I wrote Slush for myself in the summer and fall of 2018, to convince myself that I should keep going, and why. What is it that the act of writing does for us, whether it’s read or not? Why does this work matter to me? My answers to those questions may be useful to you; the way that you answer them—and your answers will almost certainly be somewhat different—may be even more useful.
The preface is below. The full document is available on request, under conditions of fair use.
Photo credit: Daniel Mescon, New York City Lens, 2014
An Introduction—One Foot in Hope, One Foot in Despair
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
—Marge Piercy, from “For the Young Who Want To”
This is a book for those thousands… hundreds of thousands… millions among us who write in silence. For all of us who write carefully, patiently, thoughtfully, and whose work has not (yet?) found its audience.
Most of the books written for us are intended to get us to the other side. They promise us the techniques that will make us real writers, they offer guidance to navigate the world of agent queries, they tell us which of countless magazines might be interested in our work, which of the publishing houses focus their efforts on our genres. Each promises us its own secret key to the domain.
This book is different than those. This book is written to help us live on this side, to be comforted in our work as writers even before the work finds its readers, even if the work never finds its readers. This book is intended to be honest about the emotional work of writing. About the raw, wrenching, joyous work of exposing ourselves to ourselves, and then attempting to expose that exposure to a wider world.
We write what we know… not about sailing or spycraft, not about being a Western sheriff or a Napoleonic countess, but about hope and disappointment. About the burst of love, and the knife in the ribs of love betrayed. About dreams achieved, almost, and dreams dented and deferred but still alive. We take ourselves through our writing to places that most people would prefer to leave unseen. And then we offer that emotional honesty to strangers for sale.
Most of us won’t find a taker.
A friend tells me that the fiction MFA program at the University of Michigan offers twelve seats per year to new students, and receives roughly 800 applicants, for an acceptance rate of one and one half percent. Agent Kirsty McLachlan of DGA Ltd. in London has said that she takes on two or three new writers per year from the roughly 2500 unsolicited queries she receives. Even if we accept Sturgeon’s Law that Ninety Percent of Everything is Crap, that leaves 250 solid ones, so the two or three she decides to represent… still about one percent.
If we take the probabilities seriously, there’s really no reason for any of us to imagine ourselves published. We’re about as likely to become an international spy as to make a living writing about one. We must, then, write for other reasons. To exorcise demons, or to soothe our still-injured younger selves. To write a new story that encloses a wound like scar tissue, or to pluck the stitches out day after day and inhabit that pain once again. To please ourselves with the experience of immersion in craft, like a knitter who loses herself in the repetition of pattern and the reassuring click of needles. To do justice to those we write about, to inhabit their lives as fully as we do our own. To understand our world, to represent our world, to interrogate our world, to condemn our world or praise it. And yet, along with all of those other virtues of the writing life, many of us also hope to find our readers, to shift some receptive soul a few degrees off their course, to help the lost find their way if not to home, at least to a warm, safe shelter. It is that desire for readers that makes writing simultaneously necessary and unbearable.
To borrow Marge Piercy’s words, this is a book for all of us who want to. A book about pleasures in the midst of grief, but also about the grief that bounds the pleasures, a study of figure and ground, an uneasy border with terrain alternately won and lost by each army. We writers are a community in spirit if not in daily life. We are not alone, although we may feel desperately alone often enough. None of us are going through this for the first time in human experience.
The simple fact of writing, if we do it with the care that it deserves, changes us in quiet, crucial ways. Part of this book is an exploration of what writing does to the writer, for both good and ill. As writers of fiction, we believe that action reveals character. So our repeated visits to the manuscripts, frail but still breathing, must say something about us. We move forward in the face of knowledge, not merely because we believe we might beat the long odds, but because we feel compelled. I’d like to help us be able to name those reasons for ourselves, and for those in our families who patiently suffer alongside us without themselves being afflicted by the same compulsion toward storytelling.
Listen to me carefully. Your writing time is not wasted because you aren’t shelved in the library. Your voice is not silenced because it isn’t broadcast in conversation with Terry Gross. But you will feel as though you’ve wasted your time, and you will feel as though you’ve been silenced. That paradox, one foot on a rock of hope and one foot in the sucking mud of despair, is our posture in the world.