Dispatches | March 06, 2015

Today’s blog post is by writer Q. Lindsey Barrett

The thing floating about the interwebs from a former writing teacher . . . ? Yeah, he makes a few valid points. Well I am a writing teacher and I say ignore him. This is what I have told my students about what they will need to do to sustain themselves as a writers in a world where this kind of virtual slap has become commonplace—You will need to create your own community of writers.

Here is the reality of the writing life:

The only thing that matters is the writing.

No reader buys a book or journal in order to tell the writer what they thought of the work. No one joins a critique group solely to offer feedback. Though many (many!) people write to create a record of their childhood trauma, not a single book buyer enters a bookstore (online or bricks-and-mortar) with the goal of finding a record of trauma in order to sympathize with the writer. If you want your writing to be read, your job as a writer, whether CNF or fiction, is to transcend your own life experience. Your life, ideas, skills, creativity are only vehicles for transporting the reader. Except for your mom, no one cares about the writer without first being moved by the writing.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

If you write for validation, for feedback, for grades, to get noticed, to be understood, or sadly, even to make a living, I urge you to seek another profession. When you send stories to journals, months, and sometimes years, will go by while you wait for a response, while you pray for at least feedback. You will not receive feedback; you may never get so much as a ‘no.’ That’s right, far too many journals never bother responding at all. Most agent queries are ignored. Publishers send their lowliest unpaid interns into the slush (unsolicited manuscripts) on the off chance one of them unearths a gem. Your chances of being struck by lightning are several times greater than the chances of getting a book contract. For every one of the tens of thousands of books published each year, the tiniest fraction earn the writer enough money to sustain her or him through the writing of the next one.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

To be a writer you must write because you want to. You must write because you need to. You cannot allow the lack of validation or praise or pay stop you. You must write because you are certain you have something worthwhile to say. You must constantly (constantly!) seek to improve your skills, because there isn’t a writer in the world who couldn’t write at least a little bit better. So get better. Find a better teacher if yours hasn’t the talent or motivation to teach you. I can say unequivocally I am a better writer as a result of my MFA program. Was it vocational education? No. Skill, desire, persistence, and determination are the only aspects of the writing life that are in your control. You write alone, you publish alone, and your reader will read what you wrote alone, without you ever knowing if your work touched, or amused, or frightened, or entertained them. You no doubt have noticed that the haters are many times more likely to publicly announce their hatred than the lovers are likely to announce they loved something.

The only thing that matters is the writing.

The value of a writing community of your own making cannot be overstated. Your family may love your work, but the world won’t care. Your family may be avid readers, educated and articulate, and still won’t have the objectivity to offer valuable feedback. Profit margins in the book biz are now so slim that editors no longer edit—they are all either ‘acquisition editors’ or ‘line editors’ (proofreaders). Writers are expected to get feedback from their peers (writers at about the same stage of development) on their own in order to get a manuscript ready for publication. Many traditional publishers (not self-publishing) expect the writer to pay to have their manuscript professionally edited before submitting it. (Of course, when self-publishing the writer must do, or pay for, all steps in the publishing process.) Agents do not take the time to say why they aren’t accepting your work or wanting to represent you—they either say ‘no’ or don’t respond to your query at all. Yes, there are exceptions, but the exceptions are more rare than you can possibly imagine. Someone once said that dancers are the only profession that requires more training, more years of toil, more ongoing effort for the smallest reward than writers. So why do they do it? Because they love to dance; they must dance. Do they love the endless practice, the lifelong classes, the blisters and bruises and broken bodies? I doubt it. They love the dancing.

The process of bleeding your soul onto a page isn’t fun or easy; the pay is miserable; the rejection disheartening. Love the writing. Love creating a world on the page. Love transcending life and transporting a reader you may never know. Love that marvelous community of writers who share your pain and passion and joy and sorrow.

Do I say all this to discourage you? No. I tell you all this because you need to know, you must know:

The only thing that matters is the writing.

You all have within you the seeds of a writing life, you all have potential—each of you who have chosen to read this. To be a writer you must commit to tilling and hoeing and watering and weeding before you’ll have a bountiful harvest of stories that the world wants to read, whether within or without an MFA program. You must create a community of like-minded writers. You must believe that, to you, the only thing that matters is the writing.

Thanks for reading ~

~ Q Lindsey Barrett

Q Lindsey BQ Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain and taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic. Visit her online at qlindseybarrett.com.