Why Creative Nonfiction Writers are Scared of Self-Publishing

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I’ve been thinking about the place of self-publishing in the creative nonfiction (CNF) world since last summer when I participated in a round-table discussion on publishing in which my perspective as a self-published blogger was not well received. Granted, I was flustered and may not have represented my point well, but it seems that while fiction writers are embracing self-publishing a little at a time, the CNF community largely rejects it and sees any writer who pursues it as naive, vain, and delusional.

There’s a belief among CNF writers that association with a traditional publisher lends us credibility. Obviously, credibility is essential to anyone who writes nonfiction. Additionally, we believe that being accepted by the publishing establishment proves our worth as writers. I don’t know why we still believe this because I’ve seen plenty of truly awful books published the old fashioned way, but we cling to this idea like a middle schooler trying to believe in Santa Claus.

The flip side of our over-valuing of traditional publishing is that we believe self-publishing devalues our work. We believe if it were any good, an editor would have picked it up or that if the writer were not so lazy, she would have shopped it around. These are self-defeating assumptions rooted in intellectual classism, which tells us someone Up There, some overdressed academic in a sky scraper is a more qualified judge of our work than we are.

This may be vain of me, but I disagree. It’s true that writers get attached to our favorite sentences (no matter how awful they are) and everyone can use editorial help, but if we decide what’s good writing based on what’s popular, then it’s no surprise mainstream literature is going the way of pop music. Hint: Incredibly innovative and beautiful music is still being made every day, but you’re not going to hear it on your top 40 station.

Some writers will say, “aim high and work your way down,” a piece of advice I heard repeated many times at Goucher last summer. I get it. Everyone wants to publish big. Everyone wants a book deal. I want to be paid an advance and have a publisher finance my trip around the world so I can write about it, but those opportunities are increasingly rare. So you can pursue that, and that’s great because sometimes that path works out for people. But it very often doesn’t work out, and even traditionally published authors suffer from low sales numbers and awkward party conversations in which you have to explain your book to people who have never heard of it and are only pretending to be interested. So if that path looks miserable to you, pick something else.

Self-pub is equally difficult and lacking in guarantees, but it’s no less valid. Yes, there is a risk of entering a flooded market, but there’s also the possibility that your audience will find you where a publishing house wouldn’t have reached them. Maybe they wouldn’t have given your weird book a chance. Maybe “that’s not selling this year.” Maybe they just don’t think anyone cares about your story. But if you care enough about your story to write it, you should write it. And if it’s important to you to publish it, you should publish it.

If you want to be a famous writer and sell millions of books, I can’t tell you how to do that. I’m not even sure I’d want to do that if I knew how. What I do want is the ability to write what matters most to me and reach people in a meaningful way. Self-publishing gives me the opportunity to do that and the control the do it in a way that’s sustainable for me. And by sustainable, I mean it doesn’t make me hate my life. That’s goal number one.

At the end of the day, it’s up to writers to decide the future of publishing. The more we cater to “what sells,” the more mainstream literature homogenizes just like pop music. Independent musicians, film makers, and fiction writers have taken it upon themselves to do their work and publish it regardless of the nod from on high, but for some reason, the CNF community can’t do that. The only reason I can see is fear:

  • fear that you lack the credibility and validation supplied by a publishing house.
  • fear of being seen as a lesser writer by your peers.
  • fear of having to explain self-publishing to people.
  • fear that you’ll never sell enough books to make any money.
  • fear that you will publish something terrible and no one will have the heart to tell you.
  • … or that they will.
  • fear that you will negate future opportunities by marring yourself with the sin of self-publishing.

In other words, the CNF community still believes that self-publishing is not for serious writers, so I think it’s time we clear this up:

If you write and you’re serious about it, you’re a serious writer. If you write and you laugh about it, you’re a humorous writer. If you write and you’re a judgmental jerk about it, guess what that makes you. 🙂

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my sketchy night

 

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I’m a little embarrassed because I know these are not good drawings, but I had fun trying and I’m totally doing it again.

