As I find myself mired in my perpetual 9-to-5 depression and overwhelmed by the lack of brain space to successfully ponder the distinctions between genres, the secrets of various writing processes, the difficulties of artist development and the importance of craft; I’m just plain exhausted. Under the oppression of this malaise, my thoughts wander to that mythical day in the future when money is flowing into my bank account without me showing up at anybody’s office. I’ll still work hard for my money. I’ll write until my fingers fall off. I’ll be honest, I’ll be generous, I’ll be funny, I’ll be true. Novels, collections of essays, brand-spanking-new short stories, all will flow from my newly liberated fingers. I will be alive with the challenges and gifts of writing full time. And the world will thank me for it.
As I dream my cherished fantasies and entertain visions of my desired lifestyle, I can’t help wanting to be rescued. “Oh, patron,” I ask passionately (and perhaps a little pitifully), “where art thou?”
I’ve heard there are still patrons out there. I’ve heard of a painter whose patron pays the rent on his top floor loft and bankrolls his exhibitions. I just ran into a friend on the train who said she worked on her feelings of unworthiness about money, and within weeks met a woman who not only hired her to redesign her newly-purchased brownstone, but also funds her forays into daring leatherwear.
I recently had a meeting with a marketer that caused me to consider making a commitment to commercial success. She wants to market my chapbook and position me as some expert sharing love, offering advice and dispensing pearls of wisdom. I assured her that her vision of me speaking to others and engaging with audiences wasn’t so far off the mark. In the past when I’ve made presentations based on my work, it felt like an extension of my essays. It’s a role perfectly suited to my strengths and intuitive talents. It’s a role I easily see myself fulfiling… in the future. As I rethink that conversation (and resist the reality that I have to get up and report to my 9-to-5 in the morning), one thing is becoming painfully clear: I believe commercial success and financial freedom is available to me IN THE FUTURE. (And I even cringe at the idea of writing”commercial success.” Of claiming it for my “work,” my “craft.”)
Up until now, I’ve had to do a lot of work on not confusing money and art. The value of the work and the earning power of the writer do not necessarily go hand in hand. I believe it is essential for every artist to have a clear, unwavering self-definition of their work outside of the marketplace. And whatever is done for the marketplace should be seen clearly as something that has been bought and sold. I choose not to create work based on the whims and rewards of the marketplace. I choose to privilege my own art-making instincts and interests over the requests and demands of the marketplace. That being said: what if you do want to make a living off your work AND you want to be completely loyal to yourself as an artist?
My coworker believes it impossible. Just the act of trading art for money, he believes, corrupts the art. Being paid for artwork has the power to influence the artist’s choices, and when external forces encourage the artist to change the thrust of the work, then the art-making environment is dirtied. That’s one perspective. But I happen to value the marketplace. I cannot pretend that the fact that I’ve been published doesn’t help me create new work. As I’m conjuring up new stories there is a part of me that feels reasonably certain that the new work will be published. That “reasonably certainty” creates a different dynamic than if I had been churning out the same amount of work with the same amount of dedication with no promise or history of publication.
I applaud the marketplace for drawing more work out of me. Editors who want to pay me to write an original essay encourage me to face themes and topics I might not have engaged with on my own. Responding to calls for publication and being published puts me in intimate connection with other readers and writers. The resulting conversations and considerations after someone engages with an essay expands me as a writer and a thinker. In that sense, the marketplace doesn’t corrupt me at all. In fact publication is intrinsic to my process as a writer, especially to my process as an essayist. Reviewing my list of publications, all but one of my essays would not exist if someone in the marketplace did not request it, yet each of those essays tackle an issue that resonates with me personally—everything about those essays is my own.
All of that to say, the marketplace can be a corrupting force, but if a writer is clear on her intent and focus and interests, the marketplace can be a nurturing force. Corruption occurs when the marketplace is there on your shoulder as you’re defining your art and yourself as an artist. Learning to participate in the marketplace and not leave your identity up for sale is an essential skill for an artist.
Having untwisted the strands art-making and earning an income, I told my marketing friend, while I was certain I would have the future she envisioned for me, I wasn’t banking on any one thing in particular to take me there. I told her I was in the flow. “Wow,” she said. “You really are an artist. The marketing mindset is completely different. The marketing mind says how much money do I want to make by what date? And what do I have to do to make it happen?”
I told her that was a great attitude. And I said while I agreed I had the power to have widespread influence and earning power, I didn’t know when such a burst in access to my work would happen. Maybe in five years, maybe ten.
No, she replied, you’ve got to claim it today.
There’s so much fear tied up in claiming it today. The fear of failure. The fear of corrupting my art. The fear of clinging so tightly to various outcomes that I don’t honor my process and celebrate my noncommercial successes. It’s scary to take shit to the next level. Yet I’m beginning to feel that by always envisioning my success in the future, I’ll never quite bring down the life I desire for myself. The future is forever, no matter where I stand. How will I know when I’ve arrived at that future moment when it’s time for my fantasy life to kick in?
So a new quandary is born. How do I pursue that financial success while not getting art and money twisted? How do I put my efforts into production and marketing, while leaving art in its own house, calling the shots as far as art-making is concerned? How do I reach without grasping, stretch without abandoning, make a leap without getting turned around? And if I don’t claim it for myself, how will I bring it all down?
