The Messenger

photo by captain.orange at http://www.flickr.com/photos/10527553@N03/5150828447/sizes/m/in/photostream/

by Ed Davis on January 4, 2012

My favorite column in Poets & Writers is “Why We Write.” Although I used to read the premier writers’ magazine mainly for publishing news and markets, I’m much more likely to read it nowadays to find the faith and inspiration to continue to write fiction for a world that increasingly doesn’t seem to want or need it.

The Great Silence

A poet friend and I were recently e-mailing each other new poems to read and critique, and she mentioned how her work usually meets with silence. Yesterday, a fiction writer correspondent said pretty much the same thing, only in reference to marketing: people request a free reviewer’s copy and then. . . nothing.

Writers of course must make peace as early as possible with the reality that no one’s asking us to do this. Our friends and family, above all, must be excused from forced reading and even more from forced critiquing. And those blessed souls who do buy our books must never be asked whether they actually read or what they thought of our work (but we can hope they’ll volunteer something!).

Admittedly I learned this the hard way. Now it’s quite enough when, totally out of the blue, someone e-mails or calls me—as the daughter of my former professor did a couple of years ago, when she saw I’d mentioned her dad in the Acknowledgements to my novel I Was So Much Older Then. Maybe we should simply see publication as sending a message in a bottle, to perhaps be found years and miles away—or maybe not at all.

image by Soul Pusher http://www.flickr.com/photos/laubklein/23604122/sizes/m/in/photostream/Strangers and Bad Guys

So if we’re not mainly writing for friends or family, then who? Well, strangers, we hope: the “huge” book-buying public for whom are written all those books filling our favorite bookstore to the rafters. It’s hard to walk into those stores if you’re a published small-press writer as I am, and not want your work to be there among your literary heroes. But if no one’s heard of you, you probably won’t be asked (or allowed); and if you are allowed, your work will most likely languish in the Great Silence of the Shelves. (But not for long; books by non-best-selling authors have the shelf life of a magazine.)

At first, I wanted my books there, anyway, simply to “be available.” But when not a single copy sold in the weeks following a reading I gave at my local Barnes & Noble, I changed my mind. While bookstores sell (to me) a precious commodity, it’s a business like dry-cleaning or anything else—it exists to make money. Except in the minds of some local independents, bookstores are for “best-selling” authors. Just as you don’t need an agent if your work isn’t commercial, your work doesn’t require a bookstore if it’s not going to sell a lot of copies.

Since I made my peace with that, I’ve sought to connect with my audience through other venues—readings at colleges and universities, workshops, book clubs, blogging. I’m not mad at Barnes & Noble anymore; instead, the store’s become my library-café as well as provider of the few new, deeply-discounted books I purchase.

The Shrinking Audience

Conceding that one is probably not writing for the great book-buying public certainly narrows one’s audience. I’ve written here before that an Audience of One is really enough; that it’s a great way to keep depression and anxiety at bay and even achieve spiritual progress. The satisfaction, even joy, that comes through the discipline of writing is considerable—and highly recommended. For me, it’s more than even discipline; it’s a spiritual practice, like meditation, yoga, prayer.

But in my heart of hearts, I know that writing for myself isn’t enough; I truly do want to share with an audience. Want = desire. And as all good Buddhists know, desire is what gets you in trouble in this life. Making peace with that desire for a large audience has created tension and stress in my life—and maybe in yours, if you’re a writer. It isn’t easy, and it has to be dealt with, sooner or later if it’s not to consume you.

The Messenger

For months I’ve carried around an article I copied from Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents 2009, entitled “The Writer’s Journey: The Path of the Spiritual Messenger.” Written by Deborah Levine Herman, the essay provides reassurance, wisdom and practical advice to writers who find their spirituality at odds with the business of publishing. Herman writes: “If we have people listening to what we have to say, we can believe that we are the message and forget that we are merely the messenger . . . We are all here to improve the lives of each other.” I appreciated hearing that—and inside a book on the business of writing!

Ego vs. Spirit

Ms. Herman’s words touched a deep nerve. In recent years, the major conflict of my writing life is not what and how to write but whether my desire for publication contradicts my desire for greater humility and service. I wonder whether I should persevere in what sometimes seems an ego-feeding rather than a spirit-centered proposition. At the heart of the conflict is whether my writing is of value to anyone but myself; and, if the latter, whether I should surrender my craving to share it with the world. Any advice, such as Ms. Herman’s, that takes me down a notch or five—and helps me see the value of what I do as possibly serving others in addition to myself—gives me hope that I’m on the right path.

If we have people listening to what we say . . . That’s a pretty big if, given the Great Silence I spoke of earlier. However, if we are able to attract and hold readers, I believe we must view writing as a responsibility as well as a joy. Once we get people listening, what will we say? Will we help or harm? Is it foolish of us to imagine that our writing matters enough to do either?

The Mission

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner exhorts us to write “ . . . so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs . . . so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.” In other words, to write responsibly.

If I have any credo, the above quote is pretty much it. Thus, it’s my responsibility as messenger to not only deliver the news through my writing—that things aren’t nearly as shitty as they often seem; that redemption, while improbable, is still possible—but try to publish as well. However, Publication Highway is full of potholes like burnout and bitterness, even financial ruin, if a writer’s willing to quit her day job and put everything on the line for it. (My advice: Don’t do it.) I’m choosing to slow down these days, maybe even park, get out and walk, appreciate the scenery and talk to people, see what’s on their minds.

Hearts and Minds

The insight I receive from reading Herman and Gardner—that I’m only the messenger, not the great, famous author I set out to be three decades ago—joyously bursts the bubble of my grandiose self-inflation and brings me down to a planet where, though my books are not currently on Barnes & Noble’s shelves, they are in the hearts and minds of a few. Audience of one or of thousands? Maybe it doesn’t ultimately matter. We are all here to improve the lives of each other. One reader at a time.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cyndi January 4, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Interesting how we both ended up blogging on this topic today, with many of the same conclusions! Nice to know we’re not alone.

Cyndi

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Geoffrey Porter January 4, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I appreciate the camaraderie of this piece. I have gone to lengths to be a published author and to try and get some big name publisher to back my books, but the only thing I really have to show for my efforts is a series of form letter rejections or even worse, people that never even bother to send a form letter.

I gave up hope some time ago, and now I’m kind of hell bent on publishing my own works, but that too is pointless. Nobody buys. Self published authors are a dime a dozen. I tend to fall into the trap Ed talks about where I pester/nag people to read my books.

My solution is to focus on both short fiction and self publishing novels. The more fiction magazines that pick up my stories, maybe people will try one of my books. That’s mostly led to dozens if not hundreds of form letter rejections too (but I’ve got this new steampunk story, and if I could just come up with an ending, it’ll sell, I’m sure of it!)… hehe…

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BO KEHRES March 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm

my wife & I planned to attend tonight but after reading the above, we decided not to because there appears nothing of value to us that you likely have to share.

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