Lately it seems as if literary Twitter loses its collective mind so frequently, it can be hard to keep up.
This is, of course, a trying time for writers, editors, and other publishing professionals, given how many digital and print publications have folded. What’s more, book publishing keeps shrinking and — even more than before — primarily favoring the work of long-established writers, not to mention memoirs, essay collections, and fiction by celebrities.
This week brought us Bleep Blorp-gate, in which a bestselling author posted one tweet filled with perfectly fine advice regarding how to be a good literary citizen, then followed it with another that took an ungenerous swipe at lesser known literary journals — the kinds of very respectable publications that often give newer writers their first bylines, and also publish the work of established writers.
Literary twitter rightfully went berserk over it.
I have been a working writer since 1986 and I am sorry to inform you that despite how long I have been at this (sheesh, is it really over 33 years?), at just about every turn, I have encountered discouragement in one form or another.
I am however happy to report that you don’t have to let discouragement get you down, or stop you.
Discouragement is meant to stop you. Don’t let it. Keep going.
Over the course of my career, discouragement has shown up in the form of…
~ Brazen careerists who succeed, only to turn around and shame those further down the ladder for their ambition and hustling — slamming the door behind them once they are in, bolstering their sense of exceptionalism.
~ Well-connected writers who don’t want to confront the many advantages they had coming up (family associations, generational wealth, rich spouses, race, gender, or other shortcuts to access), who undermine you, frown upon your aspirations, and refuse to share resources.
~ Small-minded colleagues who fight dirty, shit-talking and back-biting and elbowing you out of the way however they can.
~ Gate-keepers who don’t want to be bothered with having to discover new voices — or are too cynical to take chances on new voices, or pressured by corporate overlords who only care about the bottom line — so they only work with writers who’ve already been widely published.
It’s taken time, but I’ve come to accept these four horsemen as part of the deal — part and parcel of being in a creative field with exponentially more aspirants than opportunities.
I’ve learned to be scrappy and loud and persistent, despite desperately wanting to be none of those things. I’ve learned to rebound from letting discouragement get the best of me, again and again. I’ve reached a point where I am less affected by it, or maybe just affected for shorter intervals.
When I encounter some form of discouragement to my pursuit of writing and publishing, I remind myself of something my old friend Timmothy “Speed” Levitch says in The Cruise: “Where there is cruise, there is always an escort of anti-cruise.”
When you see discouragement in front of you, greet it. Accept it as an inevitability. Then tell it to go fuck itself, and get back to work.
^^^ Hey, look, it’s me, at 34, with “Speed,” and my friend, writer Kevin Mandel, at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival! (Sorry, just decorating this thing so it’s not a visually impenetrable sea of text.)
I’m not saying writing and publishing are easy. I’m not saying you don’t have to work hard at it. I’m not saying it’s not a highly competitive field, or that your hard work will necessarily be rewarded in the ways you want it to be.
I am saying keep at it, despite rampant discouragement. Let go of long-held rigid ideas of what success means, so you can open up to others that might surprise you.
And when bigger publications turn you down, instead of not publishing your piece at all, consider submitting to smaller literary journals. There is no downside to publishing in them, if your work is selected. Every time you work with a good editor, your work improves. Every publication of your work helps to establish you. It’s all good.
Remember that it’s a privilege to be published anywhere, not just the big places you’ve had your eye on. Remember to be grateful for every chance you are given.
And once you do succeed, remember to hold the door open for those behind you.
• While I have you, here’s a reminder about my new Skillshare class — an introductory level personal essay workshop. You can get two free months of Skillshare Premium if you sign up for my class. I mean, look at what good company I’m in!