The prompts this time were these phrases:
The words to say it
Write it all down and rest for awhile
Here’s what I wrote in response:
“Why do you write?” The question comes at me, champagne in hand, or fork suspended before lips. Interruptive. Direct. But what the virtual stranger at the party or the wedding table really wants to know is what have you published? I know this, because when I answer “Long fiction, and some poetry,” questions about publication are always the next out of their mouths.
This, I tell my students, my workshop participants, my friends and colleagues, is not a question to run from. Indeed, what have I published? Because those of us who read a lot know some of what gets published is unappealing: that’s subjectivity. Any judgements we have about the writing itself—in which we use words like “good” or “lousy” or that awful insult, “amateur” (which really means new and raw, and even has its roots in Amare: to love)—those judgements do not really matter when it comes to publication: work gets published all the time; some of it we love, some of it we hate. So what?
Being published simply means someone said, “Yes. I like this. I will.” It’s rather like having a marriage proposal accepted—nothing to minimize, that’s for sure—but being published doesn’t make us writers. Many talented people, some who are far better writers than I (there’s that subjective judgement again) many of these writers are not published. Does that negate that they are driven to write (sometimes on any scrap of paper they can find, or their own hand), or that they are in love with words? Punctuation? Rhythm and alliteration? I think not.
Still, there’s something important about sending your work out into the world. Sharing it. Claiming what you have to say and offering it up to others: to cajole, to provoke, to teach, to connect. It’s important to share your work. What is the overused axiom? Creativity abhors a vacuum? Something like that. Although Emily Dickenson wrote amazing work without much of an audience, so did Van Gogh, actually, and they weren’t focused on publishing. Yet their words on the printed page are now their gift to us. They have value.
Still, the question, “What have you published?” can be a meal intrusion, a conversation stopper, a drag. I could perhaps, present the inquirer with a publication list: some obscure literary journals, a spice blog, the back cover of a book about San Francisco, five years of on-line articles about dating, politics, and romance. Maybe I could get that clever iPhone app, and just bump a document over to them and get on with relaxing, eating, socializing, and flirting. I could go paperless and relax my vocal chords. But it wouldn’t deflate the enormity of the question or the issue at hand.
It makes me think—and it should— why haven’t I focused more on publishing? What am I avoiding? And in doing so, what gifts, ideas, dreams, lessons, hopes, am I denying those who might read my published work? Don’t I owe those potential readers something? Isn’t it my duty to them and to myself?
I invite you to ask yourself the same questions.