I’ve been asked by Michael Martone to talk a bit to his publishing class about being a writer, living the life of a writer, and how both submitting my work for publication and publishing the work of others plays into it all. I can say that they’ve always been twinned for me, that around the time I started thinking about writing for real I also started thinking about starting a magazine, which I did in 2002 in Pittsburgh and promptly published my first online essay. It wasn’t all we published, we being I and my friend and fellow alt-weekly contributor Jenn, but it was there.
I suppose it begins earlier, with the alt-weekly internship I got the same semester I took an intro to journalism class. While learning what AP style was and how to write a good lede and how to structure stories in inverted-pyramid form, I also was sent out into the city to write about events, or more specifically to call people on the phone about events that were going to take place. I wrote what’s called previews. I showed up in the office, I was given a task, I wrote it, it got in the paper the following week.
To be a journalist is to have a weird relationship with publication. Which is to say it’s weird to us, us creative writers. To the journalist this writing-on-one’s-own with the dream of possible publication (and the lie of permanence) is what’s weird. Journalists don’t write without the promise of publication. Journalists are given an assignment. I became an art critic at the age of 20, writing two or three reviews of shows every week (which looking back seems incredible, that I once lived in a city with so much going on), and whatever it was that I had to say about art, whatever theory or ideas I had, I had to work out in the writing of it. There wasn’t enough time to do otherwise. Openings were on Friday nights and my reviews were due Sunday. All I could do was show up, not drink too much free wine, ask some general questions about the artist, take as many notes as I could (I didn’t have a digital camera back then with which to review the work, and even getting JPGs sent to me was a tricky business…this was 1999), and write something intelligible and interesting.
What I mean, I guess, is this: writing—which is to say language, which is to say technique—meant so much less to me back then than it does now. But I wrote more. I wrote more and I worried about writing a lot less. Now I worry about writing, and I worry about spending so much of my time writing things that no one will ever pay to see, or even want to publish in a journal and pay me through contributor’s copies.
But I like this writing better, I think. I may not like being a writer, or like the process of writing—such luxury to be 20 and have a whole city reading your silly self-indulgence!—better, but what I do now feels smarter, maybe. I don’t know. I’m trying to come up with an explanation for why I publish writing by other people, what my belief system therein might entail.
I guess it’s always been to right certain perceived wrongs. In Pittsburgh, nobody was publishing the kinds of nonfiction I was increasingly writing, which is to say “creative” which is to say more essays and fewer articles, more pieces centered on myself and certain ideas I wanted to work through. Which is to say fiction, which I started writing after I got out of college. And I figured and eventually found out that other people were writing this kind of stuff on the side, too. So The New Yinzer was meant to be this magazine, and because we couldn’t secure any funding to print something, because we knew nothing about selling advertising space, we went online. It was meant to be a temporary measure, but then it became permanent.
It’s an online journal now, run by people I don’t know. You should submit work to them.
When I left Pittsburgh to go to grad school, I had this feeling that I wouldn’t last long in Lincoln, Nebraska, without wanting to start some other kind of publication. But I was tired of trying to lure readers to the magazine. I was tired of marketing and promotions, so I started thinking about an anonymous pamphlet. I wanted to force writing into people’s hands, and let them decide whether to read it or not, much less like it. I don’t know where the name The Cupboard came from, but I imagine I liked the oldness of it, and the domestic image. Something quiet and unassuming. The idea of anonymity was important, like old 17th-century political pamphlets, or those Jesus tracts you get handed to you in larger cities. I liked the idea of the collective. I wanted it to get to the point where people just picked up The Cupboard and hoped to read it and publish in it just to be a part of it.
The first incarnation of The Cupboard taught me and my co-editor Adam something very important. If people won’t publish for money (because we had nothing to pay them), they publish for fame. Take away any credits or bylines and it became very, very hard for us to get submissions. We got a few. We published in 18 issues maybe six people we’d never met before, but mostly we published ourselves and our friends. And then we got very tired and stopped doing it all together. There wasn’t a point.
