The Myth of the Published Writer

When you disclose to a stranger that you’re a writer, the first question you will be asked is, “Are you published?” It feels good to say yes, to have a small list you can name off as validation of your claim to be a member of that rarefied club. Before I became a published writer, I longed for this moment. I believed it would prevent people from seeing me as a fraud. I believed it would prevent me from seeing myself as a fraud.

But it didn’t.

It’s true that the little clump of people at the cocktail party might be less inclined to drift away from me, but I found out that the interrogation had only just begun.

Next up:

“I haven’t heard of that book.”

“Well, you have now.”

“What genre is it?”

“Literary fiction.” I hate this question. Literary fiction sounds so lame in the face of this moment. So hoyty-toyty. So, “I don’t know how to define what I do, therefore I don’t know what I’m doing.” (The last is true. But writing is about muddling forward, and how can that be explained to anyone who doesn’t write? At a cocktail party, no less?)

“How many copies did it sell?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Asked incredulously. “Surely you know your own book sales.”

At the risk of sounding rude and ungrateful for being a published writer, I don’t answer at all. My books sales have never supported me. I’ve always had a day job. I’ve made peace with that, again and again and again. I wonder if I were a surgeon, would I be asked how many people died on my table. This question feels like that. “You may be a writer, but…”

The next comment: “You should write an Oprah book.”

I don’t say that I already did, but Oprah failed to notice.

“You know – insert name of celebrity – wrote a book.”

“Yes, I know.”

“It did really well.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Months on the bestseller list.”

Silence from me.

“I’ve got three weeks off next summer and I’m thinking of writing a novel. I think I can get it done in that time. How long did it take you?”

“Two years.”

“Two years! Really? Why did it take so long?”

“Excuse me, I have to go pee.” I don’t even care that I said the word pee at a social gathering. I’m just thinking about the comfort of the bathroom stall, and the closed door, and wondering if I can take as long to pee as I took to write my last book.

The point is that the opportunities to prove you’re a “real writer” never end. It seems that someone (usually a total stranger) is always ready to challenge your claim, or to make you feel smaller for it. If you’re not published, you should be published. If you’re not a best selling author, you should be a best selling author. If your book isn’t genre fiction, you should try genre fiction. If Oprah hasn’t noticed your book, you should write an Oprah book. You should have a youtube channel, a Twitter account, followers, a hoard of people who know who you are, and so on. Listening to someone tell you they’re going to write a novel during their three-week vacation, rubs salt in the open wounds of being one the millions of midlist writers out there. Most of us, in fact, are midlist. Perhaps we take too long to write. Here is a person who can do what it took me two years to do, in a whole lot less time, while eating ice cream and skiing.

What I want to say to writers, all writers, is that it’s a deep journey. You have to measure yourself by a yardstick that doesn’t exist in the commercial world. You can write a deep book, and it can be a best seller. You can also write a deep book and no one will notice. Take heart. Find a gauge of success that is your own. Most of us wanted to write long before we did write. Writing itself, bringing a work to completion is huge success. It’s a huge success that will mostly go unnoticed unless you happen to hit the jackpot with a best seller, and that too is a long arduous road. So always (ALWAYS) love yourself. And admire that you are writing. And as much as possible, divorce yourself from the world of capitalism, which cares not for art unless it sells. Most of your writing, arty life will be spent in capitalism’s shadows, and in order to be strong throughout the journey, you must respect who you are and what you’re doing. You must respect the risk.

For now there will be celebrity authors whose books will be read while ours are not, simply because this is the culture we live in. Total strangers will throw this in your face because total strangers have no idea what sort of gestalt work goes into the creation of a story, and because the work of writing is not respected in this culture. Only the work of publishing matters, and if there is publishing, there must be book sales, and if there are too few book sales, there must be a marketing plan, and if there is no marketing plan, then you, the author have failed.

But you have not failed. I have not failed.

I think the next time someone asks me if I am published, I am going to answer no. It’s an honest answer. I am unpublished. Most of my work is unpublished. Most of it will remain unpublished. We’re all unpublished together. That’s the club. Respect the real club, not the imagined one.

This entry was posted in Advice, Comparison, Competition, Completing a novel, Consumerism, creativity, Elitism, failure, marketing, Process, Public appearances, Self-worth, Society, Strength, success, survival, The market, Uncategorized, what artists need, Writing career and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Myth of the Published Writer

  1. Nancy,
    Thank you so much for these words of affirmation. I’ve been a writer for most of my 49 years. I’ve only recently began to call myself one. And yes, the very first question is ALWAYS: Are you published. Sometimes I answer Yes, my first job was writer, editor AND publisher of my family newspaper that I started at age 7. Your words here are so validating to those of us who love the act of creating/recording stories, whether we are known or not.

  2. Art Fettig says:

    “How many books have you sold?” “Not enough, would you like to buy some?” “Ah…” “I have a few out in my car. It wouldn’t take me a minute and I can take credit cards.”
    True, I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties, but since I don’t drink it doesn’t matter.
    The joy is in the writing. Everything else is hard mostly unrewarding work.

  3. Liz McGuffey says:

    Nancy, this brings to mind Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity. She had published several books before Eat Pray Live hit the best seller list. She was not accustomed to the success of this book and it stymied her creative process for writing. The pressure was on to produce something equally successful. Some ten years later she now has a new novel. Everyone should watch her TED talk. Also, I recently read that most celebrity memoirs are focus grouped and ghost written. That’s why we keep writing — to write something that is true to ourselves, something better than most best sellers.

  4. Ron Jackson says:

    That really spoke.

  5. ray nessly says:

    This speaks to me too. I get it all the time, even from my mother. I publish a story, tell her about it. “How much are they paying you?” “Nothing.” “Oh.”
    Shared to my Facebook page and a couple writing groups.

  6. Fauzia Tirmazi says:

    So true. This is wonderful, Nancy. Frustration written with humor. You are the one who taught me, “When writing, always be true to yourself.” Who cares about publishing or not.

  7. caren stuart says:

    Ya know, honesty “shines” and it’s that shine of coming from a place of “realness” that folks connect with and are inspired by (if THEY’RE being real!). Thank YOU for your “realness”, Nancy! You struck so many chords with this and you struck them sooooo beautifully. That was some awesome, inspiring TRUTH!

  8. Here here! Thanks, Nancy.

  9. Nancy, thank you for keeping it real!

  10. Karen M. C.-K. says:

    Dear love,

    You know I’m not a writer. What I hear though is the struggle of the authentic versus the petty and shallow. I also hear the internal struggle of the creative / creator artist maintaining their (your) own inner integrity of Self in a world that barely remembers what real life and living is, that can’t recognize the God force that is in the very air that surrounds them. The trick is, don’t YOU get caught up or get to believing the false and empty to be the truth. And most certainly not the truth of YOUR existence. Peace and Love to you my sister.

  11. Andrew Stancek says:

    Thanks, Nancy. Very real.

  12. Spot on, Nancy! Thanks for bringing to light it’s perhaps better to be unpublished. A lot less frustration and greater honesty in discourse.

  13. Lyn Hawks says:

    Yes! I’m so tired of my own self-flagellation on this point that somehow I’m only as good as units moved and clicks and likes. Spending more time in my worlds of story is what feeds and rejuvenates me. Just read another Donna Tartt book. Took her 8 years to write The Secret History and 10 to write The Goldfinch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *