Awhile back I wrote about some problems I was having with Lulu, my long-time, go-to print-on-demand platform. While many of those problems have been resolved, some linger, despite some helpful intervention by a particularly attentive customer service rep.
It was so frustrating my very supportive husband found himself asking why I persisted. “If it causes you so much stress, why do you keep at it?” he asked.
Of course I never started writing so I could publish what I wrote — at six years old, when I wrote my first short story, I didn’t even know about publishing. All I needed was a piece of paper and a yellow Number 2 pencil, and I was scribbling away. Kings and princes, girl detectives, favorite TV stars filled my pages.
As I got older, I frustrated my mother no end by swiping ten or more sheets of paper, stapling them together, and starting a new story on page one. Sometimes I got four or five pages in, but I honestly don’t think I ever got to the last stapled page.
I tended to finish the stories that didn’t start with stapled pages. Twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred hand-written pages or more poured out of me. I wrote stories for friends, painstakingly re-writing each page so I could give them their own copy.
Eventually I learned how to type up my stories, send them in envelopes with an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope so the editor could reply, for those of you who only know about digital submissions), and wait impatiently to find out whether the magazine would publish the story.
It was a long process. It required patience. Only the best manuscripts would make the cut, and I was thrilled when a story hit its mark. I was so thrilled, I celebrated three times: when I received the acceptance, when the story got published, and when the check arrived. Of course, by then, I’d spent the money already (twice over — thence the term “struggling writer”).
At some point I added nonfiction articles to my portfolio, a few essays and reviews, and before long someone said I should take my writing seriously (it never occured to me I was already doing that) and get a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing.
So I did. And somewhere in here things changed. Maybe it was the academic atmosphere, all those fellow writers competing for professorships, trying to publish to keep from perishing. The allure of following their path was tremendous: teach in a college is getting paid to do what you love, to pass on to others what you’ve learned doing what you love.
But the bar kept getting higher: publish one book, you need two. Publish two and you need to have garnered at least one major prize. I taught on the side, landed a terrific spot with the Ohio Arts Council as a writer in the schools (giving me memories I still treasure twenty-five years later), and took administrative jobs in factories.
I published my first book, a literary novel that got some solid reviews. “The New York Times Book Review gave me a good review,” I told friends. “Now I can die happy.”
Of course family members and my writer friends all wondered what I’d write next. If only I knew! I worried I’d be a one-book flame-out. I drafted another book. An agent took an interest; a university press wanted a nonfiction version of the novel I’d set in a factory. I declined both.
Something wasn’t feeling right.
I started a career, a few fulfilling jobs focused on corporate training, and a nonfiction book grew out of that. It was wildly popular in the very narrow field it dealt with (online learning… which is, ironically, wildly popular now; I guess I was ahead of the game those twelve years ago).
When my husband retired and I quit (too young to retire), when we sold our home and moved into an RV to travel the country, I started seeing stories again.
You know what I mean. Those little flashes of inspiration that hit when you least expect them: a flyer of a missing hiker, an off-hand remark in the grocery story. Seems like nothing to most people, but to a fiction writer it’s like jumpstarting your imagination. “Why would someone say that? Do that? Want that?” you ask yourself. And you’re off and running.
That’s what happened to me. I drafted a short story. Then another. And another. Soon I had enough for a collection, so I self-published them. Then the novels featuring full-time RVers Walt and Betty Rollin followed: characters loosely based on me and my husband, traveling the country, solving mysteries along the way.
The joy had come back. I took my time but have three Rollin RV Mysteries in print and ideas for a half-dozen more.
Then it was like hitting a wall. Maybe it was the problems I ran into with Lulu. Or maybe Covid-19. The blahs in general had gotten to me, or was it that simple?
I don’t think so. Instead, I think the same thing that bit me in the butt before snapped at me again: the desire to get published was overtaking my love of writing.
And whenever we focus on the endgame instead of on the process — especially when it comes to writing — we’re likely to fail. I’ve seen it in many of the self-published books I’ve read over the past year. Writers so eager to see their books available for sale they’ve neglected to write a book someone really wants to read. A book riddled with mistakes and problems. A book someone regrets paying money for.
I’m not free of that particular demon, but at least for the last several months I’ve managed to keep myself from giving in to it, focusing instead on reading widely, writing careful reviews (more to help me analyze what I’ve just experienced than for any other reason), and letting go of that need to get something new out there.
Once I recognized my frustration with Lulu (which is still causing me fits if I let it) is the result of wanting more to publish than to write, it was easier to let it all go.
I gave myself permission to not write. To be a reader. To be a reviewer. To retreat to my original love of books, without getting swept up in the noise of publish, market, track sales, appeal to your fanbase and all that.
When I let go of that need to publish a dark heaviness inside me lifted. I’m free again to do what I want, when I want to do it. Because we just don’t know how much time we have left to enjoy that hike up the hillside while the flowers are blooming with the one we love more than anything.
Today is waiting.