Monday, March 25, 2013

1/2 Dozen with Bryan Furuness

For years, I've been waiting for Bryan Furuness to publish a damn book. I've been teaching his short story "Love and Mono" for so very long on both the undergrad and grad level -- a beautiful, hilarious, poignant story -- and now FINALLY ... at long last ... he's got a novel out in the world....

The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson

AND THIS, my friends, is an essay you've been waiting for even though you didn't know you were waiting at all....

Ecclesiastes for Writers: A Furunessay in Six Answers

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

A few years ago I went to a writers' conference in Indy. At that point, I'd published a handful of short stories and was several years deep into a novel, but didn't have much to show for that project—no end in sight, no agent, and certainly no contract. I felt low, lost, a never-would-be. Sitting in the middle of an auditorium, I looked at the people on the stage for a panel discussion, the Real Authors, lit by footlights, and I thought: God, what I wouldn't do to be up there instead of out here in the dark. What I wouldn't do to be one of them.
Photo Credit: Miriam Berkley 
After the panel discussion was over, the rest of the audience got up to leave, but I just sat there. I was tired, in every sense. And then something strange happened.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.
The panelists climbed down from the stage and settled into the comfortable seats of the auditorium. I pretended to study my program. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but the acoustics in there were incredible and—okay, I meant to eavesdrop. I'm glad I did, too, because what I heard changed the way I look at writing.  

One woman who had six novels to her credit talked about how she was setting aside a book she'd been working on for ten years. "It's just not going to work," she said. A guy with more than a couple serious prizes to his credit said that he had more books out of print than in print. Another guy, a prolific crime writer, told the others that his publisher had just canceled his contract. He said, "I don't know if I'll ever write another book."

This wasn't energetic bitching. They were just reporting the news. They sounded tired, too.  

If I were a different kind of person, a more reasonable person, perhaps, this might have been the last straw. I might have thrown my book bag in the river and gone into Amway sales. But that's not who I am.  

When I hear about other people's troubles, especially if they're somehow related to my own, it makes me feel less alone. When I found out that these writers—Real Writers! With Actual Books!—were eating a shit-ton of failure, I felt totally relieved. Oh, thank goodness, I thought. I'm not the only one.

How do you see your future as a writer?

That was a big turning point for me. That was the day I stopped thinking that publishing a book would turn my life into magical unicorn fun-time. I saw all the failure and rejection in front of me, but I knew that I could press on, just as these good people were pressing on.

And that was a comfort to me. It's comforting to know that all of us spend most of our time out of the bright footlights, and that I'm far from alone in the dark of the auditorium.

What is the future of publishing?

Allow me to comfort you with more bad news. Publishing is going to be what it is now, only more so. Next year will be declared The Worst Year for Publishing Ever, only to be worsted by the next year, which will look like salad days compared to the year after that. Some hacks will sell a qwazillion books, and some great writers will watch their shit get remaindered.

And so on. 

Publishing is eternally dying, never dead. The fact that the death of books is reported so often might be the best proof of its resiliency.

Publishing is Jason in Friday the 13th. Pretty much unkillable. But not exactly healthy. Plus harmful to anyone in machete-range. See: those Real Authors on the stage, or any other writer you know.   

Rejection. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

That day at the writers' conference, I figured out that the writing life is a black sky of rejection, punctuated every few million light years by a tiny starpoint of success. In other words, the writing life is full of things that can make a body feel despair, so you better enjoy the daily work itself.

But here's the other thing I've figured out in the last few years of observing writers: as hard as it is for writers to handle rejection, it might be even harder for them to handle success.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross would have had a field day studying writers who have gotten a major acceptance. I've seen writers ping from denial (Okay, guys, who's punking me?) to overinflated expectations (I'm big time now, bitches!) to guilt (I'm a hack, I don't deserve this) to second-guessing (Of course this crappy magazine took my story. I knew I should have submitted it to the New Yorker.) and back around again, like a bad game of pinball.

Writers, please. When you come across the rare moment that can actually make you feel joy and hope, your job is TO LET YOURSELF FEEL GOOD. Take the joy. Don't qualify it, don't ameliorate it, don't yeah-but it. Take it. Don't let anyone take even a smidge of it away from you. Especially yourself. Do not rob yourself of joy.

The day I sold my novel, my wife and I sent the kids over to Grandma's, picked up some babyback from King Ribs and a bottle of Layer Cake, and had a rare night of glutting ourselves on TV. I know that's kind of a wussy celebration, but I don't care. I enjoyed the hell out of myself. The next day, after sleeping late and waking up just the tiniest bit hungover, I shuffled out to the mailbox where I found—no lie—a rejection slip from a magazine for a story I'd submitted over a year earlier.

Memento mori, said the universe. You enjoy your starpoint? Good. Now it's time to sail back into the darkness.

I tossed the rejection slip into the recycling, and checked the clock. I still had a couple of hours before the kids came home. I sat down at my desk and started to write.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

#2: Enjoy the daily work.

#17: When you fail, remember that you're in good company. When you succeed, savor the joy.  

#47: Press on. 

Bryan Furuness is the author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson. His stories and essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, Southeast Review,  and Hobart, as well as New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He teaches at Butler University, where he is the Editor in Chief of the small press, Pressgang. 

Elizabeth Hughey
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