My time might be now, might be five years, twenty years, or never, I don’t have the ultimate say in that matter. But I know I don’t want to be the one holding myself back. I don’t want my thoughts of the future me to remain a few years ahead—attractive, happy, but ultimately unattainable. The whole point of the acceptance/rejection meter is to meet success and failure laughing, with glee and without attachment. If I can do that regarding my rate of publication, why can’t I do that regarding the sale of my chapbook or a foray into marketing or some other such attempt at making the business end of this writing thing grow to sustain the art-making end?
It’s a fragile new year, and I’m starting a new decade here on earth. I’m newly concerned about wealth building in my personal life, why shouldn’t that concern reach my professional life? I’m not sure how this whole thing is going to work out, but I’m claiming it today. I’m claiming meteoric sales. I’m claiming financial success. I’m claiming passion as a writer. I’m claiming growth as a writer. I’m claiming ease and abundance. Universe—that future me—I’ll take her right now!
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
In the Januray 2004 issue of the Sun magazine, novelist Sarah Pemberton Strong relates her experiences writing her novel, finding an agent, and getting published. I thought it was telling of the often exhausting paths many writers find themselves walking just to achieve publication of their books. Pay attention to the spans of time between entries. Pemberton writes:
The agent that Olive recommended doesn’t want the book after all. I feel disappointed and somehow ashamed…. I’ve just turned twenty-eight, and I’m not where I want to be at all.
Here’s what Pat, the New York agent, said about my novel: “I think it’s an extraordinary piece of work. I stayed up all night reading it, and that hardly ever happens to me. I’m really overwhelmed by what a good writer you are.”
We talked for half an hour. She said she’s going to have someone else on her staff read it, and then she’ll call me back in a couple of days.
A week goes by, and I don’t hear from Pat. I call her office; they say she’s in the city on business. Two days later my manuscript is returned to me with a letter saying how sorry she is, that she “really, really admire[s]” my writing, but she doesn’t think she can sell it. So what the hell does it take for a book to be salable? …
I got an agent! After TWO YEARS (emphasis mine) of trying; after the near miss with Pat and one fishy offer from that agent who was later indicted for fraud; after everything, I have an agent. …
Nancy thinks it will be much easier to sell the book if the reader can imagine what the characters are going to do after the last page. She wants me to write one more chapter. I went back and forth about this: should I change something just because she thinks it will make the book easier to sell? And then I realized that she’s right—from a literary as well as a commercial standpoint. It will make the story stronger.
I have got to get rid of Nancy. I haven’t gotten any rejection letters in ten months, which means she isn’t sending the manuscript out anymore. I’ve called her numerous times, and she won’t call me back. I’ve gone from being on the back burner to falling behind the stove.
Nancy agreed we should dissolve the contract. She said she was sorry she’d “dropped the ball” on me, that she hasn’t been able to sell the book, and that I should look for someone else. I was furious but tried to be professional and polite because I still needed her to send the manuscripts back and tell me which editors have seen the book.
Then today Nancy called and said that after she’d talked to me she felt so horrible that she looked at the book again, and she really does love it. But what am I going to do? Say no? And start all over again?
I got an e-mail from Nancy. Alyson Books wants the novel. They offered me a $1,500 advance.
At first I thought it was a typo. I know it’s a small publisher, but still…. I feel like I shouldn’t take it. But then what? … I talked to Nina from my writing group. She thinks turning them down would be a mistake. She held out for more with her first book and ended up having to self-publish it. And Nina is brilliant. …
It’s going to happen. [My book] is going to be published. I called Nancy…. Then I sat on my bed in a wedge of afternoon sunshine and cried.
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : September 2002 – present : : :
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
A while ago, an editor friend invited me to submit a story to his magazine. I did, his editor didn’t like it, I noted the rejection here and moved on. Since then, his editor has left her position, and he invited me to submit another story. I submitted, he accepted—but before the story could be published, the magazine folded unexpectedly. My friends who publish in speculative fiction call this closing a magazine down. The magazine accepts your work for publication, then they fold.
I few months ago, I wrote that some editors requested changes to a story of mine. I submitted the changes (and they were right, the changes helped the story become much stronger) and they’ve verbally accepted the story. They also mentioned that the journal that intends to publish the story requires that contributors be subscribers to the magazine. In other words, they don’t generate enough revenue on their own, so they’re tapping their own contributors for funds. I responded that it was against my principles to pay to get published. And asked if it would be necessary for me to withdraw my story in the event that I did not subscribe. So I’m waiting to see the result of that exchange. Ironically, this story was something of an ugly duckling. No one wanted it. Despite my love for the story, it had been rejected numerous times. These editors found the flaws and helped me sharpen the story, now I feel positive I could get it published somewhere else. So regardless of the outcome, I feel as if I’ve won.
I submitted the KIS.list to an online publication who was seeking columnists. They rejected it with a kind note that said, “We appreciate you sharing your work with us, but regret that at this time we cannot find a place for it. Although we aren’t going to take your work, we’re glad you tried us.” Politeness does help ease the disappointment of rejections.
So I add one rejection to the meter, the acceptances remain the same.
Kiini’s Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4