Why Bother?

Today I gave a presentation to my students about submitting to literary magazines. My students asked for it, and so I tried to keep things light – they’re undergrads, there’s no use emphasizing the sobering parts of the process – but as I was explaining the submission process for fiction journals we got to the issue of simultaneous submissions, and as a lark I asked students how long they thought it would take for a literary magazine to respond to their work.

“A week?”

“Two weeks?”

“A month?”

I laughed (good-naturedly, I hope), and suggested that it was more likely to be three to six months, depending on how overloaded and understaffed the magazine was, with the caveat that every magazine is overloaded, understaffed, and underfunded.

My students are smart. They did the math in their heads, and they frowned. Three rounds of submissions takes a year – so what do you do when you’ve spent a year writing and have nothing to show for it?

You spend another year, I told them, and hope for the best: eventual publication, or an encouraging rejection. I explained the difference between a form rejection and the more personal kind.

Hands went up.

“You mean most of the time editors don’t even respond?”

Not personally, I explained – they just don’t have the time. If you get an encouraging response, I explain, it’s something you definitely want to seize on, to follow up. It means someone noticed you in a pile of submissions, and cared enough to write a reply. It means you should submit more work.

I can see how after a semester in which their professors and classmates were obligated to respond to their work – and, in some cases, actually enjoyed responding – this might seem like cold comfort. Certainly I saw a lot of glum faces.

But perhaps the most sobering thing of all happened when I asked them whether they’ve read any literary magazines. Some of them have; some of them even work for Temple’s litmag, so they know the deal. But the vast majority, despite having written fiction for my class, and having requested a tutorial on the process, didn’t know any.

That’s okay, I said – and I meant it. The fact that they haven’t heard of any litmags doesn’t bother me. I explained that by my estimation litmags are sort of like minor league baseball teams. Most people don’t watch minor league baseball; it’s more of a staging ground, an incubator of talent, a place for people to grow and develop. In the same manner, most people don’t read litmags; they wait until the best people in these magazine publish books, and then they read those.

(I save the real truth about the reading habits of the average American for another day.)

My students made more mental calculations. So you struggle through rejection, knowing that less than one percent of stories get accepted by these magazines, and even if you do get accepted, nobody will read your stories?

That’s when the sobering part began.

Well, not nobody, i pointed out. Editors will read it. Agents read litmags. Maybe one of them will contact you, and then you start up the hill of trying to publish a book, which is even more arduous than trying to publish a story, with a whole different cycle of rejection.

After I finished my presentation, most of my students presented me with a face that read, unmistakably: why bother? Why expose yourself to so much rejection, for so many years, with, at most, only incremental appreciation? It makes the process of writing and publishing fiction seem like an unending, unappreciated, uncompensated slog.

My presentation depressed them. It also depressed me. I began to feel as if the list of helpful links to literary magazines was really an invitation to join me for a life-long journey of unending human misery.

And yet I also think it’s a necessary presentation. The students wanted it; they even asked me for it, specifically – many of them, independently of one another. It’s not as if they’re unaware of the larger literary world, even if they don’t know much about its specifics.

I think that creative writing instructors overemphasize the idea that a workshop is a bubble; for many students it feels like a terrifying open plain, free of landmarks, in which people they don’t know very well are trying to throw arrows at them, and they spend most of their time trying desperately to find shelter. I’m not in favor, personally, of trying to make the workshop “tougher,” or “more like the real world”; the real world is tough enough, thank you. To me, the workshop only becomes a bubble if you do your job right, and if the students produce a nurturing, thoughtful community.

That’s why I don’t give this presentation – what I’ve nicknamed the Why Bother? presentation – to students unless I feel as if the class in question (this semester’s class begin a good example) has actually created a supportive community, one which feels as if their work over the semester has mattered. Otherwise it only exacerbates the difficulty, and increases the alienation.

Of course, there will always be students who hear the presentation and throw up their hands. What a ludicrous way to live one’s life, they’ll think, to spend so much time waiting for someone (anyone!) to notice your hard work, to expose oneself to criticism and rejection, seemingly on a whim, and to know that the best case scenario is producing work that only a tiny sliver of the population will ever read, much less care about.

But there are other students for whom the semester has presented a unique and exciting opportunity. Maybe, like me, ten years ago, they’ve been seized with the joy of writing fiction, which suddenly presents itself as a thrilling vessel for mental energy. Maybe, despite the obviously ludicrous set of hurdles set up before them – not to mention the archers hidden in the bushes, the snipers hidden in the bleachers, and the gargantuan cave troll waiting at the finish line, thirsty for human blood – the race seems worth running.

Basically, I only give the Why Bother presentation when there are students in the audience who I think can confidently answer because the experience of writing is a strange combination of compulsion and real enjoyment, and when I finish the process I feel proud enough of the work that I think other people would actually enjoy reading it. 

Which, if you think about it, is the best answer to the question that any of us can provide.

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