It’s a Sunday night in Atlanta. The Decatur Book Festival wrapped up a few hours ago. If you’ve been around for a while, you may remember the last time I was here a few years back (wow–this blog is going on three years old now). The DBF is my single favorite thing about Atlanta, and the thing I miss most about the city when it doesn’t work out for me to be here. Jericho Brown, one of the poets that read at today’s Best American Poetry 2015 panel, shares this sentiment, declaring before his reading:
“You can keep your New Years and your Christmas. You can keep your Fourth of July. The Decatur Book Festival is my favorite holiday of the year.”
This weekend, I was forced to admit to myself that my relationship with the Decatur Book Festival has changed since I was last here. I guess it was an act of ignorance not to anticipate this evolution. In 2013, I had not finished my book. I enjoyed the festival then as a reader mostly. As a novice writer, I found inspiration in the sessions and in being around so many great writers and lovers of books. It helped propel my writing for a while. It was a pure appreciation.
And while that appreciation of and love for the festival has not changed, I found that my experience was more complicated. In 2015, I have a completed manuscript and I have pitched that book to agents and indie publishers with varied levels of success–from “this is pretty good, but it’s missing something” or “we like it, but we don’t know there’s a market” or “we can’t take it on right now” to no reply at all. This is all part of the process of course, but still–having a completed manuscript colors the way I mentally navigate an event like DBF.
Now, I’m sitting in on sessions about publishing and I’m perking up when people talk about marketing and selling. I see the Festival itself as a way to push my product if it is ever released. All of this makes me feel a little weird–maybe even sick. And so I think the best way to describe the difference in how I feel about DBF is this:
In the past, it was validation–an affirmative answer to the question: am I a writer? I knew I loved writing, and seeing books bring so many people joy made me happy and reinforced the idea that I needed to continue writing. Books and stories make the world better, and I could contribute to that. Now, with a finished manuscript, I have to confront the very different and difficult question–why do I write?
Listen–first and foremost, I’m a creative person. Some people may even use the word artist (though that feels presumptuous to me for some reason). I don’t want to quit my day job to write. If writing could support me, I would quit my day job (I’m not opposed to the idea), but financial gain is not the reason I write. I never thought about money when I was writing my book. At the same time, I don’t just write for myself. I think the stories I write are valuable, and I think it’s sad that I have to be clear that I don’t mean financially valuable.
BUT–the reason I write (beyond personal catharsis and escape) is for the world. I want people to know the people and the worlds I create. I want them to puzzle over the stories and weep and grow and laugh with the characters and with me, in many ways. So, how do we find readers without the help of the big dawgs in the forms of agents and publishers? Of course, there is self-publishing and self-promotion, but that is expensive and even if I hate the idea, a self-published project must pay for itself.
So I don’t know. I have loved my time back here in Atlanta this weekend, and I can’t wait for next year already. But at some point this afternoon, while I was listening to a panel on New Adult literature (a new genre invented to make marketing easier) I started to worry that the pitching process was starting to change me–that I would start to think too much about what the agent/ publisher wants instead of letting my characters breathe and grow organically. It was a nice reminder that I need to remain true to my process and my art.
And maybe I need to open my mind a bit more in terms of publishing options. More on that idea as it develops.
Where are you in your evolution as a writer? Do you think the corporate side of art is positive for creation? What is your favorite writerly event?