One of the things I got for the Nook Color after getting that super-groovy present for Christmas (thanks everyone who pitched in!) was a subscription to Poets & Writers magazine:
It’s a great thing to read on a Nook before turning in for the night. It’s also helped focus my thinking on a question I’ve wrestled with repeatedly since turning 40: When do you call it quits?
Rest easy, dear readers. I’m not referring to cashing it in with strychnine, towering bridges, or anything so grim. But, since I started writing again in earnest in the wake of separation and divorce in 2002*, and then started trying to get that writing published a few years after that, I have wondered from time to time how long I should keep at it before deciding it’s not working?
One answer, of course, is the one that Diego Rivera gives Frida Kahlo in Frida when she asks the same question: If you’re a writer, you’ll write until you die, no matter what anyone says, and that’s that. (Okay, he said painter, but you get the point.) As far as writing itself goes, I think that’s a perfectly good answer, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be true. Year after year of this business of researching agents, publishers and contests, formatting submissions, paying entry and review fees, etc., however, can get a little tiring and discouraging. And so I’ve wondered during the the occasional sleepless night-when am I allowed to quit?
One answer that I’ve vaguely considered is: ten years. In other words, in August 2014, ten years from when I first submitted something for publication, if I haven’t had any major success so far, it’s time to quit. The part of my brain that thinks these kinds of things, of course, doesn’t consider any of the things I have done so far (essays in two journals and an anthology, poems and short prose pieces published in several online venues, writing, producing and directing short films that have screened for audiences of several hundred) to be suitably major success.
I could name things that might be “good enough”- getting a short story in a print publication, having a novel published, or a screenplay bought and produced by a real live studio. But I know myself well enough to know that even if some (or all!) of these things happened, I would probably still find reasons why it didn’t count and/or obsess on the next unachieved goal. After all, Buddhist psychology informs us that never being satisfied is one of the essential features of conditioned human existence, and as a person in recovery on top of it, my “enough” meter is inherently skewed. So, when I’m in my (mostly) right mind, I know this voice doesn’t give reliable advice.
But when do I get to quit? The latest issue of Poets & Writers provided some perspective, in a section that featured profiles of twelve poets who have just had their first print collection come out. Being as I’m working on a poetry collection to submit for publication myself this year, and being as I’m a statistics geek, I did some number crunching based on the profiles. The twelve authors profiled took however long they took doing the writing (often ten years or more), and then, on average, they took three years of active submissions, and an average of seventeen submissions, to find a publisher for that collection. What does this tell me? Rest easy, little one. It takes a while.
In the same issue, there was also an article about the new poetry book series that San Francisco publisher McSweeny’s is coming out with. One of the poets who has a volume coming out with them, Allan Peterson, has been writing since the 1960s, with very little recognition until the last few years. In the article, he said that he considered himself “an outsider to the literary world.” This reminded me of my good (literary) friend Charles Bukowski, who himself toiled in relative anonymity for twenty years until finally entering his heyday in the late 60s. Here blooms into view a goal I can get behind: If I don’t have any “suitable” “recognition” at the ten year mark- fuck them! I’ll just declare myself a literary outsider at that point, and keep going as long as I damn well please.
Literary outsider. I like that.
* I think it’s worth noting in this context that, ten years after that separation, here I am today celebrating the first anniversary of my marriage to my heart’s delight, Abbey LaMay-West. Some pretty blessed things can happen, if you just give them the time to unfold…