Jumping the Gun by Donna Steiner

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For over a decade now I’ve been working with young writers.  I teach poetry and creative nonfiction writing at a state college, and my students are generally 18 to 22 years of age.  I love the enthusiasm and vulnerability of these young writers. I also love their ambition, although it has begun to trouble me a bit.

When I began teaching, none of my students ever asked about publishing their work.  They were content, it seemed, to learn the craft, hone particular pieces, and perhaps, someday, begin the process of submitting to literary journals or editors or agents.

That has changed.  It’s not unusual for students in a beginning writing class to ask how to get a story published.  That is, they are planning on submitting their very first drafted story.  That they’ve received that draft back with several dozen punctuation and grammar corrections doesn’t faze them.  That their classmates, by and large, didn’t really understand the story doesn’t faze them.  They’ve written a full story, or essay, or poem, and the next step, they believe, is to get it published.

This is, of course, partly the naiveté of youth, and I don’t want to trivialize or poke fun at it.  Their passion is necessary, but I think it’s worth cautioning these writers that the rush to publish can backfire.  It places the value of writing, I think, on what is perceived as widespread public recognition rather than on the impulse to communicate, to connect, to engage a reader.  It places the value on the product, however flimsy it may be, rather than on the careful composition of that product.  It may, I believe, privilege the writer rather than the writing.

I had a student last semester who would write a story, typically in a few hours.  He’d spend a few more hours proofreading and editing.  And then he’d start sending the story out to editors in hopes of selling it.

As a poet and essayist, the concept of selling my work is exactly that: a concept.  Over the 20 or so years I’ve been publishing, I’ve only rarely received financial compensation.  Just about every writer I know, including those who have published books, would say the same thing.  And yet, here is this student, embarking on a fast track to paid publication.

I’ve had a few talks with this young man.  I’ve questioned his need for speed, his disinterest in peer feedback, his tenuous understanding of writing fundamentals.  I haven’t been able to determine whether he’s enormously self-confident or enormously insecure, which sometimes masks itself as cockiness.  He appears confident to a fault, he appears almost disdainful of his classmates’ or teachers’ opinions.  He’s an average writer at best – average among college students, that is – but for all I know, he’s driven by a rock-solid faith in the strength of his own work and that faith will be rewarded by a fat book contract.  Maybe he’ll become our next brash literary superstar.

Possibilities aside, I wish I could convince him to slow down.  I wish I could convince the young men and women like him to take their time.  Read more, savor the work of the writers you admire.  Struggle with the work of writers you don’t understand.  Learn how to punctuate dialogue, figure out when to use a semi-colon, believe your teachers when they say that verb tense matters, point of view matters, voice matters.  Literature works its magic in multiple and ineffable ways, and many of those ways are gradual and lovely.  Slow down, my friends.  There’s no real finish line, so you need not rush to cross it.

Donna Steiner with Lake Ontario behind herDonna Steiner is a contributing writer at Hippocampus. She lives in central New York, near Lake Ontario. Donna teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego and is a 2011 fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her essays and poems have been published in many literary journals. Her favorite writers are Anne Carson, Annie Dillard, and Anne Fadiman. There are many others, including writers not named Anne or Annie.

Visit Donna’s blog: http://steinerdonna.blogspot.com

  5 comments for “Jumping the Gun by Donna Steiner

  1. Beautiful, thoughtful, advice. Last fall I started writing (by hand, in a notebook, sitting in fields and on mountaintops) just to sit and write. Like people who enjoy going on a hike or a run, I just enjoyed watching my pen move across the page. Those moments felt rare and out of time–no thought of publishing–and I loved them.

  2. I think that, regardless of age or experience, the most difficult part of the writing can be turning it from the writer-centered creating stage (this is MY idea and this is MY story) to the reader-centered revising stage (what am I offering to my reader?). I agree with Donna that if the dream of publication is the key motivating factor behind the writing, then it will show.

  3. Oh, this is lovely — the emphasis on slowing down, on honing craft, on honoring the story before the self who pushes it forth. “Savor” — yes! Thank you.

  4. You give really good advice to people in my generation. 🙂 I know that I am among those young writers that probably “jumped the gun” by trying to enter into the publishing industry too early, but at the same time, I’m not necessarily new to writing either. I think that, in my generation, some of us are so filled with ambitious goals about our writing because we have been enthusiastically writing and trying to develop our voices for a large portion of our lives. That can’t account for first-time writers wanting to seek publication immediately, but remember that we have grown up hearing stories of kids that have successfully launched careers in entertainment, music, etc. before the age of 18. Then there is the emphasis on achieving for school too, in order to open up future academic possibilities. (Personally, I’ve been inclined to model my writing career on Sylvia Plath’s, which started more or less in college. It’s a standard that I steadfastly stick to.)

    In my case, I’ve been writing nonstop since the end of elementary school, for about a decade. I sometimes wish that I had more guidance. I’ve never even had the opportunity to take a course in creative writing. However, it should not be assumed that somebody of my age group – even somebody without formal instruction – has no awareness of voice, grammatical construction, and all of the things that compose good writing. Personally, I’ve been trying to develop a distinct style since high school and usually edit my writing painstakingly (over the course of months) before showing it to anybody. It doesn’t prevent errors completely because I’m so untrained and unsure of my abilities. Yet, you bring up an excellent point that would help a person like me: writers should always seek out advice and criticism from other people before submitting anything to publication. 🙂 Wise words. 🙂

  5. I guess it’s just scary when you hear things like “Over the 20 or so years I’ve been publishing, I’ve only rarely received financial compensation” because it sounds like we might actually have to serve food to people for longer than we thought in order to do what it is that we love to do. 🙁

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