I went to Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art school in Baltimore last night. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I moved here and haven’t done for the usual bullshit reasons. Since the Junkyard Dolls had a fundraising event there last night and since that’s my league big sister’s team, it seemed like a good opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and try something fun.

I don’t technically know how to draw, but that’s OK because a lot of the people there were very good at it. I like being an amateur surrounded by experts. I like to let them teach me, and they like to teach. I was intimidated by this one girl whose art work was really fabulous, but when we had a break I mentioned that I really liked her drawings. She immediately opened up and wanted to share — “This chick lost 10 pounds when I added the background color!” She held up her drawing of Suzy Pow’s muscles, and it was basically perfection. People shared their supplies and encouraging words, and though I don’t see myself joining a competitive art league any time soon, I’ll probably go back for another round.

Here are some things I drew last night. In case it’s not clear, I’m not requesting a critique from the internet at large. When I look at what other people drew last night, I feel a million miles away from them, but I was happy enough with these to share them.  Also, no one is allowed to be mad at me if they don’t like the picture I drew of them. I get amnesty as a shitty artist whose only merit is that she draws with love.

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Speculation

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I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d made all the right decisions in life, but all I can’t quite picture it.

I used to be a regular at this diner back home. The kitchen staff knew me by name, and the head cook still says hi when I go in. The waiters knew my order, and the waitresses pretended to believe me when I told them I was 21 but “couldn’t find” my ID. My friends and I would meet at the diner, drink a pot of coffee, walk to the book store to loiter, and maybe wind up at a punk show if anyone knew where one was. Sometimes we would play music down by the water — Danny would play guitar while Gary and I improvised lyircs. Gary sang in his lovely tenor “Why, why, why, would you do this to me?”  and I jumped in with, “You do it to yourself,” because I was unwilling to take part in a love song about victimhood. In the summer, there was a fountain in the park that ran till 10 p.m., so we would go play in it, always forgetting that we would then have to spend the rest of our night in wet clothes. Life was pretty amazing for a couple years there, but I wonder what would’ve happened if I stayed.

Everyone in my family went to LSU but me. My entire life, it was assumed I would go to LSU, but certain ones of my classmates who were preppier than me but by my calculations not smarter had plans to attend ivy league schools and launch brilliant careers. This would not do. I applied to two colleges, was accepted to both and offered a scholarship to one. I accepted it and got as far as freshman orientation before realizing I didn’t want to go there. For reasons that aren’t relevant to this story, I chose to attend UT-Arlington — a little-known little sister of UT Austin. I felt very certain when I made that decision that I was doing the “wrong” thing but for some reason felt compelled to do it.

I often look at that moment in my life as the turning point for the person I have become. I cannot imagine the person I would be if I had gone to that private school, lived in those dorms, studied with those professors, and partied with those private school kids. Truth was, I’d already spent the past 4 years partying with private school kids, and it wasn’t that fun anymore. I never really fit in. I wasn’t very studious, either. I wasn’t used to trying so when things got to be a little work, I pretended not to care about them. I had my handful of friends in whom I found safety, but I wasn’t growing in my hometown anymore. I needed to move on, even if it was in a direction that looked sketchy at best.

Looking sidelong into this alternate dimension, I see a version of me who is exactly like the girl I was back home, just older. She has read some books and written some things. She has had some interesting lovers but no one she ever respected very much. Except maybe some professor — an affair whose eventual demise would provide her the realization that adults actually don’t know shit. Alternate dimension me looks a lot less happy than I am right now, even though she did everything right. I think she’s still waiting for someone to tell her she’s good enough.

Meanwhile, in this dimension, I’ve been through some shit. I’ve got injuries. I know a couple things about being hurt and hurting others, but I’ve also learned a lot about kindness, and I think that came from making my mistakes.