I always felt a tension, though, with The Cupboard between its distribution (almost exclusively in Lincoln, people were able to print and assemble PDFs of the pamphlet, but this required such a Byzantine set of instructions for printing, folding, cutting, and stapling that I don’t think anyone ever tried) and its focus. It was a local pamphlet little interested in Lincoln. Maybe a more local focus would have grabbed people’s attentions and kept them. But local foci require journalism of the sort that it’s hard to do without payment. Fieldwork. Legwork. All that.
At any rate, Adam is the one who pushed me into helping him resurrect The Cupboard after several months of dormancy. He started thinking of a journal, something that’d attract writers by putting their name on the cover. And only their name. Our gimmick, to make ourselves relevant in an ever-increasing world of journals, was to devote each issue to a single author. In essence, we became a chapbook press, and because we don’t read poetry very much, we became (one of?) the first prose chapbook press, or at least the first one we’d ever heard of.
So that was always the idea: provide some service. Fill a niche otherwise empty out there. I think in very small ways The Cupboard has been able to reshape both the short story—what happens to this form when it is forced to stand alone, forced to suggest a cover design?—and the story collection—what does a collection look like when you’ve got fewer than 8,000 words to work with?
When it comes to my own work, and my publication process, I guess I think of it very separately. The work I write that is shorter—which is to say the work I write for potential publication in journals—is much, much different from the longer work I write—which is to say the taxidermy book and the novel I’m writing this month. I’m not proud of this. I regard it as a problem. But it comes down to audience. The first reader for a piece I submit to a journal will almost undoubtedly be a graduate student in creative writing. It’s my job, then, to please this mysterious person, or at least to stick out enough that she opts to continue my story up the path to final decider, rather than toss it on the form-reject pile.
So one comes up with certain strategies of content and form to help this happen. Though it is always, always a numbers game. A crapshoot. Publication so much involves just good timing you have no control over. Which is to say luck.
With longer stuff, though, my first reader is my agent, who I’m still getting to know, who’s read only one book of mine (and really only one book proposal). So I need to make it seem “publishable” or even “salable”—whatever these terms mean. I don’t know that I’m cognizant of what’s going on in the back of my head as I write each kind of piece. I think I pay more attention to form and language as I write short stuff and less attention as I write longer stuff. Because paying attention to form and language is a surefire way to retard if not completely halt any production. I fret it’s not good enough, artful enough. These are concerns vestigial to the time in my life when I first started writing fiction and not journalism. Because journalism was relatively easy for me I imagined fiction had to be hard. Because I couldn’t make anything up in journalism I thought in fiction I had to make everything up. I thought—I still think—that short fiction must have the linguistic density of contemporary poetry for it to be of any real value. And I think it makes my fiction often somewhat belabored, maybe. I think it also betrays my inability to come up with engaging plots. In the absence of good content I can always try to make good form.
I’m not sure. All I know is that I have a very hard time getting my stories picked up, but the one essay I ever published, excerpted from the taxidermy book, has won several awards. If I want a profession as a writer it makes sense which direction I should head, what kind of writing I should do and what sorts of publication opportunities I may expect. NF outsells F pretty much everywhere.
But I think because it’s where I began as a reader, fiction seems realer to me, and better, and more sincere. It may have to do with its lasting quality—again, journalism teaches that few stories stick around forever—or it may have to do with something else.
What would happen to my fiction if I wrote it for my agent? And what would happen to my nonfiction if I wrote it for journals? Maybe if I try this I can get to some normalizing spot, where whatever writing I do in whatever genre is just written—end publisher be damned.
POSTSCRIPT: Oh right and there’s blogs. I write for my blog. It’s a kind of publication. Maybe all I’ll say about that is this:
- Throughout the writing of these notes I’ve been trying to decide whether to post them on my blog, as a way to throw some content up there as it’s been a few days and this is about writing and thinking, which I like to throw up there when I throw stuff up there.
- I got more of a response from a post I wrote on National Coming Out Day than I did for anything I’ve ever written or published before. Yes, that response came from friends of mine, but it’s better than the void.
Now to go post this….