Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man [or woman] or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. — Thomas Merton
A lot of what it is to be a writer these days SEEMS to circle around publication. We want to be published because we want to be read. That’s understandable. . . but so much of our energy goes to this publication that we forget and neglect to be who we are on the page FIRST.
Often, I have students ask me in one of our first creative writing classes, “How do I get a book published?” or “How do I find an agent?” I tell them we will discuss those things later, if need be, but their first order of business is to write.
The second order of business is then to peel away the layers of what they think they SHOULD be writing in order to, yes, get published. The number of vampire and zombie manuscripts I’ve seen has spiked in the past few years. I can’t tell you how many people want to write sensational memoirs about the pain of their childhoods. And if and of themselves, these types of stories (for they are “types” now) are fine, but not if they do not come from the true nature of the writer.
As Merton says, to be truly great, an artist must be who she was made to be. It’s so easy for me to get wrapped up in writing like Rebecca Skloot or Mary Roach, or sounding like Lia Purpura or Wendell Berry – that I can lose sight of my own voice, my own spirit laid out on that page. It’s so easy for me to spend hours thinking about book structure and what someone would like to read and completely forget to write that day. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in all that is not about me and writing that I disappear altogether and become merely and imitation.
In this same essay “Integrity” (You can read the first few paragraphs here), Merton says, “Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves.” Maybe this is the central reason we focus on publication and imitation – we want quick success. . . we want to be published and read before we are ready. . . before we really know who we are and what we have to say. Maybe, too, we’re afraid of being ourselves because, well, to do so is to be vulnerable.
Yet, what value is there to publish something for the sake of publication? What value is there to say something that is not our own? Why bother being any less than we can truly be?