Previously at the Institute, Karen had started a blog…but then she had to go back to working on her novel.
In the life of a writer, the concept of publishing takes on a meaning based not so much on accomplishment as on ascent. I will be published, hence raised up. Found worthy. Raptured and Happily-Ever-Aftered. Then IT finally arrives and IT is dragging along behind it the usual weeks of laundry undone, take-out dinners brought in, and sleepless nights lost to second thoughts. Just another big deal IT among the other big deal IT’s: the big love and lifetime commitments and babies and breakups and empty nests and new jobs and old careers and retirements and the end.
Even if you are able to establish IT on your terms, the lower case reality of it will force a shrinking of expectations. Publishing changes nothing except the way others see you. Which might be a plus if it were not for the others’ constant polite inquiries into how the books are selling.
Publishing is one of those events that may or may not occur in the life of a writer, but it is not the event that defines the life of a writer. The writing is what makes for the definition. One ought not to ask a writer what he or she has published, but what he or she has written. Chances are the question will be met with an expression of flustered consternation and much panicked gesticulating as the writer tries to describe their stuff. If we could talk about it, we wouldn’t need to write it our way through it. Our only adequate means of framing a particular piece of writing is to offer it for reading: The “I could show you my manuscript” invitation. Print-on-demand in its purest form.
The inclination is to demur with a graceful promise to wait for the book to hit the stores. (Should the book hit the stores the graceful promise becomes to wait for the film adaptation–not that
I am anyone is bitter. Or taking names.) The third-party professionally typeset material would have to be the superior read, yes? Logic based on a signed contracts and cleared checks proves the bookstore book is better than the book that cannot find financing for that professional typesetting. It must be the better book because of the risks other have invested in the publishing. It is because of risk that I’m no longer sure I agree.
I have fallen in love with reading manuscripts, work creaky, complaining, wondrously, wickedly clawing its way into being. Work in progress. Books, of the traditional sort, remain my bread and butter, my crack cocaine. I buy books simply because the book is there and I am here and I have a credit card and you can’t seriously expect me to continue living unless I leave with that book in my hands. I own more books than I could possibly read if I were to devote every remaining moment of my life to reading. Those piles of books will probably have new books piled on top of them by this time next week. These texts I have claimed as mine for reasons of research, consultation, admiration, envy, inspiration, solace, solidarity, curiosity, and just freaking cool cover art. Mainly because I know that if books are not purchased new then the making of new books is going to die. May not be able to stop the dying. Don’t have to like it.
All the same, for my taste, the most perfect read in the world is the imperfect, unproofed messily human struggle of a work in progress. My exposure to these treasures is part of my work, but it is not the work part of that it I love. The more experience I gain with my own writing, the less qualified I feel to instruct others in theirs. In the exact same way I knew so much more about parenting before my daughters were born. Manuscripts offer palpable vitality. The Here-I-am, All-of-Me text is not afraid of being surprising, expects to look the fool. Sentences are knotted with potential energy. Houses in which scenes occur are filled with doors the writer has yet to open. Characters move through their dramas, clumsy, stammering, occasionally glancing off the page as though we, reader and writer, are supposed to be seeing more of their world, more of what they are made of, more of their aliveness than we can yet imagine. The glory of a work in progress is it a thing always on its way toward becoming more.
Unlike the calcified museum piece propriety of the published edition, dorky little first drafts, second, or thirds are writings happening in the real lives of their writers as those lives are being lived; those writings are living things in and of themselves. In manuscripts before the “simplify,
simplify, simplify,” puppy killing demands of artistic rigor come roaring through the pages on their steeds of Strunk and White, you have puppies tumbling from the pulpits of rousing orators, puppies interrupting sex scenes with unnecessary panting, prolonging dialogue with goofy woofing and whimpers, raining from the sky in the description of weather. Puppies flood manuscript worlds. God bless their adorable hearts. Sometimes bunnies. Kittens. Hot chicks. Whatever you nickname your writerly self indulgences that actually make writing fun but must be gotten rid of in order to maintain the pose of the serious artist.
I am currently reading three manuscripts by three very different writers of very different styles, goals, and experience levels. I adore all three with equal ardor even as I do my work of point out those places that an editor will surely point out as not published-book-like writing. Still, I revel in all this energy and discipline, intelligence, risk, grace, hope and devotion to the alchemy of squiggly dark lines across a sheet of white. Of course, it is possible to turn lead into gold. I love every line of these three manuscripts no matter what becomes of them after they leave my desk. My life is richer for having read these writers. I hope I do get to buy these in book form and add them to the pile of texts that will not get read because now they are books; they can wait longer than the living.
After four published novels, I remember little of what the books are about but very much of how thrilling it was to write each one. And I miss my puppies.