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My husband is an artist, and I am a freelance writer, and there’s a lot of chatter in our house about our careers. What do we need to get done that day or that week? Where would we like to be by next year, or five years from now? Occasionally we talk about other artists and writers we know, some of whom are having great success, and some of whom should be but aren’t. Over time, we’ve started to see some patterns in how we and others think about and approach creative work, and we realized there are some common myths that, if not challenged, can impede or completely derail a career. Read on to discover five myths about publishing you shouldn’t subscribe to – and two fundamental truths you should.
Myth #1: You must re-invent the wheel.
This is the belief that you must take your writing and use it as a sling blade to hack a wholly original path through the deep woods of publication. This hacking must be terribly difficult, take a great deal of time, and leave you with many scars. You secretly believe that this is just “how it’s done” and that if you do not suffer for your art in this way, your work will never be considered truly original. This is a myth invented by people who devoted years of their life to hacking through the deep woods of publishing, and who, because they don’t want to feel they wasted their time, convince themselves it was necessary. Don’t be one of those people.
There is another, saner way to realize your goal of publishing. Here’s how: First, talk to writers you respect who are doing what you want to be doing. Want to get into literary journals? Work for a newspaper? Find an agent or a publisher for a book? Ask what concrete steps they took. What was the very first thing they did? The second? How did they know to do those things? What obstacles did they have to overcome, and how did they overcome them? What advice would they give you about what you need to do, based on where you are right now? Ask if you can ask them for advice further down the road. Ask if they will be your mentor. If they won’t, find another writer who’s doing what you want to be doing, and ask them to be your mentor. I can’t stress strongly enough the importance of having a guide. I worked with a mentor the entire time I was writing my book, and I have a professional freelancer I rely on for advice about placing nonfiction articles. No hacking through deep woods. Do not hack.
Myth #2: Discovery happens.
This is the belief that the “truly talented” get “discovered.” This belief allows those with magical thinking to feel they do not need to market themselves, create a platform, or, in some cases, even put their writing out there, because the world is a hound dog that seeks out and drags the truly worthy toward success and accolades. If this is you, well, good luck with that.
Myth #3: Feedback will lead your writing astray, so it’s best to keep it under wraps.
This is the belief that if you show your work to others, you risk opening yourself up to feedback that could take you down a wrong road. And, OK, actually, this is true. It’s also true that leaving the house could get you mowed down by a car. The answer is not to become housebound. The answer is to be careful. Maybe don’t show your essay about sex positions you’ve enjoyed in restaurant bathrooms to Grandma. Instead, show it to those you think can give you thoughtful, considered, impartial, constructive feedback.
Of course, you could still be led astray. Remember the Danish proverb, “He who builds according to every man’s advice will have a crooked house.” You must know how to listen and what to filter out. Because the fact is, if you are to grow as a writer, your writing must be exposed to the light, and you must carefully consider what your chosen critics have to say about it. Not showing your work is like getting dressed in the morning and never looking in the mirror because you already know what you look like. I once began an essay with a gorgeous line about the sun rising in the western sky. Thank God I showed the piece to trusty readers who had an understanding of our solar system.
Myth #4: Writing happens in its own good time.
This is an excuse for not writing, couched as healthy detachment. While it sounds all Zen-like, and it is true that rest and reflection are important to a writing life, it’s also true that writing is a muscle you must flex regularly or it will atrophy. Find a way to rope in the finicky muse on a regular basis. More importantly, put away your notions of a muse and just do your work. Author and writing consultant Dan Blank made himself write every day for a year, whether he felt like it or not (and he often did not). By the end of that year, he realized the book he was working on was actually two books. Poet William Stafford said the only way to keep writing when the ideas don’t seem good enough is to “lower your standards and keep going.” So don’t put off writing for when you feel like writing.
Unless your goal is to not write, in which case this is an excellent strategy.
Myth #5: Only brilliant or famous people get published.
This goes in the pot labeled “Why Even Try?” For a long time, I believed the publishing game was rigged. I think many writers feel this way. The fact is, not only is the game not rigged, it’s not even a game. Publishing is a business. There are rules, and while they may be maddening at times, they are not a secret. Many non-celebrities and people of average intelligence have made it their business to learn those rules and are now published. Case in point: I am not a celebrity (ever heard of me?), nor am I brilliant (see Myth # 3, sun reference).
Truth #1: Rejection is about them, not you.
If you submit much, at some point you’ve gotten a rejection that said your piece was not quite right for a particular publication. I have gotten many of these, and here’s how I used to read those letters: “We hate you. We hate you so much. We can’t believe you had the gall to submit to us. We’d have responded to your submission sooner, but we were too busy laughing our heads off.” Then I became the editor of a small Jewish newspaper, and I started to receive queries and completed articles that were way outside the purview of what we publish, necessitating that I reject them. At no point did I hate the person who submitted the inappropriate piece, nor did I spend any time laughing my head off, because I am not 9.
Truth #2: Rejection is about you, not them
What? Why, this is just like Truth #1, only with a scary twist! Face it: Sometimes you submit a piece too soon. Maybe you haven’t quite nailed the narrative voice. Maybe your tenses are off. Maybe your query is too long or too short or boring or on pink paper (please tell me it wasn’t on pink paper). Remember, these rejections are only about that particular piece of writing you submitted; they are not a referendum on the whole of your portfolio. So how do you know whether the rejection is about them or you?
Remember your trusty readers? Remember the mentor(s) you brought on board to guide you? Use them! Even if you determine the rejection is, in fact, about you and not them, I’m pretty sure that whoever rejected you still does not hate you. If they do, be glad you’re not having any business dealings with them because that’s just weird.
There are other myths and truths about publishing, to be sure, but these are the ones I cycle through regularly. What are yours? Keep this list in your desk and jot down your own as you discover them. Before long, you’ll be adept at recognizing – and hopefully dispensing with – patterns of thought that stall or derail you. Happy writing!
—Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, The Sun, Fourth Genre, and other literary magazines. She is a columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the author of a memoir, The Body Tourist.