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.