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Eye on the prize

Save your precious time and attention for what really matters: Your writing.

An illustrated brain with eyeglasses floats blissfully in a state of meditation
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As a writer, I find that focusing on publishing, rather than on the writing process, is a big mistake. I know, that’s easy for me to say now that I’ve published a couple of books and my work has appeared in some cool places, but I swear to you, I have felt this way for a long time. The irony is that, if you focus more on the writing, you’re more likely to get published anyway. 

I well remember years ago when I got the news that the Science section of the New York Times was going to publish an essay of mine. I had my annual physical that day, and for the first time in my life, my blood pressure was high. That’s how excited I was. There were months of build-up before publication. All the while, I nervously awaited the moment when my life would change, when I would feel legitimized and could enter the world of the established writer. The day the piece came out, I was up at 5 a.m. checking the internet to see if it was online. It was! People had shared it, blogged about it already. I got emails and letters that I answered. I went to the deli to get a print copy, and when I got home, I cut out the article and had it laminated.  

And then, of course, nothing happened. The news cycle moved on. I still had to submit my stories to journals that mostly took a lot of time to tell me the piece wasn’t right for them. In other words, nothing had changed, except for the fact that I hadn’t done much writing in weeks, and now I was exhausted and slightly depressed. I hadn’t arrived after all. Over the years, I’ve lost a lot of writing time and focus in this manner – by being too excited about a publication that would change everything and didn’t. 

I got caught in the same fruitless cycle around writing awards. I won a couple of them, and, yes, it was lovely. The money wasn’t life-changing, but it was affirming. In a few cases, I was asked to fly somewhere to receive the award in person. This was also nice, if disruptive. Travel is time-consuming, and I was not rich. In fact, I was broke during those years, so missing work to accept an award, while exciting, was stressful, too. I couldn’t afford to take time off work, but they wouldn’t give me the award unless I was there in person to receive it. Once, it took several months before I got reimbursed for the $225 airfare. It was humiliating to reach out to the people who had given me the award to say, “I hate to bother you, but I was wondering if you’ve sent the money for my airfare yet.” Ugh.  

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More than the financial outlay for the award was that, once again, I thought winning an award would change something fundamental for me, would make me accepted into the writing world, that listing one award or another on cover letters would get me an agent or a book deal. And, again, I expended a lot of time and energy on that – time and energy I now see I should have tried to keep for the writing itself. Why? Well, I now believe that getting an agent was mostly because I finally had a well-written book, and writing that book took a lot of time. No accolade would have helped me write a good book any sooner. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Recently, my second book launched (a memoir from Algonquin called Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life). At 57, I’m still pretty new to publishing, but I knew enough this time to guard my energy as best as I could. I did all of the online events, interviews, and blogs that were offered to me, and I read all of the reviews all the way from Goodreads readers to those from Kirkus and the New York Times. This time, however, I had decided to be more lighthearted about all of it. When I had friends over a few days after the book launched, we sat out by the fireplace and ate pizza and drank wine, and we didn’t talk about me or the book at all. It was heaven. 

I want to be a working writer for the rest of my life. So managing my energy for the long game rather than the sprint seems essential. There is no magical writing world to belong to, anyway. There is no one moment that makes you a writer, and there is no judge and jury who decide you get to call yourself that. I think back to third grade, when I sat in the back of Mrs. Gloger’s classroom writing a play. I was a writer then, but it took me many decades to realize I didn’t need to wait for someone to bestow that honor upon me. 

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The joy I get from writing, it turns out, is not from awards or publication, although those are thrilling, wonderful, magical things. No, the joy I get is from the writing itself, the sitting down and figuring out the right word to use, bringing characters into the world who become friends of mine, and the discovery, after many drafts, of exactly what it is that I want to say. Publishing, awards, publicity, those are all part of the job, in the same way that doing the dishes is part of making a great meal.  

Now I do my best to save my energy for the writing process itself, for the quiet confusing hours up in the attic where I write draft after draft after draft trying to make each line sing. Whether or not people agree with me about the beauty or resonance of a line is out of my control. So are reviews, and sales figures, and whether or not I will be given an award for something. So, I focus on what I can control, which turns out are the words that make the sentences. I focus on the writing and do my best to forget the rest as much as I’m able. 

 

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—N. West Moss’ memoir, Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life, is out now from Algonquin. Her short story collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, was published by Leapfrog, and she has a middle grade novel called Birdy forthcoming from Little, Brown. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.

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