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Monday Night Nonfiction: Warm

Sad man in the streets of San Francisco

On a Friday afternoon in San Francisco, I decided to take a walk. Nimby was working late, and I wanted to pass the time till we could go to dinner together. I walked from his office on Folsom St. to The Embarcadero and proceeded along the water all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. The sun was going down, the end of our stay in SF was near, and I really missed my cat. Nothing was wrong, but I felt lonely and homesick.

“What would make this better?” I kept asking myself. I had a little cash in my pocket. I could go shopping or stop for a drink. I could find a place to sit and watch people or stare out at the water. “What do I want right now? What would make me happy?”

Eventually, I came up with an answer: “It would be really nice to have a friend, not to be alone, to be warm.”

As the sun set, the cool wind off the water was gaining strength, driving home both the chill and the loneliness. Sure, I’d be having dinner with my husband soon, but at that moment, I felt totally isolated. Even as I had these thoughts, I was walking into the most blatant tourist trap in town. Dressed in the baggiest jeans I own and several layers of clothing, walking alone and sporting ratty pink hair (my hair had a rough week), I became aware of the suspicious glances I was getting from tourists.

As I entered a section of tightly packed souvenir shops — the kind that look the same in every sea-side town — I heard a man complaining about the tourists who couldn’t spare enough change to get a burger. It’s true that I have a history of giving my pocket change to the first person who asks when I leave my hotel, but I had no intention of giving this man anything. I checked my phone for a status update from the husband and was just reaching to put it back in my pocket when the man saw me, assumed I was reaching for cash, and began to thank me. It was too late. We’d made eye contact. I finished putting my phone away and moved to another pocket to fish out a dollar. Caught up in my own awkwardness, I may have smirked by accident.

“Please don’t laugh at me,” the man said.

I took a second to look at him. He looked in his 50s, tired, weathered. He wore a thin wind breaker.

“I wouldn’t laugh at you,” I said. “You’re a human being.” I gave him a dollar, and he hugged me. He even kissed me on the cheek and exclaimed about how cold my skin was. His face was rough and bristly.

“Your skin is cold, but you have a warm heart,” he said.

Our exchange lasted all of 10 seconds, then I kept walking. A few minutes later, I got a phone call from Nimby and went off to meet him and a friend for dinner in the poshest apartment building I’ve ever seen. We had a nice night. We were warm, and we ate well.

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Monday Night Nonfiction: Post Card from San Francisco

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I love San Francisco, but I always feel a little bit sad here. At first, I was sad because I wanted to live here and it wasn’t going to happen. Then, I was sad because I also love my home, and being away from it for a long time is hard for me. I come out here for a week or two at a time while my husband is working in town, and that’s two weeks away from my Mao, my yoga classes, my favorite baristas … my home. Wherever I am, though, it’s easier if I’m with Nimby because “home is wherever I’m with you.” So, as long as we’re together, I know we’ve got family taking care of our house and the cat, and everyone will be there when we get back.

Still, I find things to be sad about. It is an understatement to say there’s a homelessness problem in SF. Many of the city’s homeless are visibly ill, suffering from delusions, depression, mania, and addictions. I always wind up giving all my pocket change to one person and then walking around the city wishing I had a lot more pocket change. I know no one expects me to save the entire homeless population of SF. I feel compassion for them, and sometimes that feels a lot like sadness.

That’s not to say I’ve been depressed the whole trip — far from it. It’s been sunny with blue skies since I got here, and we’ve had a beautiful time. That little bit of sadness is ever-present, and it reminds me that I’m not sad about where I live or because I’m home sick. Sometimes I’m a little bit sad because stuff is so beautiful and it can’t last forever.

When I came out here for my 30th birthday, I had the most amazing week. On one of our last days, we went to this burrito place in the Mission for lunch, and it was a perfectly sunny day, and I took a bite of this burrito and got misty eyed (one tear!) about how fucking good it was. No, I wasn’t stoned. I just felt really thrilled and lucky to be alive, and a little sad because it was such a fleeting moment.

 

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