Tuesday, August 21, 2007

To What End?

By Amy

I met a woman once at a writers' conference, well, I sort of met her. She was a member of another writers' group and while both of our groups huddled near the back of the conference room waiting for Mako Yoshikawa (the hair!) to begin her workshop, we got to talking. The members of this woman's writing group were effusive and warm, funny; the kind of people who establish an immediate comraderie. The woman, however, was quiet, not reserved so much as withdrawn. She appeared to be observing our exchange as if she were not a partipant at all.

As the conversation progressed, each of us took turns explaining our WIP. When it was the woman's turn, she said a few words, we had to strain to hear her in that room humming with anticipation of Mako's arrival, and then her group spoke for her, something I've never forgotten. They said she had two completed manuscripts -- beautiful stories, gorgeous writing, compelling reads both -- that she declined to submit. Meaning, she wasn't seeking an agent, she didn't excerpt them for publication as short stories, she didn't intend to have them published at all. She didn't give a reason even when we asked.

I've often wondered about that woman. She spent several years on each book, expected to write another, she attended conferences, joined an active writers' group, revised, and revised again. To what end? I suspect it was less about the fear of rejection and more that this woman treasured the worlds she created and didn't want the fotoprints of the masses upon them.

Lately, I've been thinking about other people reading my manuscript and it doesn't feel as though I expected. As much as I want the opportunity to introduce my characters to vast audiences, once it's out there, even in a form I've created, it will be changed. If it is published (these caveats are important, aren't they?), others' opinions, insults, interpretations will mold it. Reality is simply a matter of perspective. If it's published, reviewers will call it a mystery or suspense or literary fiction. They will say it's evocative or drivel, inspired or overwrought and it will become what they say it is. I've read a hundred interviews with writers who've said readers find themes and interpret motivations the author never intended. Maybe it's there in the writer's subconscious, maybe the reader's, but it's become a part of the work once it's stated. When a reader takes up a book, it's as if they've staked out territory there, with full squatter's rights to make it their own. I'm afraid that so much of what I intended will be lost in translation.

I think about that woman a lot now. I wonder how often she goes back to those projects, reads them and loses herself in those worlds of hers. Maybe she's right to guard them. Still, I hope someday to be privvy to them, to be a reader and inhabit those characters. I'll try not claim too much if I do.


Lisa Marnell said...


I had forgotten about the woman we met at that conference. I think my jaw dropped when I (finally) understood she had no intention of seeking publication.

Your reflections are very thought provoking. Our characters are our friends (not to be judged) yet we send them into the world.

It's frightening (empty nest like, in a way).


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Isn't it, though? I always wonder about ehr, her motivations. Maybe she'll end up like the great Emily.


Lisa said...

It's hard to say what the motivations might be, but to your point Amy, I can understand a feeling of reluctance, almost dread at the idea of sending a book out into the current marketplace. I am so weary of the fixation on genre/subgenre and the artificial barriers, snobbery, reverse snobbery and defensiveness that have resulted. A book can no longer be what it is. The world seems to insist it be analyzed, dissected and labeled and it ruins the reading and sometimes writing experience for me. There's an integrity we all feel toward our work and I suppose that once we head down the path toward giving our vision a life, the only way to keep a grip on happiness and sanity is to develop a thick skin and expect to be misunderstood and maybe even attacked. Maybe the woman understood that and was not able or willing to do it and I can respect and understand that. Criticism is hard for everyone and knowing that it's inevitable is a bitter pill to swallow when so much of us is invested in our work.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Gosh, Lisa, you've nailed it. Have you been reading Tess Gerritsen's blog? The link is over there on the right. She's been through the ringer this week and then some. And she's a NYTs bestseller for goodness sake! At what point do we prove ourselves? Somehow, I think, you'll do well. You'll be well reviewed and receive accolades from readers as well. But the choice between success on the book page or success with readers, guess which I'd pick.


Anonymous said...

I am a published author, though no Tess Gerritsen for sure. You get weird mail from people - even when you're nobody. It comes with the territory. I consider the source and move on. Some of the email and mail is truly WEIRD.

I can't relate to not having my work published and I don't get too hung up about how anyone classifies my work, unless someone so mis-characterizes it as to rat hole it in some horrible part of the bookstore where the sun doesn't shine (translated: where the books rarely sell - that happened to me with one publisher).

I want to sell my work and make a living from it. That would be because writing is all I ever wanted to do from the time I was knee-high to a duck. And you can't write full-time unless you make a living from it, or you're married to a person who makes a good living, or you're just independently wealthy.

I currently have none of those blessings. I MUST someday make a living from my work, or endure the offense of a "day job". And that is an offense to me. I hate it, hate it, hate it. It takes me away from my love - the writing. I have to put my bursts of imagination on hold because I'm "at work". It is the worst kind of misery.

Because I love the work, the art of writing, and because I hate my day job, I will gladly put up with the crap that comes along with being published, because it might take me to a life of full-time writing. It is a price I will pay. I only hope someday it pays off - I cling to that.

If only my days were my own, and I could just write and nothing else. If only...

Lisa said...

Amy, I did you spend some time going through all of Tess's recent entries. Holy cow. I believe there has to be that one, small, personal, even secret thing that we tell ourselves will be the achievement or the event that we will be happy with. The "official" reviews would be bad enough to contend with, but weird reader emails and random Amazon ratings by certifiable lunatics -- you'd have to draw the line somewhere.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Anon, thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. I hope your book(s) are doing well. I've received -- shall we say -- unpleasant letters from some of my op-eds and news stories. Didn't bother me a bit. I was always confident of what I produced on the non-fiction side. But when/if someone were to disparage my fiction, it might just cut me to the quick -- or not. I think at our core, we're always questioning our abilities. I hope somdeday you're able to write full-time.

Lisa, I NEVER trust Amazon reviews, especially the vitriolic ones. They're written by either an MFA classmate, frenemy, or relative. I can't believe a perfect stranger would go to the trouble of registering and then purging all over the Internet. It's too disturbing.


Trish Ryan said...

What an interesting story! So different than the dream most of us have of seeing our stories out in the world. It makes me think that keeping our writing all to ourselves is a bit like wanting to shelter our children. It's a natural, understandable urge, but it stunts them. Yes, our writing becomes different when people read it. But that's a good thing-even if other people don't love our babies as much as we do!

Larramie said...

Although brilliant Emily chose to escape criticism of her writing, critics would finally laud the published work while attacking her. *sigh*

Simply put, I'll never understand the value of negativity regarding any of the arts.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Trish, of course you're right. Now that you've been bold enough to forge ahead, how goes it?

Ah, Larramie, that's why I like you so much! When there's so much dissension in the world, why put more out there?