THE WRITING LIFE: JUMP SHIP OR STAY THE COURSE
Over the past several months, conversations with friends have been bound by a common thread: whether or not to jump ship or stay the course. The discussions are both passionate and concerning. After more than a decade or two of realized and un-realized successes at home and at the workplace, we find ourselves wondering if we should continue on the familiar, charted path or set out for parts unknown, the latter of which reminds each of us of the late Anthony Bourdain's, "Parts Unknown." And, as West Virginians, we have a certain fondness for anything Anthony Bourdain, who spent time with us in West Virginia in the spring of this year, shining a bright light on our cultural heritage, our strong convictions, and our treasured resiliency. And perhaps we are most grateful for his admission of ignorance prior to making our acquaintance. He said, "I am intensely grateful for the kindness, hospitality, and patience the people of West Virginia showed to this ignorant rube from New York City who arrived with so many of the usual preconceptions, only to have them turned on their head." And that recognition is perhaps part of the reason why so many of us choose to stay the course, even though the odds are not in our favor. And what transpires then is an acceptance of the norm; what has worked, what didn't work, what we believe has a chance of working. But entertaining the latter is not without its risks. So, the question begs to be asked, "Is jumping ship worth the risk?" What might we lose or gain by doing so? And will we be satisfied in the not trying, in staying the course? And, as Sean Connery's character is "Finding Forrester" asked, "It's not exactly a soup questions, is it?"
After working on my debut YA-novel, Honeysuckle Holiday, for nearly ten years before it saw publication, I was propelled to stay the course of the writing life with the regular publication of essays and opinions, poetry and short fiction in various newspapers, literary journals, and magazines. It was enough. It was more than enough, as I continued to edit and edit again Honeysuckle Holiday. In addition, teaching at the high school and college levels fueled my creativity, and all was seemingly right with the world.
When Honeysuckle Holiday was accepted for publication, editing the manuscript became an arduous, yet very gratifying, journey. And as odd as it may seem, the more we edited the manuscript, the more I looked forward to finding new ways to bring it to a high polish. A team of six readers and my publisher and my editor worked tirelessly with me to come as close to reaching that goal as we could. Each of us, with a strong degree of humility, believes we did just that. I didn't set out to write a NYT bestseller. I set out to tell a good story. And yet, what wheels were set in motion after publication presented a most unfamiliar challenge. And, after the publication of my MG-novel, Marble Town, and my first children's book, Please Close It! I suppose I feel a bit like Anthony Bourdain: entertaining preconceived notions of the publication process when, in reality, I had no idea what it involved.
I didn't know the incredible amount of time that would need to be invested in order to reach a considerable number of readers who would in turn reach a considerable number of additional readers. I didn't know the incredible amount of time needed to promote the books, whether through social media, ads in literary publications, book signing events throughout the Appalachian region and beyond, and visits to schools and libraries. I didn't know how time-consuming--and frustrating--it would be to seek out, ask, and near beg for those Amazon reviews that would catapult my work into the ranks that would bring the books to the attention of readers far beyond my own region. I didn't know the financial investment would soar, but not necessarily keep pace with each book's rise up the literary ladder of success. I did not know that the region I call home would be so apathetic towards writers and painters, musicians and actors. And as I examine my ignorance, I am most caught off-guard by my region's lack of support for all (yes, I say all) those who yearn to create art in all its mediums. It's not only incredulous, but it borders neglect--a neglect of the arts, a neglect of what truly drives the human spirit. And, without the creative arts, society and its humanness will not achieve much more than mediocrity--a bland, lifeless medicority.
So, as my friends contemplate changing careers or rethinking their current path the question burns within each of us: "Do we jump ship or stay the course?" Again, it's not a question with an easy answer, or is it? It is a question that, as humans with the rare gift to assess and re-assess, begs to be addressed, contemplated, and if we're very, very lucky, answered with the truest of all convictions. Perhaps the more pressing question is where do we uncover the courage to not only answer it but to let it lead us where we so desperately need to go. As for me, "Do I continue to stay the course, editing and editing again until the scales are more level, or do I bid farewell--jump ship, so to speak--not knowing what meets me at the shore, yet certain that I'll be willing to meet the challenge." Time--precious time--will always be the tell-all. Either way, the port--though a bit out of focus--is in sight. And that knowledge--that the port is in sight--might be all we need to propel us forward.