By the time you read this, National will be over and we’ll all be back home with indecipherable notes, indelible memories, and the vague but nonetheless pervasive feeling that somehow we should have done better. I think it’s because National is such an easy deadline: by National, I will have finished my book; by National, I will have a career plan; by National, I will be published. It’s a lot like my high school graduation: by graduation, I knew I had to have finished my education; by graduation, I had to have a life plan; by graduation, I had to be engaged to be married.
As you can probably tell from that last one, I graduated from high school in the sixties. Today it seems absurd that marriage would be a life goal for a woman, but anyone who was around for the pre-Lib days can tell you that the worst thing anyone could say about a woman back then was that she was an Old Maid. It was one step down from Whore because at least whores had men asking to spend time with them. When I got married six weeks before I turned twenty-two, my entire family heaved a sigh of relief. Close call.
The madness that defined women’s lives back then was based on four Big Lies:
- A woman wasn’t a real woman until she was married.
- A woman had to distort herself and deny her own identity in order to catch a man to marry. (Remember girdles, spike heels, inane laughter, playing dumb, and flunking math?)
- Any husband was better than no husband.
- Staying in a bad marriage was better than divorce because God forbid a woman should be unmarried again once she’d finally achieved the goal.
Dumb, wasn’t it? Thank God for Women’s Liberation. You know the Women’s Libbers, the ones who said “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” and we all went, “Oh.” And thank God for Gloria Steinem, who said, “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.” She’s the one (among others) who pointed out that waiting for somebody else to grant validation meant giving up control over our lives. She’s the one (among others) who clued us all in and made us stronger and helped guarantee our daughters didn’t fall for the same old lies.
Unfortunately, Gloria didn’t go far enough, probably because she didn’t belong to RWA. She didn’t see the same insidious forces at work in publishing, the same unconscious assumptions, the same frustration and depression. She didn’t see that just as women had to give up being married as a life goal before they could lead full lives as women, so writers must give up being published as a career goal before we can lead full lives as writers.
She didn’t see it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t, so let’s look at the Big Lies we tell ourselves:
- A writer isn’t a real writer until she’s published.
- A writer has to distort herself and deny her own stories in order to write to the trends and catch an editor to publish her. (Can you write babies, cowboys, daddies, secrets, or amnesiac brides?)
- Any publication is better than no publication.
- Staying in a bad publishing situation is better than leaving because God forbid a writer should be unpublished again once she’s finally achieved the goal.
Those four Big Lies are as dumb as the ones we told ourselves about marriage thirty years ago, and they’re just as dangerous to our writing careers today as the old lies were to our emotional lives then for exactly the same reasons. Waiting for somebody else to come along and validate us means giving up all control over our lives. Publication, like marriage, is indeed a fine institution, but anyone who says, “My goal in writing is to be published” is making the same mistake as the woman who said, “My goal in living is to be married.” Writing and living are about us, about who we are and what we want, about satisfying our needs as individuals, about listening to our hearts. . Please note, I am not saying give up publication (or marriage) entirely; I’m saying give it up as a goal.
We have to give it up because when we allow our needs to go unmet by pursuing a goal that is out of our control, we become desperate and frustrated, and desperation and frustration are not turn-ons for editors any more than they are for men. This was beautifully illustrated in a Gail Parent novel from the seventies called Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. As Parent chronicles her heroine’s increasingly manic attempts to attract a husband, whiny Sheila becomes more and more unattractive to both men and the reader. Then something wonderful happens: Sheila decides to kill herself. In exactly one year, she vows, she’s going to commit suicide. In the meantime, she’s going to live life her way. She’s going to stop dressing uncomfortably and laughing inanely and just be herself. In fact, since she’s going to die anyway, she’s even going to stop dieting: the hell with it, Sheila says, “Let them dig a wider hole.” And ironically and inevitably, men flock to her. I can’t promise that publishers will flock to us if we stop trying to get published, but I can testify that making “Let them dig a wider hole” my mantra has paid off well for me.
It pays off in writing for the same reason that it paid off for Sheila in dating: when Sheila was trying to please men in order to get married, she was like every other woman out there who was trying to please men in order to get married. When she said, “Dig a wider hole,” she became different, interesting, rare. When we deny our voices and our visions to write what is popular and publishable, we’re making ourselves into lemmings, indistinguishable from the crowd. When we write the stories that only we can write, those stories become different, interesting, and rare, and editors become more inclined to dig a wider hole. Even more important, when we write the stories we need to write, we take back control of our lives because we’re meeting our own needs, not looking for validation elsewhere. We’re the ones determining success, and it’s based on our pleasure in writing and our passion for craft, not on whether somebody in New York thinks what we write is marketable.
There’s one other good deal about giving up being published as a goal: we’ll set each other free. The worst thing I remember about all those misconceptions about being a real woman is that we did it to ourselves. It made sense that men would go for the idea; it put them in control. But we bought into it and we sold it to each other. We all got together and agreed we were nothing without marriage. We were stupid and shortsighted and we got over it and we made sure our daughters didn’t make the same mistake. Well, we can do that again. We can stop agreeing that the goal of writing is to be published, we can stop agreeing that any contract is better than no contract, we can in short, liberate ourselves and each other and all the writers who come after us.
At this point, I can hear the muttering in the back: somebody out there is saying. “Easy for you to talk, you’re published.” That makes as much sense as saying “Easy for you to talk about holding out for the right man, you’re married.” Just as a bad marriage is worse than no marriage at all, bad publication is much worse than no publication at all. And just as making a bad marriage can keep a woman from getting the right partner when he or she finally comes along, so bad publication can shut a writer off from finding the right editor. The truth is, none of us will be truly in control of our careers until we recognize that, just as marriage is benefit of living fully and loving wisely, so publication is a benefit of letting our imaginations go where they must and then writing well. A benefit, not a goal.
I therefore propose that, in the spirit of the Women’s Libbers we became to set ourselves and other free in the seventies, we now become Writer’s Libbers for the same reasons, based on the following four undeniable truths:
- A writer is a writer because she writes, not because somebody in New York said, “I think I can sell this.” (A woman is a woman because she’s a woman, not because some man said, “I think I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”)
- A writer must write the stories in her heart, the stories she believes in. Nobody else gets to define her art or limit her creativity. (A woman gets to be the kind of person she really is and to continue discovering new things about herself. No husband or partner gets to define her or keep her from growing.)
- A writer deserves a good publisher and should never be thought less of because she prefers to be unpublished rather than inadequately published. (A woman deserves a good marriage and should never be thought less of because she prefers her independence to an unsatisfying partner.)
- A writer deserves to be treated as a creative force, the indispensible partner in publishing, and not as someone who should be grateful to be published at all. (A woman deserves to be an equal partner in her marriage, not a grateful slave.)
So let’s stop listing “to be published by National” as our goal. Let’s go back to the stories and the characters that drew us into this genre in the first place, to that mad rush and flow of creativity that has nothing to do with contracts and sell-throughs and bestseller lists. Let’s be the writers we’re dying (and living) to be, not the writers somebody else thinks we should be. Let’s stop looking for the bicycle and concentrate on the swim; let’s resist the institution because we’re not ready to be locked up.
Let’s make them dig a wider hole.