We all know what the ideal route to publication looks like. It’s a walk through the park with a few major landmarks: Draft, stew a bit, finish draft, let it rest. Get reader feedback. Revise. Rest again. Revise some more, tweak, polish until every word sounds like music, every beat feels right. Locate a venue that seems right for this work. Write a cover letter and submit. Receive acceptance; sign contract; celebrate in your favorite fashion (I like wine). The work is published, unleashed into the world, on its own to offer comfort or surcease or instruction or agony or whatever work it is meant to do. And you, the Writer, circle back to another work and begin again with a new project, a new draft.
Maybe the process works like this all the time for those who have published many novels, or boxes of short stories, or reams of poems and creative essays: a short, fairly direct path from conception to publication, from first breath to release into the world. Maybe that ideal is ideal for a reason, the true path through the wandering wood, the Platonic form of the publication process.
It happened to me recently. While on vacation with my family in July, I finished reading Volume 2 of The Letters of Sylvia Plath. I hadn’t read Volume 1, but I didn’t need to; here was all Plath’s brilliance, obsessiveness, witty humor, observant eye, razor-sharp honesty and brutally beautiful prose in a thousand pages of vicarious experience. By the end, as she howled in letter after letter over Ted Hughes’s abandonment, I howled along with her. Plath’s pain edged my view of the Badlands, my observations of Mt. Rushmore, my delighting over bison in Custer State Park. The air was full of her grief and her furious quest to be a mother, and an artist, and a woman fully alive in the world. She couldn’t find her way through it, and as I set down the book, I sobbed and opened my journal. My own wrestling with these questions turned into a love letter to her, a siren’s call to come away with me—not Hughes, me—and together we would wrest our dreams from the world and paper the great monuments of Western art with our ambitions.
The piece came quickly, pulled with blood and guts still clinging from that place deep within, where art emerges from the bones of experience. I thought that might be the end form of it, an impassioned diary entry, a lament poured out in salty tears. But then a submissions call came across my news feed for a review I’d heard of before, 3 Elements. The idea is much like the word challenge we give each other in Writers on the Avenue: work 3 words into a piece of writing, any way you want to. I saw the ideas in my Plath piece that lent themselves to those words. So I added them in.
I knew something wasn’t quite right, that I hadn’t quite “got” it yet; the piece didn’t sing. I brought it to a WOTA meeting and read it there. My colleagues at once saw that the narrative voice needed adjustment, that more of the narrator needed to emerge. That proved the piece that was missing. I revised, polished, sent in the piece to 3 Elements. The worst they could do was say no.
They said yes. Within a few days, the acceptance email came. There was one editorial request, and the suggestion to call it a piece of creative nonfiction (which it was, though I had, out of habit, submitted it as fiction). I complied with both requests, glad for the guidance. The agreement was made. I filled in the contributor’s form. My piece “On Reading the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 2” will come out in the October issue, the same month that Plath’s letters will be published and available for you to buy from your favorite bookseller.
Altogether, from first writing to acceptance, the process took about 11 days.
And now I want this to be my life ALL THE TIME.
Should we beat our breasts and despise ourselves, then, when this is *not* the publication path for the vast majority of our writing, that clear slice of the arrow from mind to page? What to do when a work we have equally put our hearts in, and equally feels finished—like several short stories I’m circulating alongside my third collection—gets rejected again and again and again? Should we hurl accusations and deprecations at ourselves, sneer insults, call names? What about round 13 of revisions to the novel—13!—after we thought version 12 was finished? Should we assume the magic spark is missing and bury it in the oblivion of a computer file we never revisit? Or do we take up the pen, carry on, keep our eye on the vision, and—like the doomed narrator K in Kafka’s The Trial—wait patiently at the door of judgment, hoping it will open?
I think what I’ll do is be grateful I wrote a piece that meant something to me and it found a publication home where it may mean something to someone else, may speak of the same questions in another writer/mother/wife/woman-artist’s heart. I think I’ll keep looking for homes for the short stories, if I continue to believe in what they say. And I think I’ll revise the novel one more time, just this once, and see if it, too, can finally emerge into the best version of itself.
And if the stories and the novels never find a home, I’ll still be here, at my desk, working on Project Next. Because that’s how this works.
Happy writing, and may all your arrows fly true.