynette,
    Hope you are well. I am relatively new to blogging and have enjoyed reading your essay which Janet Thomas mentioned in one of her blog postings.
    For a while now I have been considering writing a memoir and have information about the same. Watch this space!

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