A former professor of mine at Florida International University, Campbell McGrath, once told me, “The saddest day in a writer’s life is the day his first box of books arrives.” At the time, I thought he was nuts. Ever since I decided I wanted to turn this writing stuff into a career, I’d been singularly driven. Book deal or bust. Then again, I’ve always been a bit obsessive.
Time doesn’t work the same for us writers as it does for others. Part of that involves the immediacy of digital communication. Because we can compose, attach, and send correspondence (e.g., a submission) in a matter of seconds, we expect the same return. When we don’t get a response in seven seconds we get sad. Publishers, editors, agents simply operate on a different time table. When I left FIU halfway through 2008, thesis novel in hand, I set out to find an agent. And it took forever. At least it seemed that way. The truth is I had an agent by the end of 2009, a little over a year after graduating.
We place such importance on getting our books published that there is no way the reality can live up to the expectation. The day my first box of books arrived, it was a Tuesday afternoon, about three o’clock, partly cloudy, cool. The mailman left them outside my door, and I ran upstairs and dropped the box on the kitchen table, slicing the top and unveiling my hard work for all the world to see. Or in this case, my 8-lb. poodle, Lucky. Because no one else was home. It was mid-afternoon, and I was alone, without pants.
For the longest time, all I could think about was getting a book out there, as if doing so would somehow justify a lifetime’s worth of questionable decisions; make up for the suffering; validate an existence. And the truth was … it was just a book. Paper and spine, couple hundred pages. Smelled OK. But it didn’t answer any pressing universal question for me.
But in a way it was also very freeing. After the ennui subsided and I stuck my books on the shelf, I was able to get back to work. The focus went from getting published to what I was getting published. Being a writer in a capitalist economy ain’t easy. We have to take jobs we don’t really want, convince partners to stick by our side as we charge groceries; we tell ourselves that the prize at the end of the rainbow will make the sacrifice all worthwhile. Success feels so out of our control. As we wait for our merit to be judged by the assorted gatekeepers, the process can be maddening, depressing and soul-crushing.
I’m not saying that day my first box of books arrived was the saddest day of my life. But it was far from the happiest. In October, my fourth book, Lamentation, comes out, my first hardcover. My first shipment arrived the other day. Pretty cool. But still, when it comes to writing, the best feeling I get is when I complete a new novel I am proud of. Before the agent sees it, before a publisher accepts it, before it’s unleashed on the world. When I type that last stroke, and know I did what I wanted. I am in control of my own destiny.
Joe Clifford is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books, managing editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive, and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. Joe is the author of three books: Choice Cuts, Junkie Love, Wake the Undertaker, and Lamentation. Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com.