In The Gift, Lewis Hyde calls creativity a gift “bestowed upon the self.” He adds, “men or women must work to perfect their gifts.” Implicit in this point of view is that one is either gifted or not. Hyde is wary of the marketplace in which while attempting to sell work, the artist will compromise his or her art.
When I graduated with an MFA from the University of Montana in 1976, most of us who wrote shared this mindset: It was all about the art. No one mentioned networking. Marketing meant selling out. We had our role models: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bly, Kesey, Thompson—successful writers who rebelled against the system. They sold books and filled auditoriums with fans.
Those days, you got a job as a bartender or a painter or construction worker, found a cheap apartment with friends and wrote in your free time. Every few months, you sent out a story or a few poems. If you got published, an agent would contact you and you’d get a book deal. Agents and publishers took chances on new writers. Once you had a book out, you could pick up a job teaching. Richard Hugo headed the program at Montana, and writers like Bill Kittredge, John Haines and Ed McClanahan (each with one book out) taught.
When I was finishing up at the U, I sent out a few poems. Three were accepted by Michael Benedict at The Paris Review. Two were taken by John Henry at Ploughshares. Richard Hugo said he’d be happy to talk to his editor at Norton to help get my first book published whenever it was ready. It looked like clear sailing.
What I didn’t know then is that writers, like everyone else, are tribal. Hugo was offering me the opportunity to join his tribe. I nodded but did not follow up. Getting published seemed pretty easy.
I kept in touch with a few of my MFA peers following graduation, but two of them stopped writing. Another returned to school for an Ed D. Smart, since it means qualifying for a host of jobs that an MFA won’t help with. Others stayed in the area and worked their intern connections or went on to work for the university. I moved back to Boston.
Over the next few years, I’d send out poems and stories; a few were published in small magazines. I received some nice rejections from Poetry and The New Yorker. I taught for two years at an International School in Iran. Around that time, Hugo died.
I returned to the U.S. and taught in high schools and colleges for the next 25 years. I did not, however, network. I thought that if I wrote good stuff, I would be successful. I’ve had three books of poetry published by small presses, none named Norton. A book of short stories I’ve been sending out for years was finally accepted by a new press. I’ve published over 100 poems in magazines and journals, a dozen short stories and articles, but not on a regular basis.
Today, people have a different attitude about self-promotion and marketing than they did 30 years ago. Writers can self-publish or write a blog or publish their own online magazine. Because of the advent of social media, people routinely engage in self-promotion and networking. More than ever before, with the proliferation of MFA programs and online magazines, how well one does as a writer is as dependent on who the writer knows as much as what the writer produces. There are thousands of talented writers out there.
A friend of mine has his own press, produces a magazine, writes a poetry column in a local newspaper, hosts a show on community television, runs a reading series and teaches writing classes. A local press published his chapbook of prose poems without even reading it. My former student went to NYU and interned at the Huffington Post. After graduation, she stayed in New York and started an online magazine with a few friends. Now I see her byline everywhere.
For good or ill, writing poetry and fiction, like writing articles, is a business. Looked at from this angle, it isn’t surprising that Emily Dickenson was not successful when she was alive. Being brilliant really didn’t matter much. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain – those dudes knew how to promote themselves.
So, join a tribe. Learn the language. Pay homage to the chief. If he or she offers to help publish your book, do not hesitate; just say yes.