Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.
Every year, I return to teach creative writing at a summer program offered by the school for the arts where I attended high school (though this year, I had to do so virtually). And every year, at the end of an intense week of workshops with young writers ages 14–18, I do my best to engage in a bit of time travel.
Which is to say, I do my best to tell these talented young people what I wish someone had told me when I was their age.
Walking the tree-lined paths of my old school always brings me back to that time: My awe in discovering poets like Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, and Mary Oliver, and writers like James Joyce, Raymond Carver, and Joyce Carol Oates. The strength of my yearning to write that well, to be that big—big enough that my work would be studied, in time, by kids like me, in schools like this.
And the first step toward that great success was, of course, publication. Like all my other peers, I dreamed of getting my first short story published, of attracting the attention of an agent, and publishing my first book—and at eighteen, I thought I’d accomplish all this before I was twenty.
Instead, it took me until I was thirty to publish my first short story, and until nearly forty to publish my first book. Which meant that I would go on to spend many years of my life fruitlessly pursuing the dream of publication, with what felt like very little to sustain my spirit.
At the end of this high school writing program, we have a kind of convocation, in which we instructors attempt to offer words of wisdom to our students. And every summer, when I look out into the crowd at their fresh young faces, I can see all that yearning shining back at me.
The last thing I want to do is to discourage these young writers in their ambitions, but the fact is, publishing is a tough industry, and the apprenticeship period for fiction can often feel interminable. I know from personal experience many of the most talented writers in any class will eventually just give up, because that yearning inside them has begun to sour and, in time, turns into something that feels a lot like grief.
So here’s what I try to tell these kids: Publication may feel like the thing you’re yearning for, but in reality, it’s something deeper.
What you’re yearning for is the sense of being seen.
That’s what drives us to spend the untold hours required to write a book, to tighten down each scene and sentence until it truly holds the emotion we’ve poured into it, the insight we see in it—to the point where what’s inside us can be understood and experienced by others.
We’ve been taught that publication is the key to this thing we long for, this connection with the reader. But sometimes that’s true and sometimes it’s not.
Yes, publishing my first book was amazing—especially when readers took the time to tell me what had touched or moved them about it. But really, those moments were few and far between; publishing my first book was more of a marathon of publicity efforts and review-seeking and travel than anything else.
As for the shorter pieces I’d published by that time, each byline felt largely like checking off a box, even when the publication was one I admired. Looking back, some of the greatest fulfillment I received from publishing wasn’t from the “big” bylines at all, it was from publishing a column in a free newspaper where I lived at the time in a little mountain town.
Because people actually read that column, and actually talked to me about it. Publishing that column made me feel seen.
So when I take the stage at this annual gathering of young writers, here is what I say: Don’t hold out for publishing to make you feel seen. When you publish is in many ways out of your hands, but feeling seen is something you can offer each other right now.
This means that instead of sitting in judgment of each others’ work, and viewing each other as the competition for a limited number of “slots,” be they bylines or awards—or your writing instructor’s praise and approval—seeking to truly see the author’s intentions for their work, and doing whatever we can to help them manifest that vision on the page.
This is harder than sitting in judgment, because in the apprenticeship stage, the author’s intentions may not yet be all that clear. But taking the time to look beyond the flaws of a piece of writing to the heart of it, seeking out the truest and most significant impulses behind it, will not only make you a better person, it will make you a better writer.
I started my study of creative writing in high school, and continued through both undergrad and graduate school. Along the way, I saw many of the “best and the brightest” give up on the dream of being a writer—as far as I can tell, simply for the lack of this in their lives, the sense of truly being seen in their work.
And I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a shame.
So I’d like the extend this invitation to all of you still slogging away on that long, hard climb to your first byline or first book deal: We all have the power to sustain one another, to hold one another up, and to give each other what we’re really longing for, whether it’s as members of a workshop or critique group or as beta readers.
We all know what it feels like when we’ve shared our work with someone who really gets it, regardless of how polished it may be. That person has taken the time to understand our intent, to see our vision, and they’re reflecting back to us the truths of our own heart—the truths perhaps they themselves hold dear but have never seen anyone else articulate.
That—not publication—is the real goal of writing, to create a real connection. And while publication is elusive, that sense of connection is something we can all extend to each other, right now.