In her Introduction to Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes that seeing oneself in print “provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.” How nice to know I’m not the only writer seeking verification.
I’ve learned, over the past few years, to enjoy more the process of writing, even if I still look for “verification” or approval for my work. Part of the creative process is validation for one’s work―even God seeks approval of his creation. If a publisher offers to publish me, they are saying they see merit in my work, even it that merit, from their perspective, is monetary.
If a writer wins an award for his or her work, he or she is receiving approval―not so different than a ballplayer who receives a standing ovation from the home crowd for hitting a walk-off homerun. More than one ballplayer has said they’d play for nothing for the chance to stand in Yankee Stadium, baseball’s biggest stage. If a ballplayer doesn’t aspire to the major leagues, he will settle for the minors or find another career. If a writer doesn’t write for publication, chances are they will never see their work in print, or they will settle for self-publication.
When I finished Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, I embarked on a journey to find a home for it. When I commenced this project in June 2007, I never considered that I’d have a third draft of a 75,000 word novel in eight months. But here I am, 20 months later, looking forward to launching this new work (my best to date) with Second Wind Publishing, even as I continue laying down words for my current novel―perhaps my most ambitious to date. I’m enjoying the creative process of this new endeavor―but I never forgot Backstop. He agreed to tell me his story only after I promised him I’d do my best to see his story in print. So I continued to submit, even continued to revise from time to time the result of feedback I’d gotten from a variety of sources.
Writers fall into two categories: artists and mercenaries. The latter write with the idea of profit, and indeed, the publishing industry (yes, it’s a serious business, but so is baseball when you look at the bottom line―and fiction, like sports, is but entertainment) seems to reward the mundane formulaic while eschewing literary art.
Science fiction writer Piers Anthony won’t start a project unless it has first been sold by proposal (he can afford to―most publishers and agents won’t accept a proposal from an unknown; they usually require a completed manuscript). Romance writers know their formula and write as if by rote.
Writing magazines abound and tomes have been written to help writers achieve publication; most advise “know your audience.” In other words, identify a market and write to it. But what about those of us who read a novel to learn something of the author, not just to learn what he knows about us as part of a demographic?
And what of the art of writing?
Former major leaguer and sports journalist Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed.” In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland writes of author authenticity: the type of book that rarely graces the bookshelves of bookstores today because the writer listens to the experts, and so they’re put off, defeated before they even start, by the fear that no one will publish it. How dismal the literary world would be today had Tolstoy considered that his audience might be put off by all those Russian names.
My own work has been lauded by more than one critic for having a distinctive voice as well as for richness of language. It has also been turned down by more than one publisher and agent for those very same reasons. Still, I wish to hold onto that “voice.” I will never write formula just to see my name in print. I don’t write for an audience; I write with the hope an audience may find me. I may never be a best seller or receive great acclaim; I may never win a Pulitzer or a Nebula, or any other award, but I take great pleasure in Second Wind’s recognition of my work, enjoying (as Anne Lamott writes) the primal verification, or approval.
What I am (DNA) never changes. Who I am (a writer) never stops changing. Therefore, at the end of my life I want to look back at my body of work and recognize who I was at individual moments in my life. To write any other way would be to write merely for publication, which in a sense is, I suppose, approval of a different kind. Call me maudlin, but that’s not who I am.
―J. Conrad Guest, author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine Innings