Here’s what gave me direction this week. Arts and culture at the DuPont Underground, new books and podcasts, and inspiration from one of my favorite authors.
“Let’s say I submit a short story to a magazine for publishing? If it doesn’t get accepted, will the editor write me back with feedback on what I should improve?” says a member of the audience. He’s your typical “aspiring writer”; cargo shorts, unkempt hair, and zero sense of style.
“Hah!” spits the author on the panel, “No one’s going to give you the time of day to string three words together on what you should improve. Editors are looking for any reason not to read your crap! And that’s the truth.” The aspiring writer looks taken aback by this response. It’s like an answer to a Calculus problem which is undefined, or all non-real numbers; it simply doesn’t make sense to the linear mind set in thinking a certain way.
“So, I’m a first-time published author,” another audience member starts in, “What should I say in my biography on the back cover of my book if I don’t have any experience?” she says. She’s young, slightly more stylish than the cargo-wearing aspiring writer, with black curly ringlets hanging past her shoulders. But its hard to take her seriously with this concern, as it’s mostly a fake question with a hidden announcement in it. She has a very studious and concentrated air about her, as if she believes the panelists’ authority to be equivalent to that of God, or a world-renowned professor at Harvard.
“What genre do you write in?” says the author.
“So you have a book deal?” he says skeptically.
“I just got an agent,” says the studious woman.
“That’s a big deal. It’s like the first dollar that a restaurant makes, which gets framed. You should be proud!” then he pauses, as if to reconsider the reality of the woman’s news, “Did they ask you for money up front?” he says, “If they ever do, then fire them right away,” he says.
The moderator of the panel talk, which only consists in two authors, tries to get the discussion back on track. In an attempt to maintain the feeling of a “writer’s community,” which is purportedly the objective of the event, he poses another question to the panelists.
“In your experience, have you found a community of writers when publishing work in literary journals or other small presses?” he says.
“Well, not really. I have a life. I’ve got a wife and kids. I’m not trying to make friends with people who publish in literary journals.” says the author. The moderator keeps posing questions of this nature, as if to make the audience feel like they are gaining some great secrets into the world of success as a writer, most of which are met with harsh responses by the first author. The other writer on the panel provides vaguely diplomatic responses, which seem more encouraging, as the audience members ask a couple more useless questions until the discussion peters out.
After the talk, Julie approaches the author. She tells him that she’s just starting out as a writer.
“Who are your friends?” the author says to Julie. Like a scientist; a researcher who collects information to piece together a puzzle.
“My friends, they do all sorts of things.. they’re in graduate school, looking for work-”
“Are they chasing money?” he cuts her off.
“I wouldn’t say that, so much.”
“Chasing fun? They’re the beer-guzzling, Ravens fanatic crowd?”
“That’s a bit closer…” says Julie. Weren’t all young people chasing fun to some extent?
“Here’s what you do,” says the author, “You watch them. You observe everything. That’s your job. Who’s hooking up with who, who is jealous of who’s boyfriend. Then you write about it. I don’t mean exactly what’s going on. You don’t watch them obviously. But you take a back seat, and observe.”
“What do you read? Not Twilight crap, or any of that vampire nonsense, I hope,” he says.
“No, I’m reading Edith Wharton and J.D. Salinger.” says Julie.
“Good, Great! That’s perfect, you can’t do much better than Wharton,” says the author.
“So, how did you first get published?” says Julie. Of course this was a silly question; anyone could churn out some piece of garbage about vampires or were-wolfs if the goal was simply to make a buck, or to be able to see one’s book on a shelf. The question was actually: how do you publish something that’s good.
“You know, getting stuff published just comes,” says the author, “There’s no scientific formula I can give you, or magic words I can tell you that will bring you success. But, I can say, that you don’t need to go to a fancy school. Just do your job. Watch the world and write,” he pauses, “There are only two things that are going to happen. A, you’re going to keep doing what you’re doing. Or B, you’re going to stop doing what you’re doing.”
This seemed like a fairly obvious summary of one of Newton’s laws of motion; an object in motion tends to stay in motion.
“You can’t worry about the cocktail parties and networking. Getting published will come to those who do the work, writers who accept that rejection is part of the process. Rejection letters are badges of honor!” But who even took the effort to send out rejection slips anymore?
“Thanks for the advice,” Julie says, sensing that the conversation is finished, “It was nice meeting you.”
“Likewise. Just remember: observe and write.”