“In the history of literature there are many great enduring works which were not published in the lifetimes of the authors.  If the authors had not achieved self-affirmation while writing, how could they have continued to write?”  Gao Xingjian

All right, to be honest, I haven’t a clue who Gao Xingjian is, but I ran across this quote and immediately had an ‘ah-ha’ moment.  I’ve been writing for years, and only recently got brave enough, or stupid enough, or driven enough, (fill in your own adjectives here) to start sending manuscripts out to publishers.  Let me clarify that I’m talking about publishing novels.  Nonfiction articles are an entirely different thing – I write them solely and exclusively for the sake of publication, preferably with some sort of financial incentive attached.   But with novel length fiction, I think we are on different territory altogether. 

Writers put a lot of emphasis on publication.  Most of the writerly blogs that I read are heavily focused on either how to get published, angst about not getting published, or the determination and the plan for succeeding where others have failed.  Writer’s magazines, such as Writer’s Digest, focus heavily on publication as well.   Slushpiles of editors and publishers are overflowing with manuscripts from ever hopeful writers.  (For a darkly humorous take on this situation go here: http://101reasonstostopwriting.com/breaking-news/

And yet, I think the lure of publication can be dangerous – a sort of siren song that causes otherwise level headed people to leap from the safety of the ship into waters infested by shrieking eels.  The thought processes of the truly obsessed can go like this:

If nobody will publish my book, it means I am a bad writer.  If I am a bad writer, and my whole identity revolves around writing, then it follows that I am a bad person.  If I am a bad person, then my life is pointless, and there is nothing to look forward to but the endless drudgery of a day job and eventual painful death.

Once a writer falls into this thought pattern, I see only three possible ways to get out of it:

1: Accept the reality that you can’t write and that nobody will ever read your work.  Take a lot of Prozac or begin drinking heavily, and stop writing.  When you are old, make bitter, disillusioned comments to your children and grandchildren, about how there’s no point in going after dreams.  Become an editor.  (Okay, that was mean and uncalled for.  As Larry the Cable Guy would say, “forgive me for that, there, Lord”)

2. Do whatever it takes to get published.  Sell your soul.  Study the market and write whatever you think might sell, even though it’s not your favorite type of writing, and maybe not even something you’d ever want to read.  Make up stuff and write a memoir.  Take lots of Prozac and begin drinking heavily. 

3. Admit that while publication might be affirming, it isn’t everything.  Remind yourself of that book you read by a New York Times bestselling author that was so horribly written you cringed on every page, and only read it because you were fascinated by the sheer horror of realizing this person was not only published but popular.  Simultaneously remind yourself of all of the truly great works of art, literature, and music that went unnoticed during the lifetime of their creator.  Acknowledge the reality that publication is not a measure of the worth of the book.  It is not an affirmation of how good your writing is.  It is not a reliable yardstick by which to measure your success or failure as either an author or a human being.

I’m sure by now somebody will be asking “If that’s what you believe, why bother running the agent and publisher gauntlet at all?”

Well, I can think of a lot of reasons.

1.  You owe it to the story.  When you write a novel, you create something.  Those characters, that plot line, those polished words that you spent so many long hours choosing and setting down – they have a life of their own now, and they deserve better than a dusty old drawer.  I think of the fictional characters that live in my memory, some of them more alive and more influential to my life than any flesh and blood person that I know.  Jo, of Little Women; Anne, of the Green Gables and the despised red hair; Oliver Twist; the whole family of Peppers – these characters live and breathe for me, and so do those I’ve created myself.  They deserve at least an opportunity to make their way into the hearts and minds of sympathetic readers.

2.  Most of us need some sort of incentive to do our best work, whether it’s a deadline or simply the idea that somebody else might read what we’ve written.  The idea of publication pushes us past “good enough” to “polished and as good as I can possibly make it.”

3. Hey, somebody always wins the lottery, right?  I might write something that makes it into publication and appeals to the popular sentiment.  I might get rich and famous.  Anything is possible.

4.  Finally, one of the fragments of poetry branded indelibly in my brain is this one, from a Sonnet by John Milton: “And that one talent which is death to hide/lodged with me useless…”   Milton was writing about his blindness, of course, which is sort of a slap upside the head for me, whining about the difficulty of balancing my writing with the rest of my life.  But there is something in this line of poetry that strikes another chord for me – my sense that I write because that is what I am meant to be doing.  I write because writing is life affirming in a culture focused on trauma and chaos and disaster; maybe publication is another aspect of that.  Burying a manuscript in a dark and dusty drawer is essentially equivalent to the action of the steward in the parable who so angered his master by burying his talent in the earth.

Going back to the quote that started this whole entry – publication is important, don’t get me wrong.  But it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the only benchmark by which we measure the value of our work.  Published or unpublished, we must carry on.  There are other books to be written, other stories to be told, and if our “self affirmation” is tied up with the vagaries of publication, we are, indeed, thoroughly and absolutely screwed.