A friend of mine once got a tattoo. She’s a Taurus, and the tattoo was of a bull. She picked it off the wall of the studio, and adjusted the coloring. Within ten minutes of getting it, someone asked: “Why did you get a tattoo of a purple cow?” She pointed out that it’s obviously a bull. Look at the horns! Look at the septum! It was pointless; it became the question she’d field again and again, until she gave up and started saying, “It’s a purple cow.”
I think of this when people ask where I’ve published. I used to say, “I’m independently published!” By this, I hoped to summon the literary equivalent of Ani DiFranco: I didn’t go with a label, I made my own! I’m not Suzanne Vega! All I need is a wicked debut and the next thing you know, stadium shows!
It didn’t take long to note that no one thought about stadium shows. They thought I was talking about a tiny press at a college. A trendy start-up with a typewriter logo. The side project of a major literary magazine. Most publishers of this kind don’t launch the endeavor with their own novel.
Now I say, “I self published.” Then I sit back and wait for what I was trying to avoid: the smug expression of someone with a limited edition chapbook at a tiny publisher, four minutes from being out of print, who is finally fulfilling her self-righteous dreams. Better? Good.
Or maybe I wait for the bookstore to confess the “special section” already has a lot of titles. Or for a professor to say, “you’re not really published then?” Or for a fellow author to say, “did you try to get published first?” even if the entire first part of the conversation was about a publisher’s lack of marketing support and their unwillingness to publish the book’s sequel.
Then: “So…why did you decide to go that route?”
Well, because I’m a woman. When James Joyce writes a long, complicated but well-crafted sentence, he’s fashioned a genius. If I write a long one, I’m accused of making my readers work too hard. If Cormac McCarthy writes a short, gruff exclamation, it’s poetry. If I do, what kind of emotion are you trying to communicate here? If I write a personal essay, I’m asked to make it a memoir. If I like a black cover, I’m asked if there can be a fish on it, or a girl with her foot in the water, or maybe a sunset, a pair of sunglasses, a bonnet. Almost every female book cover looks like a douche commercial. If I write on dark subject matter, there’s questions of who my audience might be, and whether the book would even sell. And that’s the keyword: sell. Those doing something dangerous and innovative who get book deals (and happen to be women) really hit the lottery. Anne Carson clearly has naked pictures of everyone. I would like to send her mine. Or they’re writing about sex, which is the only acceptable form of feminism. Equal pay? You’re so second wave. Lean in, or something.
Two options: write differently to sell, or write the book you want to write, and accept the fact that maybe no one will read it, maybe no one will buy it, maybe no one can even find it — maybe it’s just the book you write.
Terror. If the story is just for you, then why would you even write it down? Writing is about communication, to present ideas and pictures and dialog that another will receive. Writing without response is the literary equivalent of the tree falling in the woods riddle.
And this is followed by: should I trust myself to know what is best about my writing? Sure, I’ve experienced dozens of writing workshops and excellent mentors, I’ve got a BA and an MFA, I’ve learned tricks and techniques and tools, I’ve buffed and polished myself into confusion and insanity and back around to hilarious. Really? Should I trust myself? Now?
In moments like this, the only question that can get me to stand at my desk and start working is: What would Virginia Woolf do?
This is an easy answer. She’d write her book. She’d agonize over it. And stick her foot in her mouth ten times in between.
This is still what I do. And just like her, I find myself repeatedly adjusting and pacing as my life changes and I learn new things, so it’s so very hard to call a book done without calling the same curse from yourself.
The downside: when you write the book you want, and no one reads it, it might be more devastating than writing the book you kinda didn’t want to write and don’t care if anyone reads.
I wrote the book I wanted, with the cover I wanted, and the quotes I wanted on the back. It took twice as long as I’d anticipated, because blood was squeezed from every word. There was no editor to herd me away from the book and urge an obsessive hobby that resulted in winter wear. There was no fact checker to consult with scholars about a village of immigrants in 1960s Cleveland. To this day I have the privilege of saying that the end result is exactly what I envisioned, and I compromised nothing. This is an achievement. This is joy.
No one would review it; most newspapers even have policies against self-published books. The accolades I earned came exclusively from online sources kind enough to note their reactions on Amazon or Goodreads or Powell’s. Bookstores that sold out of copies didn’t restock it, and offered no reason as to why. Others were left saddled with a stack of something no one wanted, and had to ask me to retrieve them and quietly slink away. The neglect I fretted about receiving from publishers was now arriving from other outlets, and it had nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with an inability to network and a deficiency of cash to pay someone to do it for me. After a year of being on some shelves but not enough, I was backing myself into my own bitter corner of self-published self-loathing, and lowering the gate with a dose of depressed laziness.
I got back on the purple cow after talking to my niece, Rayne, about writing. She’s doing a lot of the same things I did when I was 9, like filling one journal after the other, and writing a book series with character traits from different books put together like Mr. Potato Head. She’s got a leg up on me thanks to her illustration prowess, and every time I return to Cleveland she’s got another something finished to show off. When I talked to her about writing, she said, “I want to be a writer like you.” And my response was, “You ARE a writer.” I didn’t want her to think she had to wait for some secret initiation. It’s not something that’s granted through degrees or contracts or book sales. It’s something that’s announced by writing.
This reminder doesn’t fully resolve the stall. Self-publishing requires business savvy and social skills, two areas in which I’m woefully deficient. On a good day I can make it all the way to the end of a conversation without bringing up the special deformities of a little known disease, or starting a telephone slideshow of cat pictures. An ill-timed question about my book returns a stunned expression that suggests I’ve never considered what it’s actually about. It’s a miracle if I can twist this gobbledee goo down to something resulting in monetary exchange. I’m more manic than pixie and only dream girl if someone wakes up screaming, but I’m not sure you can buy a book in the middle of all that racket. Still, I should have cards to hand people or something.
The same holds true if I ever want to tangle with the publishing world that is the PUBLISHING WORLD, and hope for a contract that isn’t adjusted for self-esteem deficiency and impatience when working with lawyers. These are skills. They are learned, and I wish I could just buy them.
See above, about the shortage of cash.