Why didn't I self-publish?

I could have published this work myself, but I petered out and let myself down -- or did I?

Published September 6, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I always wanted to be a writer. Stories filled my head. Sometimes I worried about living in a dream world, but mostly I enjoyed my alter egos, enjoyed giving them careers I couldn't have, lives I didn't live.

In the meantime, I married, had a child, worked hard in my field. Everybody who knows me thinks of me as practical, organized, somebody who gets things done. Nobody thinks of me as an artist. I know that for a fact; more than once, when a committee is organized or a group is formed, a member has made a point of describing some participants as "creative" or "artistic" and others, like me, as -- not.

This didn't completely bother me. I am organized, I'm good at planning, and those characteristics helped me to a long and very successful career. I found some outlet for my writing: I started newsletters for my employer, and for other groups I joined. People liked the newsletters, and the company newsletter actually won an award.

After my daughter grew up and moved out, I had more time, and I began, slowly, to write fiction. Character studies, short stories, finally a novel, then another novel. After searching for years (I live in a small town) I found a writing teacher who helped me grow. For awhile I daydreamed about getting published, appearing on "Oprah." I knew how unlikely that was, so I decided that all I really wanted was for people to know that I was a writer, for some people, a few people, to read what I wrote.

Where was my husband in this? Uncomfortable. He doesn't read fiction. We have a lot in common, we are active volunteers for community and political organizations, but he doesn't understand my need to write. He asked me once if I'd ever make any money from it; I told him that was unlikely. He rarely reads anything I write, even the newsletter I do for one of our organizations, and if he does read it, he never has anything to say, unless he notices a typo. I don't have anyone to read my work.

My writing teacher retired. A group of her former students met for awhile, but that ended, too. Finally I read that our library was sponsoring a group of writers, so I eagerly explored it. The library is having a celebration of local authors. The library will stock your book. Our newspaper is planning a feature, as is the local NPR station.

That was perfect for me. All I wanted was recognition that I was a writer, and the possibility that someone would read my latest novel. I just had to self-publish.

So I went to the website, and tried. I'm pretty sophisticated with computer software, but I had a lot of trouble. Asking around, and checking the Internet, I discovered that my problems weren't unusual. The self-publisher will do a lot of the work for you, I heard. It'll cost $200 to $500, but it will be done right.

I didn't do it. We have the money. I know my husband would think it's stupid -- we have a friend who self-published several years ago, and my husband couldn't get over it. However, I can't blame him. If I had wanted to, I could have.

The deadline for the library program has passed. I am disappointed in myself, and confused. Why didn't I do it? I have spent a lifetime getting things done. Why couldn't I do this?

Should I Be a Do-It-Yourselfer?

Dear Do-It-Yourselfer?

I suspect one reason you didn't do this is because sustained effort requires motivation, and motivation is affected by external circumstances as well as inner drive. So you have to do two things. You have to enrich and enliven your inner drive, and you also have to change some of your external circumstances, or at least change how they are affecting you.

First, let's talk about the inner drive. Why can't you be on "Oprah"? If that's what you really want, then why not use it to motivate you? Yes, the odds are against you. But that is not the point. The point is to use a vital and exciting dream to motivate you. You may not get on "Oprah," but by aiming at it, you will get maybe a tenth, or a hundredth, of what it is like to go on "Oprah." And that will be more than you have now.

As far as your external circumstances, you are kindling this little flame of a dream in a damp and dreary atmosphere. Your husband is negative. You had a friend who self-published and apparently was met with ridicule. Your friends and associates do not see the artist in you. This dream of yours has not had sufficient support and encouragement. It is hard to maintain optimism and motivation in a negative environment.

It is also hard when the goal is not really exciting to you. This business at the library does not sound all that exciting. Does it really excite you? I think you need to aim higher and get excited about your goal, and then -- again -- find a way to insulate yourself from the negative messages around you. If you cannot insulate yourself from them, you can at least learn to counter them by actively responding, defending yourself and your dream, and also by balancing them with more positive messages from a supportive mentor and peers.

You don't need to limit your search for a writing mentor and/or writing group to those people in your town. There are many people who can be found in ads in Poets and Writers magazine, and on the Internet, who will serve as writing coaches. You can do consultations by phone and through email. You can also do the Amherst Writers and Artists method in real time via video conferencing -- as I have proven with my online writing workshops.

So you need not be limited in your ambitions by your locale.

Now, you say you want people to know you are a writer. Being a writer and having people know it are two different things. The way to be a writer is to write. The way for people to know you are a writer is to publish. The most effective signal that you are a writer is to have someone else publish your work and pay you for it.

Now, the Amherst Writers and Artists method, which I use in my workshops, states famously that "A writer is someone who writes." When we meet together and write, we are ipso facto writers. No one can tell me I am not a writer if I am writing. No one can tell me I am not a quilter if I am quilting. But in people's minds, "being a writer" usually means having somebody else publish your work and pay you for it.

Wouldn't it be great to announce to people that a reputable publisher has accepted your work and is paying you for it? I am a big supporter of writing as a solitary pursuit. But if you want people to know you are a writer, you will have the most success in communicating by finding a reputable publisher to accept your work.

The fact that you are well-organized and a good planner and have had a successful career is great. Many writers are poorly organized, do not plan well and are not comfortable financially. They must struggle hard to mount the kind of campaign that will result in publication. So you are ahead of the game.

So, in short, I suspect that you didn't follow through with the self-publication plan because that's not what you really wanted. Because it's not what you really wanted, you weren't sufficiently motivated to achieve it. I suspect that what you really want is to be published and recognized for your work. So I suggest you rededicate yourself to your dream of publishing a novel and getting on "Oprah." Why not? Who's to stop you from dreaming?

Dream big. That way you will have something to strive for.

By Cary Tennis

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