Unsolicited Advice (for Eliza Blair)

Much moved today by the writer and scientist Eliza Blair's birthday post. At 25, Blair has already published award-winning science fiction while pursuing a dream to go to the moon. (Via.)

She's worried about the Amazon/Macmillan mess, and about the Obama administration's gutting of manned lunar missions.

I can't say much about the latter, except that it's disappointing. What I want to address is her concern that this most recent tempest in the publishing world's teapot is going to make it impossible for her to write "in a world where it is getting progressively harder to get paid" to do so.

Publishing is a big enmeshed family. Nobody knows for sure who's really dependent on what from whom. You might think writers, as the "content producers" at the very start of the supply chain are its most important part. This idea, while attractive, is not correct.

The most important part of publishing's supply chain, so to speak, is whatever you want to call this sacred and ornery mystery that once and a while bursts through the fog and confusion and incarnates in the form of a story on your page or screen.

It belongs to no one. This is as it should be. Sometimes the incarnated mystery sees the light of day, in the form of publication. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes it takes a long time. Blake had to wait for Rossetti. And so on.

I once did an informal survey of dates of first publication for modern novelists. Conclusions: For early success (before age 30) in writing, it helps to be white, male, and rich. Many, if not most, women writers published little to nothing until their 40s, after peak child-care years.

This survey was by no means definitive, but I took heart from it. I was 27, with three writing workshops under my belt, a handful of short stories on my hard drive and precious little else to recommend me to readers, not to mention editors and agents.

I made a spreadsheet and began to send stories out, keeping track of the responses. For every rejection that came back, I sent out another short story. For every rejection that came back with a personal note, usually scrawled across the form response, I made a note in my spreadsheet: This person likes my work. Eventually I started to publish, but I want to insist that this point is neither here nor there. With enough persistence, it's possible to publish a great deal, but you have to keep writing and sending stuff out.

What is a writer? By my lights, you are a writer if you write and you publish. But by my lights, publication includes sending "unpublished" material to editors and agents, who form, in essence, an early focus group for the work. Participating in workshops counts, too. For me, anyway.

My mother wrote short stories on her typewriter while my sister and I were at school. She participated vigorously in local writing workshops. Her stuff was really good. Due to living in a small town, I've met a few of her teachers, who have also been mine on occasion, and to a one, they remember and admire her talent. She could write short, which is a great gift, and she was funny. I am a different sort of writer -- more digressive, more interested in the possibilities of the sentence, and more open, I think, to mystery and ambiguity in my work. My mother's stories all ended the same way, with the evildoer, usually a younger woman who is first aided and then hampered by her disarming innocence, getting her comeuppance, often in a rather surprising way.

You can guess who the "evildoer" was, can't you? Like I said, she was funny. Often I felt like the person she was trying to reach with her stories was me, and the message she was trying to convey was: The world doesn't actually revolve around you, kiddo. You can see how the message could seem a little ambiguous, I hope. I struggled to write in her shadow; I still do. This struggle with shadows -- whatever form it takes in a writer's personal life -- is exactly the point.

It is easy to undermine writers with ideas about money, because so few writers make a living from their work. "None but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," is one of my nightmare refrains. But people do lots of things without a thought for recompense. Having children, for instance, is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Yes, you'll need to support yourself while you write; that's part of what it means, at this point in history, to be a writer. The other part is exposing yourself to a lot of rejection. Admittedly, sacrifice and rejection are awful, but that energy can be channeled usefully back into your writing. (This is why, when a rejection comes in the mail, you should send another piece of writing out as soon as possible.) Indifference helps. Armor helps. Experience helps.

My larger point: Amazon and Macmillan are a sideshow. If you miss it, don't worry: there will be another one just like it next month, or next week, or next year. I'm pretty sure it's safe to ignore, in favor of the other mysteries that are clamoring for your attention. Only you know what they are -- and people like me are out here, enthusiastically anticipating your new work.

Postscript: Writer and literary agent Nathan Bransford has collected some interesting responses from writers to the general problem addressed in this post: if you write, are you crazy?