Tuesday, January 27, 2015


I hesitate to write this, but it's something I can't not talk about on a blog like this, which lays bare the creative process of a writer who has only small successes to call her own. A number of people reading are in a similar position, and I want to help. So here this is.

If you go to this page, you'll see that my work has been appearing online and in print for about eight years. I am actively unhappy with very little of the work you see linked there. A lot of it feels immature to me, and some of it was altered by the publication in ways of which I didn't approve, but by and large I wouldn't link to it unless I was pleased with the work and - critically - with the venue in which the work appeared.

Last spring, a new friend visited my website and then, the next time she saw me in person, she said "You've been published in quite a few places." I kind of went "Yeah," and cleared my throat and looked away. I don't feel that comfortable with the sense of myself as "published in quite a few places." Mostly the reason is the obscurity of the publications. I've never been in Harper's or The New Yorker. When people ask me if I've been published anywhere they might have heard of, I could confidently say "yes" about those places. Not so much about my actual publication record.

I'm not disparaging these publications by any means - in part because they were kind enough to print my work (and were usually staffed by very nice, very smart, very accommodating editors), and in part because I simply don't intend disparagement. I don't know if I can say that strongly enough, that I am perfectly happy and proud of the sites and magazines that have published me, and the last thing I want to do is dump on them. I'm talking about prominence, not quality. Just in factual terms, Theaker's Quarterly Fiction is a UK genre magazine with a small circulation. It isn't the New York Times Magazine. I love the Cocteau Twins, but I'm quite clear on the point that not everyone has heard of them. It doesn't diminish them.

I mean, maybe you should have heard of them, but it's not for me to judge

So I retain the feeling that I haven't really published much. Consequently, I usually sometimes feel that my writing isn't worth all the trouble and heartache and expense and so on that I go through, because I've been at this for almost a decade and I have so little to show for it. "Successful" means something different for everyone, but I know what it looks like for me, and it isn't this. In the kindest interpretation of that publication page that my brain can achieve, I'm on the way to successful.

I'm coming toward the point, I swear. Up until this month, every one of those acceptances, every one of those "we love it and we want to put it in the next issue" emails that you see reflected on that page of publications, was accompanied in my head and heart with two intertwined reactions: "Yes! I'm awesome!" and "Well, yeah, but here are half a dozen reasons why it's not a real accomplishment." Every last one. My brain has invented interminable excuses and justifications about why all those publications, all those acceptances, are actually meaningless, and offer no evidence that I write well. Oh, it's not a big deal, it's not even an American publication. Oh, it doesn't really matter, it's just online. Oh, it's nothing, it's only got a readership of a few hundred people. Oh, it's meaningless, it only pays about $20.

This is what my brain does every damn time.

Which is why the acceptance I got for "To-Do" mattered so intensely when it came this fall. Not because the accepting publication is so well-known - it, too, is obscure as wider culture goes - but because there are no cracks around this accomplishment into which my brain can seep in order to tear it down. What I mean is, the publication in question is a long-established literary magazine, associated with one of the best universities in the country, a member of CLMP, with an alumni list that includes plenty of well-known writers and a lot of people with MFAs. The story didn't get in because of its gimmicks, because it's really short or has an unusual form of narration or whatever. It's just a short story, and it had to sink or float on its ordinary merits.

When I got the email, my brain scrambled for even more reasons why my work might have been accepted by this magazine, reasons that did not include writing ability: they needed a woman writer for statistical reasons that month; they needed to say they pulled a certain number of people from the slush; they needed a story of that length or some aspect of that subject matter, irrelevant of its quality; you get the picture. I was able to turn to my brain for no, I'm not kidding, the first time ever, and say Shut up, I got this because my story was good enough, and please fuck right off.

That was a pretty good feeling. 

In mid-January, just before "To-Do" appeared, I got an acceptance I can't tell you about yet, but it was equally legitimizing. I was actually dumbfounded when I got the email. It was the result of one last wild shot in the dark before I trunked the piece for good, after many many many rejections, and this fairly fancy litmag that I was certain would reject it accepted it instead. For the second time ever, I said hey, brain, STFU. This is the fruit of my work and I deserve it. 

Since then I've gotten four rejections for other work, so, you know, the writer's life. 

Ultimately, this attitude of my publication record being not a big deal, having all kinds of excuses made around it for why it doesn't really matter, is not an attitude I can maintain any longer after this spring's appearances. What do I do with the record as it stands now? How do I position myself toward my writing, when not just my faith but the evidence indicates that it doesn't suck? 

I think the answer to this question is that my position is no different at all. I'd believed that positive evidence would make a difference to the quality of my faith in my work, but it doesn't seem to. Every time I sit down to the notebook I'm pretty sure that what I'm doing is pointless, but could be good, and that I have something to say, even if I probably won't be able to say it right. I don't think that finally gunning down Mean Brain once or twice, no matter the backup I have with me, is going to change that. 

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