A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, My students need to publish. The belief that our words will make it into print is often what makes us do the work needed to take our writing from good to very good. In my last post, I wrote about the competing identities the successful writer* embodies: the visionary and the toiler. But the truth is if the visionary is ever going to have the chance to share her work with her audience, it’s the toiler who’s going to make it happen.
For the last five years, I’ve been teaching a course called Writing the Memoir for the University of Washington’s Extension Program. During this nine-month class, I see a great improvement among my students, some of whom have left the class to go onto publish personal essays in places like the Yoga Journal, Memoir magazine, and the New York Times. One of my students, Abigail Carter, has now had her book The Alchemy of Loss printed in four countries. Another former student, Tim Elhajj, has a book contract for his first memoir, Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption. For whatever reason, these students have found the right mix of vision and motivation to do the toiling needed to bring their work into print. But I have many talented students who float in a purgatory of slow improvement after the class. They write, maybe check in with a writing group periodically, and maybe stop writing for a while, come back to it, often dissatisfied with a progress they find too slow.
And that might just be fine for some. We write for different reasons. Sometimes we’re not ready to publish. Sometimes we’re content to be working on improving our skills and sharing our work with a small group of people. But sometimes this becomes a stuck place, a purgatory where our improvement is incremental and our enthusiasm for writing fizzles. Some curmudgeons might say: super, that weeds out the people never meant to be writers. Whatever that means, as if there’s a divine list in heaven of the chosen.
And it was those students I was thinking of when I woke up in the night thinking they need to publish. My first vision was something like a mimeographed newsletter circa 1978 replete with staples and smudgy pages. But then I thought, no it has to be bigger, more inspiring. And hey, it’s a new day for us people: we have publishing options. And that’s when I got the idea for the anthology We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir, which will be published by Third Place Press next month.
So the due date for submissions for We Came to Say was a few days ago, and I’ve been reading through the 26 pieces that will make the collection, and I’m fairly amazed at what people can do when they’re inspired. Over the last two months, many of these writers have been rewriting and revising these pieces with tireless dedication. The stories were always amazing–a sister coming to terms with her brother’s life sentence for murder, a mother whose son has died of an overdose, a young woman who comes into her own working as a goatherd on a French farm, and many more. But now, the writing is supporting the stories. They’ve burned away the extra words, the confusion, and the fog has lifted.
Sometimes all the toiler needs is a reason to toil.
I’ll be writing more about my adventure in self-publishing and We Came to Say’s progress into print and beyond during March and April. If you have any questions about this process, feel free to ask in a comment. I’m a beginner to the process myself but I’m happy to share what I have learned so far.
*Theo’s definition of successful writer: A writer writing her best work and reaching her audience with that work.