Sidney Thompson teaches creative writing and African American literature at Texas Christian University. He is the author of You/Wee: Poems from a Father, Sideshow: Stories, and Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves (March 2020). Thompson has published his short fiction in numerous literary journals and anthologies.
How to Make Your Dreams Come True (in an Industry That Can’t Sleep at Night)
Our proud publishing industry apparently believes, according to the evidence of its palate, it has mastered much more than the packaging of language but language itself, the way Mark Twain claims in Life on the Mississippi to have mastered the language of “water . . . every trifling feature.” While big houses claim an interest in stories and voices of national relevance, their gaze is too often myopically and deafly fixed on New York and Boston. A double-jeopardy, they neglect to consider what they neglect, what Twain similarly lost in the bargain for technical mastery of steamboat piloting, what he so long ago and so easily and admirably acknowledged: “I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived.” Twain’s admission is a two-fold tragic one for us writers far removed from the East Coast, for, if the analogy holds, Twain and the publishing industry alike have lost an eye for certain beauties, and that incapacity of course has a way of polluting the water supply.
The first printed use of “flyover country” came from Esquire in 1980, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it for us: “Designating the central regions of the continental United States over which aeroplanes travel on flights between the east and west coasts, regarded as less influential or significant than the urban coastal regions.” If you find the “whited sepulcher” in the Northeast merely regards you as “that slanting mark on the water” or one of “those tumbling ‘boils’” because you write in an unacceptable pattern, from an unacceptable point of view, with an unacceptable setting, then I advise that you protect yourself as I have learned to do. You might recall what Martin Luther King, Jr., said in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” about the four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign: “. . . collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive [I’ll share my life’s research momentarily], negotiation [which has so consistently failed me that the impasse has begun to look and feel like a locked gate], self-purification, and direct action.”
Perhaps you are currently stuck in step two and need a nudge to begin purifying yourself to endure and prevail against the outside-agitator treatment of self-congratulating progressives to become a published author. The rejections you’ve received are a downright travesty no matter how well you write because they come with the industry’s stamp of disapproval and, therefore, the overwhelming potential to change for the worse insecure people like us. If you’re interested in reaching the final constructive step of direct action, or publication, then consider following me. As disappointing as rejection from the big leagues can be, it does not signal the end of a writing career. We will circumvent the citadel together and find a university or independent press that can recognize our beautiful import. By following my five strategies for self-purification, here’s how you can steel yourself in order to navigate the treacherous Northeastern waters of publishing without betraying who you are and what you wish to write.
1) Before you compromise your work and your soul irreparably, take a page from Johnny Cash and give the establishment the finger. The Atlantic Monthly once rejected one of my stories despite enjoying it because, I was informed, I was white (i.e., not of the same race as my characters). It was disappointing to say the least that the editors would arrogantly conclude that the “book cover” of my skin meant I had no legitimizing text, upbringing, experience, insight, or logical reasoning to address race in the manner I chose, the way I believed and still believe I needed to do to prompt a sleepy audience into introspection. And then a prominent New York agent made the call to drop me as her client because, she said, my novel had too many religious references. The response of the University of Nebraska Press to my race and to my decision to represent Bass Reeves accurately as a faithful man was the only proper one. Poor whited sepulchre, call the heartland “flyover country” only at your own peril.
2) Protect yourself. Once I conceived not so much the concept of my novel, Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves, as the ravenous desire to understand Bass Reeves and the confidence I could realize him, I decided to earn a PhD. I wanted as much information about the times Bass lived, leading to my decision to relocate from Alabama to Texas, to live and work where Bass lived and worked, and to focus on American literature with a secondary specialization on African-American narratives. This time, I wanted protection, academic legitimacy that would make it difficult for anyone to question why I, specifically, would tell this story. I also read everything I could find on Bass Reeves, I searched the archives, and I met and befriended Art. T. Burton, the most respected historian on the man and the myth. If you want respect, go to the mavens who dish it out.
3) Don’t leave your book’s world. As a doctoral candidate, I took only literature courses that would keep me in the bunker of my Bass Reeves world. So I read the requisites, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, but also Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman to absorb the language, politics, and props of nineteenth-century America. When I read contemporary American fiction, I read neo-slave narratives, such as Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I took a course on criticism, I wrote a scholarly paper and a book review on other neo-slave narratives: Edward P. Jones’ The Known World and Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash. I was nonstop strategic. I never wanted to leave the world I most needed to know, and I was open to every point of view, regardless of the author’s race, gender, birthplace, or era.
4) Listen to criticism, but don’t depend on it. During the worst writing period of my life, I relied far too heavily on the input of readers. I was unaware that the relationships I had developed with them were toxic, one-sided to my detriment. So for my Bass Reeves project, I decided to trust myself more than I ever have before. When I was in school, I naturally shared chapters with others. I submitted them to workshops and exchanged work with one close friend, and after graduation, on rare occasions, I talked a problem out with a colleague I greatly admire. But when I submitted Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves to Bison Books, no one but me had read it. Not even my wife. And no one but my editors and the press’s readers have read its sequel, Hell on the Border, which is slated to be released March 2021. The trust I gave myself with each book was, I suppose, an extension of my admiration for Bass Reeves and my desire to become him. If, as a lone ranger, he could succeed in planning an escape or a capture under the most dangerous of circumstances, then I needed to learn in my more privileged world not to be such a coward. The surprise for me was that I became a better writer with sharper instincts.
5) Don’t be in a hurry. Relying largely on your own feedback will dictate a slower writing pace, but it may just be the right pace. Of course, I advocate that you find those special, reliable readers who “get you.” They are particularly important early in a writing career when you lack confidence, but understand that the process of sharing work can also rob you of confidence.
Simply put, stop convincing yourself that there’s a shortcut to success. That a friend can and will find most, if not all, problems and articulate a proper revision. There’s never been a reliable shortcut—some secret word, passage, or contact. No one will ever “get you” enough. Sure, chemistry exists, and luck strikes the lucky, but you can’t bet your life on either happening. I recommend that you instead commit yourself to writing under your own self-serving conditions, and expect to wait around a lot, to read with new eyes what you’ve written every time you’ve written.
“So it goes.” Because this thing we do is supposed to feel at times like a running joke—if not, at others, like an ouroboros meal of satiety and death. Believe it or not, the alternative is worse: inviting the establishment to define you and then devour you without pity, reward, or logic.
Book Tour Announcement!
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