Saturday, September 29, 2012

Why Haven't You Published Anything?

Remember how, on the Back to the Future movies, George McFly was always writing his science fiction stories in notebooks?  But he wouldn't let anybody read them, because he was afraid they weren't good enough; he was afraid of rejection. 

I get that.  I mean, I totally get that.

I'm not one of those people who is squeamish about letting people read my writing.  I had lots of writing workshops in undergrad, and then graduate school was half made up of writing workshops.  I never thought my stories were perfect the minute I had a draft done. In fact, what I was pretty much known for was taking my first draft, lopping its head off about to its waist, massively re-writing, and having a barely recognizable second draft.  And then all bets were off in subsequent drafts.  I've never had a problem "killing the darlings."

I even got a big kick out of reading my stories aloud at readings.  If I were a total pansy about letting people in on my work, you'd think having a live audience would have just about done me in.  It didn't.  It was my favorite part of both undergrad and graduate school.

And it isn't even like I don't believe in myself.  I DO think I'm a fairly decent writer.  I know I can get a laugh when I want to.  And I've read and panned a lot of books as a reviewer that are actually published.  I know I can do better than that.

However, I haven't published anything.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I wrote a piece about my house for the county historical society, and it was well-received.  I've always wondered, though, if people honestly liked it, or if they were telling me it was great the way people at a church always tell the special music they were "just wonderful" even if said special music couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, much less a bucket two octaves higher than where they really should be carrying the tune. 

This is how my head works.  When it comes to my writing, I sort of wonder if every compliment is someone just being nice, afraid to hurt my feelings.

I never had to wonder that with my mentors in undergrad.  In fact, thanks to them (and I really mean thanks to them!), I learned to divorce my emotions and feelings from my work the minute I was finished writing a draft.  During the writing, letting those things guide me was fine. After that, there needs to be distance.  I learned quickly to trust what my mentors had to say.  They were tough but honest.  They'd encourage and even praise when it was warranted, but when something was just wrong, wrong, wrong, they didn't pause and hem and haw and dance around it in order to save my high-strung ego.  They'd just come out with it, and I respected them for that.  I respect that kind of criticism to this day, because it only makes me better at what I love to do.  I remember one time, I wrote a piece of historical fiction for writing workshop, and when I had my conference with my mentor before workshop, I saw the look on his face when I stepped into his doorway, and without him having to say anything, I snatched the story out of his hand, shit-canned it, and told him I'd have a new, non-historical fiction story in his email inbox by the next morning.  And I did.  A fifteen-pager.  It was the seeds of the story that became the novel I wrote for my undergraduate thesis.  I guess I was the first student in my program to write a whole novel for their final requirement.  There've been lots since, lots much better than me, I'm sure, but apparently I was the first.  And to be honest, I did it without breaking a sweat.  I can spin out a long story in very little time.  The short-stories, which are the bread and butter of any writing workshop I've been in, just about kill me.

But I'm selective about what I let people read of mine.  Even in college and grad school, I had my stuff I wrote for workshop or for a reading, and then I'd have the stuff I'd write for me.  I've re-written Johnny Tremain at least a hundred times since I first read it and disagreed with the ending in eighth grade.  And that never sees the light of day.  The story I originally wrote that became my undergraduate novel-thesis, I'm still kicking around all these years later.  At the core, the characters are the same, but in a lot of ways, they've become different people since I first wrote about them at age 20.  They've become like old friends I can visit when I need something familiar, and in return, they let me play with style, and voice, and their lives, trying out endless "what-ifs" and alternate storylines.

But if I'm writing that stuff on my computer and somebody (my pesky husband) comes up behind me, I switch the screen to Farkle on Facebook.  Not because I'm writing anything "dirty," or anything- I'm no prude and read what I read of those damn "Grey" books without batting an eye (it was the writing itself that put me off them, not the smut), but because one time when we were both in high school, he made fun of something I wrote, and I haven't quite forgiven him, even a decade and a half later.  It was easier to let the relative strangers in workshop read my writing, because they weren't constantly reading to see who they could recognize, and then go and read in other things.  I'd like to make this perfectly clear: writers are thieves and magpies, and while I do constantly keep an eye out and an ear tuned while I'm with people, I don't do one-to-one translations of people I know in anything I write.  Everybody's a composite, kind of a mish-mash amalgam of lots of different people and different characteristics, and some added out of nowhere, just to make their storylines more flowable.  Even in fiction, I think characters need to behave a certain way to advance the plot, and things have to make sense.  We all know that in real life, nothing's predictable and things don't always make sense.  Something could happen, and we could all live through it, but if I were to write everything just as it happened, it probably wouldn't be a good story, not without a little hand-of-God tweaking, editing out some things, assuming others, editorializing, putting words in mouths.  In short, artistic license.  It's just how it is.  Even in the newspaper, you're not getting the actual complete story.  What you read in the paper or in a magazine or another news outlet- it's been edited for space, edited for flow, even edited to slant toward or against a particular publication's political leaning, depending on whether the editors want to raise up someone or make them look like an ass to the readership.

So I always find it a little tedious when I DO let someone read something of mine, and they always ask "is this what you really think about x" or "is this character so-and-so?"  Or if I have a particularly lively character: "Have you really done this?"

Bloody hell.

But too, what this all comes down to, why I take the time to make all these lame excuses, is that at the heart of it all, just because I've had work rejected the few times I've submitted it places, it doesn't make the rejection any easier to handle.  It sucks to get the short form letter that says a place can't use a story.  And as I've touched on earlier, I don't write a lot of shorter works.  I go for the long, marathon-y pieces, and even though I write them fast, they're still a bigger investment of my time than a short story would be, and I can't get past how much it would hurt to have a novel, a whole entire novel, rejected everywhere.  I mean, have you seen some of the shit that's been published and is sitting on shelves at Barnes and Noble across the country? Petty April seethes whenever I run across a book like that, and I hear myself asking "why is this shit in print, and not my stuff?"  Well.... um, those people had the stones to submit, and you flip to Farkle whenever someone might be reading your work over your shoulder, Ape.

It all comes down to good, old-fashioned insecurity.  Terminal perfectionism.  It's a fool's errand, trying to revise and revise and revise until the story is Perfect and above reproach, but the thing is, I could work until I'm 90 to make a story Perfect, and there'd still be someone who would pan it because it was too light and fluffy, or too dark, or had too many swears, or was too pandering to a certain demographic.... it's always something.  And I need to get over it.  I need to just prepare some kind of smartass answer for the people who'd read my work and try to puzzle out who in the story is who in real life, and try to make me out to be quite scandalous, assuming I've tried out doing everything my characters do.  It's not like I'm not good at smartass answers.  But I think that when all is said and done, despite all the training in divorcing myself from my writing the minute it's been turned over to a reader, the truth is I'm kind of funny about it.  I'm not afraid of having my feelings hurt.  I can tell when someone's criticizing to be constructive and when they're just being an ass.  But it is kind of awkward, answering questions, which is why smartasses were invented.  We try to bluster away the awkwardness by being glib and sarcastic about it.  Other than just cowboying up, which is a tall order, I'm not sure what to do about this.

The thing is, George McFly punched out his bully Biff in the Back to the Future movies.  And then he had all the confidence in the world.  It takes something like that to change the course of a life.  The mouse that roared sort of thing.  So what I need to do is figure out who or what my Biff is, go back in time, punch him out, and come back and submit my work, and it'd probably be published.

So do you or anyone you know own a time-traveling Delorean I could borrow?

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