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But…if we find it, we transcend.
Hello to new and ongoing subscribers. And salutations to premium members, too. Welcome to Sitting in Silence, the newsletter on writing, creativity, joy, and worry.
I write from the biggest writer’s conference in the nation: AWP. This year it’s in Philadelphia, and this is the first in-person AWP since the advent of that old world-changer, COVID-19. I have a soft spot for the conference. A friend and mentor, Jamey Hatley, convinced me to attend for the first time in 2011. One day, perhaps I’ll do a post about that situation, which, for me, was like a literary cross between The Wizard of Oz and The Hangover. Earlier this month, we also had a nifty new writer’s conference, the First Annual New Orleans Book Festival, in my hometown. This conference was an early coronavirus casualty, postponed two years running. It was worth the wait. The range of writers showcased was breathtaking from native daughter and National Book Award winner Sarah M. Broom to Malcolm Gladwell to my patron, John Grisham. Each of those writers have had journeys that required resilience and persistence. So, let’s chat about that, shall we?
I have all these memories of supportive adults telling me that I could write when I was very young. Ms. Rue in middle school chose my summer theme to be read aloud in front of the class. Ms. Jeff asked me to write a reflection on Thanksgiving for an assembly at McDonogh #35 College Preparatory High School. In college, Professor Shenk had enough belief to assign me to a sweet paid writing internship with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But these were all directed assignments. My teachers and bosses told me what to do, and I cranked the words out. It was a different story when, later, when I was on my own. It was a different story, later, I decided to write something solely for myself.
I had grand dreams for writing in my future, to write something that would somehow make the world a better place. Not that I had any idea what that meant, let alone how I might get started.
So much of writing is paying fealty to the muses. I haven’t yet met a writer who didn’t have to do what from the outside looked like wasting time or spinning in circles before they found their way. I wasted years. Somewhere around 2003, I decided to start Writing [capital W] in earnest. I was finishing up law school at the time, preparing for the Bar exam, when I found myself scribbling plots for stories. I was so distracted; I barely took notes from the prep instructor’s lesson. It’s a miracle I wound up passing the Bar on the first go.
I bought craft books. I also returned to reading novels and short story collections, which I hadn’t quite had time to do while studying cases about eminent domain and habeas corpus. Few things feel better to a writer than reading well.
All that reading inspired me to try my hand at writing my own work. I was on one, as the saying goes, intoxicated by the feeling of disappearing into a page. By 2006, I had written a bunch of short stories, and a novel, all of which I had high hopes for, none of which would be published. That 481-page white elephant of a first novel is literally still in my dresser drawer.
Over the years, I’ve found that many writers have a bunch of unpublished short stories or a memoir or a novel (or three) tucked away in a cabinet or perhaps on the hard drive of the computer they were using four laptops ago. Some of you have cherished writing on floppy disks. Lord, help you.
Why is writing sometimes such a difficult endeavor? There seem to be any number of tasks that people can do well without having to toil. I know people who are twice as fast as me when they run. I ask them how they do it, and they just look at me funny. It’s completely natural to them. Natural as breathing.
Yet, writing is natural to writers, too; most writers have some natural talent. That’s how they know they’re writers. The words come unbidden, and, occasionally, the words are good. Yes, but whereas a fleet-footed person may be able to take sixth place in a state meet on minimal training, it appears that even the most preternaturally talented writer requires some training, some self-awareness, some luck, and
some lots of resilience.
I have a spreadsheet that I used to track my submissions to literary journals. I’ve spoken about this spreadsheet in public many times. I usually would be making a point about persistence and how it is an especially desirable trait for a writer. I often said that I had about 120 unique submissions before I finally had a story accepted. I was lying, apparently.
I pulled up that old Excel spreadsheet for the first time since the Obama administration and saw that between October 2, 2007 and November 13, 2013, I submitted my stories 291 times. I had three acceptances in that span. Two acceptances came about because I met kind editors at conferences who asked to see my work. (Shoutout to kind editors at writing conferences. You do the Lord’s work.)
I stared at the spreadsheet for several minutes. I was confused. Three acceptances and 291 rejections. How did I forget that I toiled for six years with little sign that I was going in the right direction?
Because I knew I was going in the right direction. Looking back at that era of my life, that earlier version of me seems like a zealot. 2011-me, for example, was working at my city’s biggest law firm and going to grad school nights. He wrote at his law office desk or on weekends or during Mardi Gras parades.
Even when my fortunes turned, they didn’t turn that much. My first three published short stories paid me in contributor’s copies, not in cash. My fourth story? I made $10 off that one.
And yet, I was ecstatic. I remain ecstatic to this day. Why?
Because writing is innate to me. I’d do it for free. Technically, I’m doing that on this post (although shoutout to Sitting in Silence paid subscribers—you are cherished).
It takes writers some time to find our footing. If we don’t find it, we become embittered, withered versions of ourselves. But…if we do find it, we transcend.
That’s why it’s so important to continue working even when you start to think that you’re wasting your time. Art has a price. Every artist and writer must sacrifice some aspect of their pride, their comfort, and their time to create. But few people know what it means to create as we writers do. The reward for writing is an edifice that is both of you and so much larger than you. We often say that our work is smarter than we are. That’s because every writer who finds their voice taps into the divine.
Every writer lives a double life. Their writing life and their other life. A writer who doesn’t write is a like featherless bird. Awkward on land. Off-kilter. Helpless.
Not every person needs a close relationship with the unseen corners of existence. But every writer needs proximity to that space. That feeling of wellness you get when you write well is transcendence. You transcend whenever you bring something good into the world.