I wish I could remember where I read this quote but, alas, it is lost to me. Even a Google search couldn’t help me. Just know that I didn’t say, “Writing is a craft, publishing is a circus,” and I apologize to whomever did say it that I cannot credit you.
Anyway, while I might not have said it, I’m going to write about it because I’ve been thinking about these words quite a bit lately.
When you make the move from writing for fun to writing for publication, you quickly learn that the only thing within your control is the craft. The words on the page are the only things in this crazy business that will obey you and do what you want. Everything else is a circus parade, marching past you on its own timetable, with its own performers, sometimes leaving you behind and sometimes sweeping you up in its chaos. It’s a wondrous experience, but it can also be sad when all that remains is the litter, trampled in the dust.
(Note that this only applies, I think, when you’re a small fish in the big pond. Should you ever achieve the status of a James Patterson or John Grisham, I think it likely that you can make the circus parade march to your tune and on your timetable instead of the other way around. You become the lion trainer instead of the clown who distracts the lion from eating its trainer.)
In some ways, this thought is liberating. If all you can control is the craft, then your success or failure isn’t your fault. Well… To some extent that might be true. There are plenty of great books and talented writers who have never been published. There are also some who were published but lost their deals and faded away. It’s difficult to say why this might be the case, but there is some solace in knowing that even some of the greatest wordsmiths can’t find a place in the publishing industry. You’re not alone and that can be a powerful comfort.
In other respects, this is just depressing. It’s not a very happy thought to know that no matter how talented you may be and how great your work, you may still never be published. That circus parade might just march on by year after year and leave you standing on the curb. If there’s nothing you can do to control whether or not you can get on board, why bother? Why not just stay home and watch TV instead of applying for a job in the Big Top?
Somewhere between these two lines of thought lies a happier medium. If you want to write for publication, go into it knowing that you can only tell the best story that you can. You can work to polish your prose and storytelling skills to the point that it’s almost impossible for someone to deny you entrance to the Big Top. If you can be happy with that, then whatever else happens is just gravy.
But also go into it knowing that if the parade never picks you up in its whirlwind, it’s not a judgment against you as a person, or even your writing skills. It may just be that that particular circus didn’t have need of you on the day it passed through town. Had you met the circus a year earlier or later, it might have been different. Sure, that leads to lot of “What iff’ing?” but remember that the circus doesn’t run on your timetable and go back to writing while you wait.
Even if you end up joining the circus, the experience likely won’t always be rosy. Just like a circus performer, as a published author you’ll have to juggle many balls in the air. You’ll have to constantly improve your “act” or risk being kicked out of the tent. You may succumb to management changes or politics that leave you without a place in the new and improved circus. And, of course, there’s always the dreaded day when the younger, savvier, more energetic performer comes along and takes your place.
And then you’re back to the one thing you can control: The craft of writing. Take refuge in that. Enjoy the peace that comes with having total control and try not to stress over the circus drama that you cannot control. It even helps sometimes to laugh at the publishing circus, just as you’d laugh at the clowns in the clown car. It can make it all seem less threatening, sillier, and take away the life or death stress that we sometimes place on ourselves. Just go back to the writing. The rest will take care of itself or it won’t, but at least you’re not going to get your head bitten off by a lion, or be stomped on by an elephant.
(Photo courtesy of Antranias)