Writing as Self-Indulgence: Is Publishing Really Necessary?
June 29, 2018 § 52 Comments
By 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.