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QUINTESSENCE

I Don't Know What It Is

 

In a little over a month, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, my fourth book and third novel, will be published. I am excited for the novel's release as this story feels exceptional and special. It has been several years for me between books, yet always the work of writing remains cyclic—the process of a project culminates in either a celebration of publication or a failed manuscript's wake and burial, then resumes quietly where it began, back at the beginning. Any number of years can accumulate like potholes, lean-tos, or wildflower fields between these beginnings and endings. In the experience accumulated in the years from my first published book, nearly twenty years ago, to SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER this September, I have learned that for me, the day of publication is a minor movement in the overall symphony.


 
Publication marks the moment we let our story out into the world. Publication represents the culmination of the draft and edit steps that have come before, plus the expertise and faith of industry professionals who believe that what you have to say has value and commercial worth. A book, a play, a poem: Writing shaped from a private inner artistic struggle to become an object of a stranger's consideration and pleasure. The greatest sense of accomplishment for me, however, lies not in publication but in completion of the final manuscript. The creative journey from its original idea through endless drafts to that last period. That final paragraph and final sentence. The knowledge that the work is done and as good as I can make it.
 
What lies ahead after publication? The measure of a creative work's success. Success is not the work. Success for an artist or writer is generally defined as the critical and/or sales impact of one's work in the world: a transactional value in the commercial markets of public domain. Michael Cunningham addressed the subject of success by saying, "I don't talk about success. I don't know what it is. Wait until I'm dead."
 
What happens to art in the market may be a matter of positive or negative timing, of circumstance, serendipity, or chance. A book may garner critical applause and tank in sales, another may leave not so much as a ripple in the critical world and yet gain great traction in sales and audience appeal. Sometimes the two things go hand in hand. But the author in truth has no control over these things and releasing the work into the world is therefore foremost a prayer that the book will find a path of good will. It is also a personal surrender of expectation. The work the author wrote, the painting the artist painted, is never the book or painting the public sees and receives. Every artist's private vision is translated by the understanding of others. Only the reader or the viewer knows what the work means to them.
 
Authors are expected by the publishing industry to play a role in the marketing and sales of their work. To hand-sell their published work at the expense of creating new work, more so if the publisher is a small press and resources are scarce. When we ask a writer or artist to promote their work, we ask them to market their private point of view, to hawk their inner creative, knowing the market is, finally, largely indifferent to these things. To that end, most writers self-promote with deep discomfort, and, rather badly. Our turf is the library group, the book club, the book panel. Despite notable exceptions, writers are not generally natural celebrities in the way, say, film stars are—willing promoters of the cult of the persona. For most writers and artists, the inner creative is fragile and unpredictable, and dies in harsh light. This vulnerability can destroy the walls between the process and the finished work, walls that protect the genesis of creativity from overt commercial motivation or critical concern. Pablo Picasso put it this way, "Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others."
 
The book publication date is a moment of great pride. It is the finish of an endurance race. When a book goes out into the world, my hope is always that others will appreciate what I created, resonate to its meter and melody. Pleasing a reader is forever the purest joy. That comment in the book signing line when a stranger confesses how moved they are by what you've written, and shares with you, like a friend, all the reasons why? That is the truest feeling of success.
 
As to that other success, I'm hopeful but I've learned to be wise. Who knows. Ed Ruscha perhaps said it best, "That's me, the twenty-five-year overnight sensation."

 

 

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