Notes from the Green Couch

"all you need to know about writing"

A panel speaks on writing as a career.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Notes from the Green Couch

In every profession, there is the occasional special treat that makes the job all worthwhile. For teachers there is the snow day. For businessmen there is the free lunch on the company card. Today, my boss sent me a panel of writers to provide a free consultation on the publishing process.

When Al assigned me the "All You Need to Know About Writing" event, his timing could not have been more impeccable. For the past month, I have pondered a multitude of questions concerning how to get a book of my own published - yet to seek out the answers, however. Then, all of a sudden, five experts on that very subject began conversing on my laptop. A sign from the divine powers above? No, but certainly one heck of a nice coincidence.

Paul Hendrickson, Robert Strauss, Karen Rile, Charles Bernstein, Deborah Burnham - all accomplished writers, Penn writing instructors, and eager to shed light on the complicating, frustrating world of publishing. Were their words encouraging? Not particularly, but most guests at the 3805 Locust Walk have nothing uplifting to say about the writing industry, nowadays. Were their insights helpful? Absolutely, yes.

Here are some lessons learned about getting published from a morning on the Green Couch:

1. In commercial publishing, use an agent: Moreover, the better agent you have, the better shot you have at getting published. Yes, literary agents are an infuriating facet of the publishing process. On one hand, it is impossible to get an agent because they only want writers who have been published, and if you do not have an agent, it is extremely difficult to get published - kind of a catch-22. On the other hand, once you have an agent, the claim almost 20% of all profits.

2. Beat the system by giving your work value: Hendrickson beat the system by working as a feature writer at The Washington Post for over twenty years, establishing himself as an eminent journalist with a plethora of bylines. Not all of us, however, can get jobs at such renowned publications. Thus, writers must create their own value.

The panel of writers agreed that, if used properly, the world wide web can be invaluable on a writer's path to being published. Bernstein recommended creating a personal website - a cyber writing portfolio, of sorts. By no means does this method guarantee readership, but it makes your work readily accessible to anyone in the world. Furthermore, if the writing is of high quality and passion is evident, the exposure will help tremendously.

3. Work on your people skills, primp well, and get ready for the cameras: The author's product is no longer exclusively important. In what Hendrickson lamented as "a shameful development," editors and publicists have now placed an equally high value on the author's marketability - how presentable he or she will appear on television to the reading audience. As Bernstein pointed out, it is no secret that commercial publishing is a profit making business. Everything associated with the book must be marketable - the author is not excluded.

4. Thank heavens I am not a poet: In mainstream publishing, poetry plays absolutely no role. In fact, Bernstein went as far as to say that mainstream publishing is harmful to poetry. Since poetry is not commercial, Bernstein, a poet, joked that over his career he has tried "not to lose too much money." Once a piece of paper has a poem written on it, he continues, its value goes from "one or two nothing."

Nevertheless, poets find solace in small presses, making money in a variety of ways through alternative means. And, because of its nature, poetry is the most widely read, written, and published genre. Thus, a thriving alternative poetry culture has emerged, extending into such places as universities - look no further than the Writers House.

5. "Writing never gets easier. It gets harder.": This is the "kernel of wisdom" Hendrickson provided to conclude his bio. "My confidence goes right back to zero every time. The terror of the blank screen never goes away."

I, for one, do not find this information discouraging in anyway. On the contrary, it excites me to know that the profession I so badly want to enter will continue to challenge me days and years into the future without fail. There will always be an adventure, something new to discover - never boredom. "If I could find a different way to get high, I would," says Hendrickson. "But I can't."