The Path from Writer to Author
Many writers claim they only write for themselves. I was one of those once, chiefly because the whole notion of being published was beyond the power of my imagination. However, the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Awards, won by authors such as Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Marge Piercy, had, once upon a time before the merger of publishing houses, guaranteed publication. Wining two of them catapulted me into another (and unrealistic) state of mind.
I sailed into writing query letters to agents with the wind at my back and smack into the wall of reality. I had no idea how to write a query letter, was a lousy editor of same, and agents were now contending with mega-publishing houses interested largely in bestsellers. This was long before the Internet, where I could Google questions and receive a wealth of information.
And there were other problems. I was by that time self-supporting and the mother of two teenage daughters whose lives had been disrupted by divorce. Between the first Hopwood award and the second (ten years later) I had also lost one of those daughters in a car accident.
But I kept writing. Why? Another easy question. Magic people: Robert Haugh, my first writing coach, Elizabeth (Libby) Davenport, writer and neighbor, who insisted I had a story to tell (and is the subject of another blog), Rhoda Weyr, an agent who singled me out because of the first sentence of a short story, read at a conference workshop, and the members of critique groups who have become fast friends. If, looking back, you have such people in your lives, hold them dear; they anchor your dreams. Rhoda Weyr never liked my novels as well as that short story, nor did she, in the end, take me on as a client, but she remained an ear who was interested. That is what counts.
I went to places where writers gather to talk writing. I scraped together the money to go to Bread Loaf, Indiana University Writers Conference, and any local conferences I could. I now find myself in the Pacific Northwest, the most conference-rich place I’ve ever lived. I can, within a two hour’s drive, attend conferences or workshops for some five organizations. For the first time in my life I have to put myself on a diet—pick and chose the events for the year. My home group is the Skagit Valley Writers League, where I’ve served on the board for some six years and where interaction with writer/friends keeps my pen flowing.
Interested listeners, also known as critique groups, are the next essential. My Ann Arbor group began with Libby and added Toni Fuhrman and Nancy Shaw; I found another group in Santa Barbara after I moved there to teach, and yet another here in Washington State when I retired. They are my most honest critics and my most enduring friends. Most importantly they kept me writing. Nancy Shaw, of the Ann Arbor group, Valerie Hobbs, of the Santa Barbara group, and Norma Tadlock Johnson, of the Washington group all became published authors long before I did, and their success kept publication a reality over some thirty odd years.
Yes, thirty. I look at that number and cringe. Surely any sane person would have conceded they weren’t good enough and quit. Some ornery stubbornness kept me writing and going to writers’ conferences, my third key to becoming an author. They immerse you in a sea of writers talk, others stumbling along as you are, and they teach the necessary craft for both writing and publishing. They give dreams the necessary grit to sustain them.
For twenty of those years I taught college writing full time, and I did publish articles on academic writing. Though very different from fiction, that writing and the colleagues who were my collaborators kept the writer in me alive, and publication of a textbook (with colleague Mark Schlenz) put me, finally, in that place called “author”. Thanks to those individuals, critique groups, and conferences, I also kept writing fiction, though the demands of professional development reduced publishing efforts to an occasional spurt.
Retirement finally brought me the time to focus on becoming an author of fiction. Over those thirty years, of course, the market had become harder and harder for new writers to break into. But that didn’t matter. Or I refused to let it matter. I’d waited too long to quit. By this time I knew the craft of publishing—querying, synopsizing, researching agents and publishers—and I regularly forced myself away from story-writing to do it. Like most writers, I hated it, and three new novels later I had gotten nowhere. For the first time, I began to ask “Why am I subjecting myself to perpetual failure?” At my age, it was surely time to accept the facts of life.
Then came digital publishing and the explosion of small presses and variations on the traditional publishing model. A couple of writing conference sessions on small and micro-presses later, I tossed my list of agents aside and changed gears. Whether they succeed or not, these presses still count the writer, not the bottom line, as their purpose. Yes, they have to survive, and many of them won’t, but finding an ear listening to the story not the market gave a huge dose of oxygen to the writer-me. Whether because of the focus of those presses or my own changed attitude, I don’t know, but within a couple of months, I had an offer—and for that Hopwood novel written thirty years ago, now titled Nowhere Else To Go. There’s something oddly affirming about that, like, “See? I was good enough all along.” For more on Nowhere Else To Go, click www.judithkirscht.com/books.html
Many writer friends are taking advantage of the digital age by going the self-publishing route, but I confess that, after so many years of query letters, I need the industry’s affirmation. An offer on another novel, The Inheritors, came just months after the first saw print and has affirmed my decision to go that route. And to plunge into marketing—which I find as hard or harder than I found writing query letters thirty years ago.
So when you are ready to give it all up, reflect on your path from writer to author. Reach back and touch the memory of those people, groups, and conferences that made you a writer, let their effect on you flow back in and refuel that stubborn, refuse-to-listen-to-failure self.
Next week, a memorial to Libby Davenport, one of the magic people in my life.