Monday, March 12, 2012

Publish or Perish

Around the time my first book came out, I overheard someone say something that was singularly unhelpful for me: you're only as good as your next book. This person was a relatively successful writer with a number of published books and a family that depended on the income, but what happened for me that day was that I was taken out of the present joy and into a place of pressure: it is not only in academia that one experiences the publish or perish phenomenon.

I've run into people lately who ache to be published or to find meaningful work, and I know that feeling very well, but I'm also well-acquainted with people who are very successful and still feel the pressure.

There's always a higher mountain to climb.

I know a visual artist who is struggling with this same concept right now -- pressure to submit paintings for a juried show, no inspiration and a leaden hand. This artist is suffering nightmares and anxiety -- and two or three years ago was tickled pink to be in a show at all, to have artwork sell, to have people compliment the work.

There's a little niggling voice that speaks to creative types -- and possibly to accountants too. I don't know-- and says, "what you're making is a) crappy, b) overdone, c) pedantic, d) crappy, e) derivative, f) crappy, g) stupid, h) crappy." It raises its eyebrows and asks, "Who do you think you are?" (It also has a twin who asks, "Why does no one recognize your sheer, magnificent perfection?" although that guy is usually off somewhere else.) It's a really common experience to hear that voice. When I found myself unexpectedly writing my first book, I had an answer to the questions: it didn't matter in the least what awful label should be applied to my writing -- I was doing it, at the base, for my own pleasure. There was also another line I found handy: "It's better than watching television."

But one book or a couple of art shows in and the stakes are raised. You're only as good as your next book. Maybe this explains the frequency of the sophomore slump, the second book that lacks the zing of the first.

Sometimes inspiration doesn't hit -- although the discipline of regularly trying, interspersed with good rest and recreation increases the possibility of coming upon something that works.

Here's what doesn't help: listening to those negative voices, succumbing to the pressure, feeling like you're only as good as your next book/painting/creation.

The thing is that it is better than watching television -- and that can be enough right there. It can be enough to read your book aloud to a group of kids or adults. It can be enough to paint or dance or sculpt or bake for a small audience who pays you only in applause and gratitude.

We buy into a myth that makes the dream impossible when we put so much pressure to perform on ourselves. That writer I talked about in the first place sacrificed an awful lot of joy in the writing process -- it might have been a better decision to write for love and to get a decent-paying job on the side.

It took me a long while to get over that pressure-that-masquerades-as-ambition. Thank heavens I did, since it's been six years and no published books since. Because I love what I've written, because others have too, and because at very least, it's better than watching television.


  1. I read this post a few days ago, Susan, and have been thinking about it quietly ever since and wondering what my response would be. Because of course it seems to relate to my own current situation, having just published a book.

    I think first of all that that is a cruel thing to tell someone who is publishing her first (or second or third or ...) book. But I've learned from experience that people will say cruel and diminishing things to writers without the slightest idea they're being cruel. At least, I give them the benefit of the doubt. It's a public thing to do, to publish a book. Perhaps it seems to beg for a reply. (Personally, I'm happy with "congratulations," but some people will want to say more. They will want to tell you all manner of bizarre things. I could elaborate, but will choose to be discreet.)

    So that is my first and gut response to the idea: "You're only as good as your next book."

    But I have more! Because I think not only is this a cruel thing to say, it is also patently wrong-headed and untrue. Of course every new thing we do is filled with potential, but that doesn't negate or diminish what we've already accomplished. Sometimes a writer's "best" or most lasting book turns out to the her/his very first (think of W.O. Mitchell who published Who has seen the wind, and then went on to a 50 year writing career after that -- and never matched the success of his very first offering). It's not for us to say what will ultimately define us. We can only do our best and be brave.

    The creative life isn't easy. It isn't made any easier by false outside pressure. The inside pressure is quite enough (at least for me). Everyone who is creative wants to expand and innovate and explore further -- that is what the next book should be about. I'm just as good as my last book might be one way of thinking about this process. I'm not writing into a void. I'm just as good as my last book, and how can I build on what I've already made?

    I think that's all. But who knows, there could be more.

  2. Thank you, Carrie. Over time, it has helped me to realize how very much internal pressure that writer must have been under to say this.