Cynthia Leitich Smith was one of the first writers I mentioned the idea of a Writing for the Long Haul series to, and when I did, she commented that those who keep writing are “writing survivors.”
I’m thrilled to kick the series off with a post from Cynthia on what writing survival means to her.
I owe much of my publishing success to my lack of financial security.
When I hear others talk of the pain of rejection or the unfairness of market whims or the challenge of staying motivated, I think of my mortgage, the payment due on my health insurance, and the cost of my guilty pleasure—Whole Foods hummus.
Of course that’s not the whole equation. While many of my children’s-YA books have sold well (and a few not-so-well), I don’t initially conceive or craft them from a commercial perspective.
Instead, I’m a creature of two brains.
One: the literary artist with a commitment to diverse (defined broadly) protagonists and an experimental bent with regard to age markets, techniques and forms. I’ve published funny picture books, quiet multicultural books, quasi-memoir essays, and YA adventure-fantasies with a feminist and intercultural bent. I’ve won awards and made bestseller lists and seen books go out of print.
Two: the fierce, savvy business person who takes all that—coupled with speaking and teaching fees—and cobbles together a base salary. In the latter years I’ve earned more, in the early years less, but having a baseline goal keeps me pounding the keyboard, hitting the road, and stretching in new directions.
I have a respectful patience for the inner artist but always hold her accountable.
You’re in love with that niche project? Fine. How are you going to market it? Not the publisher—you. Whatever the house does, that’s icing. You encourage it. You work it. But it’s your name on the byline.
Your sales figures can and will be held against you. Glancing around the conference floor, you notice how many of your once-popular colleagues are no longer in the game. Doesn’t anyone else miss them?
How do you carry on? What are you going to do?
What you’ve always done. Choose yourself, your book, whatever you’re trying to say in the whole. Do it in such a way that lifts up everyone, that doesn’t apologize for mattering, that shows a sense of purpose. Recognize but don’t dwell on the uncontrollable. Where there is potential for forward momentum, give it grease with as much good humor and dignity as you can spare.
You’ve stumbled before. You’ve fallen before and started over from scratch. You’ve made a fool out of yourself. You’ve also helped build readers and community and changed lives for the better.
There’s wisdom to be gained from all that and stories that can help someone else. All of your fellow survivors have successfully reinvented themselves at least once and so can you.
Do for yourself what you do for your stories.
When all else fails, begin again.
If only because hummus is expensive.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Tantalize series and Feral series. Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain is Not My Indian Name. She first published Jingle Dancer in 2000.
More about the Writing for the Long Haul series.