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Once a Writer But . . .


Lately—well, the last year or so—I've been involved in a project which intends to foster the editing and publishing of book-length manuscripts by relatively long-established nonfictionists. My book Lineage and Steven Harvey's Folly Beach served as the first test cases. In the coming year and perhaps later years the two of us and the poet-essayist Kathryn Winograd expect to apply what we've learned from our experiment to manuscripts by three more writers, in hopes of their books emerging in the near future. At base we're trying to give support and encouragement to people like us who, even though they find it challenging to place their recent writing with the kind of trade or university presses that published their work in the past, still keep writing personal essays and memoirs. As we're well aware, we're not the only ones this happens to.


As if I needed confirmation of that, I recently read an essay posted online in Kenyon Review titled "On Not Giving Up," by Laura Maylene Walter. She tells us of her decision years ago to "keep writing even if I never publish again." Writing, she says, "can be a breeding ground for loneliness, self-doubt, and self-loathing; it's rife with rejection; it's tough on both the spine and the heart; and there's pitifully little money in it, and often just as little respect." She adds, "It's not easy to stay the course through the years and decades, especially if you feel you don't have much to show for it." Later she explains her recurring struggles with "how frustrating the writing was," claiming that over the years she was "racking up hundreds—probably thousands—of rejections." In spite of that she kept writing.


It will come as no surprise that, despite Walter's account of her bouts with frustration and self-doubt, her refusal to simply quit writing resonates with me and, I'm certain, with most writers unable to break the habit. Something there is in writers that can't resist a blank page, that needs to scribble ideas upon it. My wife and I have been decluttering our dwelling lately and I continue to unearth ancient artifacts of my own writing life, a vast assortment of manuscripts and typescripts and printouts and publications of all kinds—columns and reviews, articles and essays, plays and poems and songs and scripts—and an overwhelming volume of handwritten journal entries dating back many decades. I'm also only too aware of how many project logs and reflective posts (which I often refer to as "whining journal entries") and the like take up bytes and kilobytes and megabytes on my succession of laptops, flashdrives, CDs, and floppy disks, not to mention various "clouds" somewhere.


Much of it—maybe even most of it—is overwhelming evidence of an obsession with expression. I even keep a Blog Log, to report to myself what I've been doing or have done or may possibly do to generate another entry. When I'm not specifically working on something I'll write about that in a file—the Notes entry I tend to compose every other Friday now always ends with this quote from me: "Avoiding work by writing about all the work I have to do is a standard device of mine that seems to be working." To my mind, it counts as writing. What got me into writing was not a desire to publish but a need to clarify my thinking by wrestling with the words I use to express it. It's generated a lot of sentences over the years.


In her essay on not giving up, Laura Maylene Walter reports that, though she finally has a debut novel, Body of Stars, coming out (and apparently an agent, since it went to auction), "that doesn't mean it's smooth sailing." She adds that "what we're all living through now—a global pandemic, a renewed and overdue call for justice for Black lives, continued political upheaval, climate change, and beyond—can make the pursuit of the writing life seem frivolous." I recently heard a writer friend express reluctance about posting something light, something lyrical, something intimate on her own blog or Facebook page, nervous about being thought to be indifferent to the terrible times we live in, as if she didn't feel the anxiety and anger and outrage that so many of us feel overwhelmed by. But I know she does feel it all, as I do, as do most of the people whose Facebook posts I "like." That doesn't mean that any of us need to entirely abandon everything else that matters to us, ignore the things that grow out of who we are. As Walters observes, "we keep going, and we continue trying to make something meaningful with our words."


Wherever my future writing takes me—and wherever my future editing might help other writers take their writing—I'll hope that the words end up being necessary, being honest, being meaningful. I'll hope that we won't give up.


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