A recent Locus writers’ roundtable addressed the question of “the unpublished writer’s despair,” and from the discussion it appears that there is a lot of despair out there, most likely because there are a great number of writers who have not been successful, either in getting published or in self-publishing and not selling many books. And there are more than a few published authors who either have trouble getting published at present or in living on what they make from writing. And then there are the published writers deemed successful who still despair at times.
I found myself reacting to the discussion in a fashion that was most analogous to culture shock. It’s not as though I haven’t experienced a fair amount of rejection over the fifty years I’ve been writing or trying to write. As I’ve mentioned here and there, out of the more than one hundred short stories I wrote in my first years, something like six were ever published, and it took almost four years, after almost ten years of writing short stories, and rejections by a goodly number of publishers, after I finished my first novel before it finally found a publisher and was published.
It isn’t that I don’t feel and feel strongly about writing and what I write. Like many writers, I just don’t talk much about those feelings, except to my wife. Perhaps because I have a generally upbeat nature, despair doesn’t strike me often, and so far, not about writing matters. Now… anger… and absolute fury at some of the idiocy I’ve seen published, even though I fully understand that there is a large market for certain types of idiocy… those are another question.
In the whole business of getting published and continuing to get published, I try to be pragmatic. I know that when I write certain types of books, they’ll sell less well. It doesn’t mean I don’t write books that are difficult for some readers; I just space them out. But we as writers are in a profession, and that profession is intellectual entertainment. Some writers are more intellectual and less popularly entertaining, and some writers offer little more than spur-of-the-moment entertainment with minimal intellectual content. Add to that the fact that every reader has a somewhat different view of what is intellectual and what is entertaining, and it all makes writing a difficult profession for most who attempt it, and it’s scarcely surprising that most would-be writers fail to be successful.
What’s overlooked by too many writers, successful or unsuccessful, is that most who attempt a career in any field relying on a degree of popular appeal do in fact fail. Talented people fail. Even writers whom editors love for their style, technique, and stories have failed – miserably.
And I have failed in other occupations and endeavors, sometimes miserably. I was possibly the worst musician to ever lift a clarinet, and certainly one of the worst real estate salesmen in the state of Colorado, and was less than a rousing success in dealing with internal corporate politics. And, frankly, no one cared… or cares now. Nor did anyone really care for the ten years when I was fortunate to sell one short story a year… and I never expected that anyone would.
But no one is granted the “right” to be successful in anything, and success can vanish in a moment. I’ve seen it happen time and time again… and I live and write knowing that it could happen to me as it has to others [although I believe I work hard to avoid that]. All of which is why I find writerly “despair” a foreign country. I don’t find anger, discouragement, indignation, frustration, and consternation foreign… just despair. But maybe that’s because I’ve failed enough in other areas to know that it’s not the end of the world… and also because I’ve also seen how fickle popular taste can be, and how it often has little to do with the worth of what is criticized or rejected… and then, too, I’ve read enough unpublished manuscripts over the years to know that some unpublished writers should remain unpublished.
For understanding all that… and seeing the despair in other writers… I still find despair a foreign country…and one I hope never to inhabit.