Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writers and the artifacts of publication: Who needs clips and copies?

When I was a teenager, writing for the school newspaper, I couldn't get my hands on enough copies of the final, printed product. The same held when I began writing for magazines and newspapers. Today, when an essay appears in a book, I want at least one copy. Ditto for literary journals; and for the work which appears only online, I want a nice print-out. (Yes, I have links to everyting that's link-able, but that's different.) On my bookshelves, in my file cabinet, and in my basement and attic (where they have not, I hope, been chewed by mice or mold), copies of almost everything I ever got published, reside. It's not that I take them out and reread them, and now that we're long past the days when postal-mailing photocopies of clips to editors was essential to getting new writing assignments, I still just like knowing they are there.

I thought this was what all writers did, post-publication.

But maybe not.

Recently, two experiences have reminded me that not every writer needs to have something tangible in order to savor the writing they've completed and sent out into the world. The first reminder came via a very frequently-published writer friend (16 books, thousands of magazine and journal pieces), who nonchalantly confided she often never bothers to secure copies of the magazines and journals her work appears in; that she must have a printed copy of books number two and five around somewhere, but maybe not; that she's just too busy to spend time or energy collecting and storing "that stuff."

Huh. I found this interesting, but it was also easy to discount, in the vein of…well, if I were as frequently published as she, and had a multiple-book contract, and had just optioned a novel for TV, and was routinely invited to write for major media outlets, I could afford to be that coolly casual too. But since those things don't apply to me, I simply can't understand.

Then, there's this: During the school year just ended, my elder son wrote two lengthy articles for his high school newspaper, both wrap-ups of a sport season. He reviewed coverage of past games, interviewed coaches and players, dug up (and calculated) many statistics, wrote several drafts, and worked hard to revise and polish (and only asked me to weigh in once, maybe twice).

On deadline days, he attached his story to an email to the newspaper's student editor, and hit send. I haven't seen the articles since. Oh, they appeared in the newspapers, he got some compliments (or so he said), and my son saw each of the newspapers. Once. But then very quickly, each edition landed in that mysterious place in every teenage boy's life (and backpack) where physical things go to die. And that's just fine, as far as he's concerned.

Not me.

"Don't you want to have copies to keep?" I've asked. (What I really mean, of course, is don't you want to show me and Dad and have us be impressed? Don't you need/want to hear us say how great they look in print? Don't you want me to make multiple photocopies to send to Nana?)

"It doesn't matter," he's said.

"It does," I try to convince him. I talk to him about clip files, an online portfolio, college applications, wanting one day to get an assignment to write for a college newspaper. Or even if he never writes another thing, I ask why he doesn't want to just have them, have something to show for his work? How will he feel in 20 years when he wants to show someone and has nothing to show?

It does no good.

Here's how he responds: He had a blast writing the articles. He worked hard. He loved doing it. He thinks he did a really good job (I think so too). It was fun. But it's just a few issues of the school newspaper, Mom. Get over it.

I think I get what he's telling me (and maybe what my writer friend above, was saying too): It's not about the publication, or at least not ALL about the publication.

It's about the process. The writing, as in writing-as-an-act, not writing as work, or writing as prelude to a product.

It's a useful reminder, and I get it. I do.

I still want those school newspapers, damn it.

I could send an email to the newspaper's faculty advisor. I could. With tremendous restraint, I don't.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting. You are describing me and my husband (both writers) to a T. He saves every word he wrote that's been in print, online, etc. Multiple copies of everything. Half the time I forget to even follow up and find the printed version. I've almost always been like this. The only thing that I felt compelled to hang on to in recent memory was the first essay I had published in an anthology. A book. Now, that was something. And I'm pretty sure if my novel ever gets published, I'll devote an entire row on the bookshelf to copies. But the rest of it? It just doesn't matter to me in the same way.

I love your posts, Lisa. Thanks for this.

kario said...

This hit me right where it hurts. I so often get tied up in the "publication" part of writing despite the fact that I haven't been published, and forget about the joy of writing. What I need to remember is that my best writing comes on those days when I am writing because something inside compels me to, not for an assignment (although your assignments rock).

I find your restraint admirable and wholly unachievable. I would have called already...