I am asked by an old friend, “Are you still writing?” I respond affirmatively but feel sheepish. I know what she means is “Are you doing any real writing?” as in “Blogging is trivial.” and “Have you had any success?” as in “Selling anything.” It stings a bit that it has been many years since I’ve had anything published and that it has been about a year since I’ve even tried. Yet, I am more disciplined about writing than just about anything else in my life. If success is measured in terms of honing writing skills in a way that is very meaningful to me personally, I have indeed achieved success. Still it seems like my work ethic should be better rewarded and that my prose deserves attention beyond the small circle of loyal friends who read regularly.
I am starting, after some disappointments, to muster some ambition and if you notice previous pieces from this blog disappearing it is because I am removing them and reworking to submit for publication. I go as far as to register for an online course about publishing personal essays. The use of the expression “killer personal essays” in the class description should have been a tip-off. The course is held via “Go To Meeting” software. We all check our cameras and microphones and we are admonished beforehand that the discourse is to remain confidential. I will note that one of the participants is seated at a kitchen table, not using headphones, while her father (elderly boyfriend?) hovers nearby preparing a snack.
Nevertheless, ever obedient, I will refrain from any possibly identifying disclosure. Before the class we are given links to four personal essays, touted as being shining examples. Killer essays. All are confessional. “I Wet the Bed” “I Hit My Husband” “I Slapped Around my Boyfriend’s Crazy Stalker.” All are written by women. The eight participants in the class are also women. The successful formula for publication I learn is confess to something horrible and deeply embarrassing, describe what drove you do it and then conclude with how you arrived at self love and acceptance. We are to take turns activating our web cameras and pitching the ideas for three personal essays. The instructor is in her late twenties/early thirties I think but I am often decades off with anyone younger than 50. She reports rather smugly that she’s been writing for FIVE YEARS!
The seasoned writer is very patient with my fellow students. She essentially plays therapist for the three hour session, telling each woman what her nutshell paragraph should be and how to get from there to the unconditional self love and acceptance conclusion. One woman blathers on incoherently about foreign aid work and PTSD. Another describes falling in love with a woman after a drunken threesome. A third recalls a time that her mother failed to pick her up at school. The instructor giggles about a story she has apparently milked many times herself for personal essays. She heads out for a “booty call” at 3 a.m. and winds up in the drunk tank at the county jail.
I private message her that I will not be participating in the pitching and that I am only really interested in the protocol of submitting work for online publication. She messages back that I should pitch so she can assess what publications would be a good fit. Having read her formulaic reductive work and listened to her cynical approach, I doubt whether this is within her realm of possibility. I message back that I all I can think of to pitch is about how I would rather gouge out my eyeballs than sit in front of my laptop and tell a group of strangers things that I would like to write about and what that says about me. She messages me back “OK.” The other students’ pitching is so excruciating that I drift over to Facebook and am actually tempted to turn on the TV.
I guess there are shocking things I could admit to but they bore me and any tidy epiphany would be bullshit. The appetite for this kind of essay depresses me. I conclude that the writing I find most satisfying is not suitable for a number of web publications. Narrowing the list is actually of significant value and I have honed in on a couple of periodicals and online magazines that might be a good fit. Two pieces are sent out this week. My skin feels pretty thick right now and perhaps I have enough momentum going to withstand inevitable and copious rejections.
Ironically, when Hannah Horvath, the main girl of Girls quits a job in a comfortable office with lots of snacks because the writing is advertorial, I hate her more now than I have ever hated her, which is a whole lot. (Jessa is the only girl of Girls I would be interested in spending time with.) Hannah however, unlike me, has no other source of income and the soul she’s afraid of selling to the devil is so worthless that he wouldn’t want it.
There has been a lot of debate lately about the value of Creative Writing MFA programs. If there were do-overs I probably would have applied for one when I graduated from college. I don’t know that I would necessarily have become a better writer than I am now but it would have been a serious declaration of my seriousness. Furthermore, as in any field, the literary profession is rife with log- rolling. Perhaps if I had begun networking earlier on it would be more natural and less odious to me than it is now.
Despite what Himself thinks, I do read. Most of what I read, I find poorly written and/or badly edited. This is almost always the case with the on-line publications that the personal essay class targeted. However, even the august Atlantic and New Yorker will once in a while print total duds by writers who in the past have done much better work but are obviously “friends of the magazine.” Perhaps this sounds bitter. I’ll even cop to feeling some animus towards editors and agents who haven’t even had the courtesy to respond to my queries and particularly a representative at a dinky publishing house who sent a witheringly harsh rejection.
But every week I slog away here and every week I feel better for having done it, even knowing that others look down their noses. I’ve read a lot about the craft of writing. I’ve incorporated the wisdom of other writers with good results. The most meaningful advice I’ve gotten from another writer however is that while perseverance, self promotion, and to a lesser extent talent are important, a successful writing career hinges on pure luck. Which I would welcome a bit of.