Publishing, and the other 85%

by | Jul 23, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

Is publishing your work the dream? The book deal? The New Yorker or The Paris Review?

I hope not.

Writing is the dream. The dream is in the doing. Publishing is more like waking up to the hard reality. And I do mean getting published–not trying to publish and getting rejected. That’s still the dream–and it’s not even the nightmare. The nightmare is giving up, giving in, losing faith, believing the inner voice that says you don’t have anything new to say or that there’s no audience for your work.

There’s a beautiful letter circulating on Facebook written by the dancer Rudolf Nureyev when he was dying of AIDS. In it, he draws a sharp distinction between himself and a ballerina who, he says, “danced for all the auditions, for the end of the course show, for the teachers watching her, to pay tribute to her beauty.” As for himself, he writes, 

I would never have been a dancer, I couldn’t afford this dream, but I was there, with my shoes worn on my feet, with my body opening to music, with the breath making me above the clouds. It was the sense I gave to my being, it was standing there and making my muscles words and poetry, it was the wind in my arms, it was the other guys like me that were there and maybe wouldn’t be dancers, but we swapped the sweat, silences, barely.

For thirteen years I studied and worked, no auditions, nothing, because I needed my arms to work in the fields. But I didn’t care: I learned to dance and dance because it was impossible for me not to do it, it was impossible for me to think I was elsewhere, not to feel the earth transforming under my feet plants, impossible not to get lost in music, impossible not not to get lost in music using my eyes to look in the mirror, to try new steps.

Everyday I woke up thinking about the moment I would put my feet inside my slippers and do everything by tasting that moment. And when I was there, with the smell of camphor, wood, tights, I was an eagle on the rooftop of the world, I was the poet among poets, I was everywhere and I was everything.

The other ballerina prepared for a contest for two years, and when she lost, she quit dancing forever. Because for her, the dream was winning, not dancing. 

The reality is that there IS an audience for your work. Publishing one way or another is the way to find that audience, and it’s quite separate from the art itself, from the beauty of your language or the power of your message or the thrill of your story. 

Publishing is an administrative task more than anything, or a social task. Hitting send a thousand times, or meeting an editor who thinks you are great and asks you to submit work to them. 

So don’t pursue getting published with single-minded purpose. Pursue it with, at most, 15% purpose. That’s about the cut an agent takes because that’s about as much of the work the agent does–which is to help get the work published. The other 85% is the art. The dream. 


This is going to sound paradoxical, given everything I just said, but here goes: 

Take some time to indulge your wildest publishing fantasies (not dreams! It’s different.). Try this:

  1. Write your bio from the future. Include the titles of your future books and which presses published them. Include all the magazines and journals that will have published your work. You can even sneak in some other fantastical elements: “Amy lives on a tiny Scottish island with her husband, two kids, four dappled grey Thoroughbreds, and a team of Russian wolfhounds.”
  2. Write a blurb for one of your future books in the voice of your favorite living writer or your ideal reader. Be outlandish in who you choose to blurb your book. Oprah? Stephen King? Joan Didion?
  3. Plan your book party. Who’s on the guest list? Will there be caviar?

Is the point of all this to get it out of your system and then get to work? Maybe, maybe not. What I want is for you to pay attention to your emotions as you indulge these fantasies. Really pay attention. 

It’s natural to fantasize about publication. We all want approval, external affirmation, praise, extrinsic reward. I mean, sure, I could certainly use a big advance for my novel! But I have to ask myself: Would I rather get a big advance for a novel that I wrote with an eye toward what mainstream audiences want, what would sell and garner a movie deal and foreign rights, OR would I rather publish with a small press a book that is a little weird and a little wild, that I wrote because it was impossible for me not to write it?

Maybe 15% of me still wants the big book deal (and all of me wants the horses in the Hebrides). That’s okay. That’s real. I’m not going to reject that part of me. I’m not a purist in that sense. But the other 85% of me would rather be lost in the dream, writing what’s true to me.

Rudolf Nureyev wrote that he made his muscles words and poetry. As writers, we do the opposite: we make our words muscles and bones. That’s the dream.