What is the value of difficulty?
It strikes me that self-publishing and traditional publishing, in terms of what these processes demand in terms of writing, are at opposite ends of the spectrum of difficulty.
Traditional publishing is all about difficulty—so much so, at times, that it seems designed to be difficult. You’ve written a book… and now you must query agents, and win an agent, and then that agent has to submit to editors, and then editors who like it have to submit to editorial boards, and editorial boards have to get the publisher to sign off, and the whole publishing company has to get excited about it and make the book, and then they have to sell it into bookstores in order to get it on the shelves… all this before a customer/reader ever sees the book. Jumping through hoops, some call it, and I’m sure we all sometimes feel like circus monkeys, leaping ever higher for that juicy banana.
But the basic fact is that there are far more writers than there are slots available in the traditional publishing world. There is a winnowing, and that winnowing is difficult and painful (though not always rational). Every step of that process, every new hoop, puts pressure on a writer. And the writer must meet these challenges, must jump through higher and higher hoops, if they want to be published.
The self-publishing process, on the other hand, is easy (again, just in terms of what the process requires of the writing; self-publishing brings a host of other difficulties into play—I mean, the formatting alone would probably kill me). There are no hoops in self-publishing. You have a piece of writing, and you decide to publish it. The end--assuming you have the money, chutzpah, and determination to go through with the process.
But what does this mean for writing?
I ask this because I think difficulty is important. I think difficulty is what pushes us. I think it’s uncommon to get to Great along the wonderful road of Easy. Not impossible, certainly, and some people will do just that. But not many. I think greatness is most often found on that ugly detour through the Town of Hardship and Toil.
Now, this is important: I’m not trying to say anything about the value of self-publishing, or the talent of self-published writers. Self-publishing is important, and perhaps vital and necessary. Traditional publishing is flawed. Frankly, a lot of people like to rake it over the coals, but it’s a human endeavor, and, like every human endeavor before it, traditional publishing is imperfect. We have to continue to make it better. And yet we also have to find a way for important voices to be heard, voices that have been missed or ignored by traditional publishers—voices that, without another option, would be lost to time, drifting in those dim places where dead voices gather and whisper of their what ifs.
Self-publishing is vital. My friend Renee has a book, and it tackles controversial subjects in a way that's possibly controversial . Would it have a chance with a traditional publisher? I can imagine how some of those risk/reward analyses might go. Self-publishing, on the other hand, offers an avenue into the public discourse (or a potential avenue, anyhow—audiences certainly aren’t guaranteed).
Or Neesha Meminger, who wrote what everyone said was a great book, and whose next book was not picked up. Suits, sitting in offices, fiddled with cuffs and collars and expensive shoes, fearful of low sales, fearful, perhaps, of books about brown people, and too lost in dreams of blonde vampires to see the audience out there, wating, waiting, waiting...
Traditional publishing is flawed. There are important voices that need to be heard, and self-publishing can give voice to silenced songs.
Yet I worry.
Some self-published writers will push themselves. They will push their craft to its limits, and find a way to write the best things they can.
But human nature, in general, is often like water: it seeks the path of least resistance. Why face rejection? Why face up to the No and the Not for me? Why try to push through a wall when a door is already open? How many writers, right now, are deciding to skip the traditional process? And how many of them will fail to live up to the possibility of their own stories?
Because there’s a reason we should face the rejection. It’s not nice to hear that No. But, if you listen really carefully, in the silence of your own head and heart, you will hear another No. And this is your own No. This is a No deep inside you, saying No, my book isn’t ready, it’s true, I can do better. It won’t be easy, but I can do better. And I will. Yes, I will.
That No leads to a Yes. A Yes inside, and perhaps, at some point, a Yes outside, too. A Yes to one hoop, and then another. But that first Yes is the most important. That one that says Yes, this is what I meant to write, and Yes, this is the best I can write it.
This, to me, is the value of difficulty.
It’s like with running (because I like running): you decide you want to be in the Olympics. You go out and you train for six months, running hard, three days a week. You get fitter and faster. You fly. You feel great. And then you go to a race full of Olympic hopefuls. You’re going to run the 1500m. You’ve been training for it. You’re fast.
The gun goes off, you run, and run, and you cross the finish line. You’re fast! You ran it in five minutes. The problem, of course, is that the other hopefuls all ran it in under four minutes. One guy even broke three and a half…
So what do you do?
The next week you hear about another race. Last year, no one ran this race under five and a half minutes. You can win this race. And you’re fast. Not many people can run 1500m in five minutes. You feel great. You’re healthy. Picking up this running thing was the best thing you ever did. You’re happy running.
What do you do?
Do you go to this other race? You’ll be successful. You’ll be fast and happy. Why not? There’s nothing stopping you. And it’s a great choice.
But maybe you’ll always wonder what it would be like to be in the Olympics.
And, the thing is, it’s not even about being in the Olympics. It’s not about winning a medal, or some idea of glory, or a tag you can put on your chest, or the title you put after your name on a business card. It’s about a simple question: how fast can you run?
You can go to the second race. You’ll be happy. But you could also look at those runners heading to the Olympics. Why were they faster? Were they simply better and more talented than you? Or are they going to the Olympics because they did not train for six months, but for sixteen years? Because they did not run three days a week, but seven? Because, perhaps, they put everything into their running, studying and training and endlessly searching out, step by step, the perfect biomechanical rhythms?
There are no wrong paths, no wrong choices. And it is not about self-publishing or traditional publishing. These are, in the end, rather fickle determiners. It’s about the writing. That, in the end, is all that really matters.
And perhaps, for some, it’s a moot point. Different writers have different wants for their writing. Not every writer will want to face the hardship and toil involved in learning to write the very best thing they can write. Many people will write something, love it, and simply want to share it.
There’s something wonderful about this, and something pure. This is the heart of writing: the desire to communicate, to share something.
And yet I believe, too, in writing as an art. I believe in the power of difficulty. Every year, running records are broken. We go faster and faster because something is pushing us, hurling us past our boundaries, past all the things that once held us back. We have something to reach for, a chance to find the best of ourselves. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible. And yet we run.
We do not know our potential until we try. Until we push ourselves. Until we find out what lies on the other side of difficulty.
I worry, in a world of self-publishing, that many writers capable of greatness will settle for good, or pretty good, or good enough. Some, certainly, will find greatness, will push themselves regardless of the influence of the worlds in which they move and write. But human nature is human nature, and it’s oh so easy to run downhill, oh so easy to settle, perhaps, without even knowing we're settling.
And yet a lot of writers in the traditional system, perhaps, would never reach this point. They would run that first race, see how far behind the other runners they were, and hang up their cleats. No Olympics, no local race. Just a few beers, more time on the couch, and those moments, in the silence of memory, when they recall the feel of the ground beneath their feet, that sense of floating, of flying, of running.
Perhaps self-publishing can keep dreams alive, can keep these people writing. But how will writers push their writing to new heights when it’s so easy to run downhill and the world is tilting ever southward?
What about you? I know some of you have self-published, and I’d love hear your thoughts (whatever the path you’ve chosen). What led to your choice? What has it meant to your writing? How do you push yourself, or is that even important? What does the difficulty of writing mean to you? And are you better for it?
And how fast can you run?