If you have tears, prepare to shed them now, because I'm going to tell a tragic tale. (A bit of a long one, too, so go get a cup of tea and make yourself comfortable…) I always wanted to be a writer. Pretty much as long as I can remember that's what I wanted to be when I grew up: a fiction writer. No ballerinas, no doctors, no airplane pilots, no movie stars could entice me like the dream of writing the sorts of books I loved to read. And write I did. I participated in a Young Authors' Conference with special guest Stephen Kellogg in elementary school, I won prizes in poetry contests in middle school, I took creative writing classes in high school and college, and I wrote wrote wrote: short stories, poetry, satires, humor, and finally, after graduation from college, full length novels. I submitted stuff, too, and got an article and a few poems published in small magazines, but what I mostly got was the requisite heap of rejection letters.
So I did more research. Where could I submit now? What was the next step? That's when I began to come to the realization that publication was not about writing a really good book and sending it to a publisher. The more I learned about the publishing process the more I came to believe that my chances of even getting noticed, let alone actually published, were practically nil - and moreover, what slim chance there was had little or nothing to do with the actual quality of my writing. Oh yes, I'd heard about all the great and now-famous books that got rejected by the first twenty-five publishers. I'd heard about the authors who persevered because they believed in themselves despite all the rejections, and knew that their books were genius that someone someday would properly appreciate. There was just one problem with these stories: I didn't think that I or my books were works of genius to rival the classics. I thought my books were pretty good, I knew they were a heck of a lot better than a lot of things I've read that did get published, but… genius to compare with the greatest authors of the ages? No, I'm not that conceited.
There I was, certain that I would never be able to get a book published, and it suddenly occurred to me… what was the point of writing? Writing is about telling stories, about sharing ideas, about making connections, but how can you tell a story when nobody's listening? I realized that there was no joy in writing what no one would ever read. It was too pathetic, like talking on the telephone even after you know the other person has hung up. I stopped writing. I stayed busy with my teaching and art, and then I had twin babies that didn't leave me much time for anything else anyway…
Are you crying now? Tragic, isn't it. But don't worry. I love happy endings, so this tale will not remain an unrelieved tragedy. Fast forward maybe five or eight years and three things had happened. The first is that my art career had begun to feel really satisfying. I knew my art was never going to get acclaimed as the next hot thing in glossy magazines; I knew fancy New York City galleries were not going to be clamoring to represent me; but something small but very significant was occurring. When I displayed my art, when people got a chance to see it, they liked it. Many of them liked my block prints enough to put down money and buy them. It didn't matter that I wasn't going to be critically acclaimed, because I could skip the critics and galleries and the art establishment and share my art directly with people, and that brought a lot of joy both to them and to me.
The second thing that was happening is that I was really missing writing. Writing had been one of the things that had given me the most pleasure, it had been one of the most important parts of my life, and I wanted it back. I finally made a resolution that I would forget about publishing, and try to forget that no one would ever read what I wrote, and I would try to enjoy it just for myself. Slowly, laboriously, because I was woefully rusty, I started to get back to work on old unfinished projects.
And then I discovered the third piece of the puzzle: self-publishing technology had come a long way since Beatrix Potter and James Joyce self-published. I put all the profit from my art sales into publishing a book of nursery rhymes illustrated with my block prints, and I brought it to my art shows to sell. No agent, no publisher, no bookstore, but when I could show the book to people and they could look at it, they liked it. And many of them handed over money and bought it. A few years after that and the technology of print-on-demand had come even farther, and lulu and createspace had appeared on the scene. I thought, "Why shouldn't there be a place for my books in the same way I discovered that there was a place for my art? I may never get an agent or a publisher, but if I could just show my books to people and give them a chance to read, they just might like them." And that's what I've tried to do.
There are drawbacks to this method, of course. I've never received that "seal of approval" that a publishing contract provides. No one in the industry considers me a real author, and I can't be a member of the professional writers' organizations. I've not had the benefit of a good professional editor to help me polish my books further (although this could be a blessing as well as a curse, considering the horror stories I've heard of editors who've told friends and friends of friends, "We love this book… now we just need you to change the set-up, the ending, the main character, and your entire point!") I'm not on the approved purchase lists of many libraries, nor am I eligible to get reviews by the respected reviewers. Convincing people to give my books a try is not easy, and there's no one to do it but me (and if being a writer was the one thing I always most wanted to do, then sales and marketing is pretty much the one thing I've always least wanted to do. I was a truly abysmal Girl Scout come cookie time each year.) Everyone knows that there are a lot of really awful books that are self-published, so I don't blame anyone for being a little wary of mine (although I would ask you to remember how many really awful books are published by large conventional publishers, too!) I'm still trying to figure out how to make this work, but…
But when people read my books, they like them. Not everyone, of course, but many of them. And many of them like my books enough to put down money and buy them, and give them as gifts to their nieces and nephews and children and grandchildren and friends… or just enjoy them themselves. So I'm a writer again, telling my stories, connecting with people. It's true that there aren't huge numbers of people reading my books, but no matter how few there are, as long as there's someone listening it's always worth it to share a story. So while I still have the occasional fantasy of being "discovered" by some wonderful agent or publisher and getting my work distributed more widely, I'm just really grateful that self-publishing has made it possible for me to write again, and to share my writing with others, just as I share my art.
[Pictures: Six Masks, rubber block prints by AEGN, 1999:
Joy, Rage, Misery, Excitement, Jealousy, Love.]
Joy, Rage, Misery, Excitement, Jealousy, Love.]