I spent six years writing my first novel manuscript—an historical fiction telling a backstory to one of Paul's letters in the New Testament. I spent over a year trying to get it published.
To hook a traditional publisher, a writer typically needs an agent. I picked around fifty prospects, most of whom represent writers of historical fiction, some of whom represent fiction in Christian publishing, and wrote them query letters. Depending on their preferences, I sometimes included the first few chapters of the story.
In response, I received not one request to read the full manuscript. While most agents emailed a form-rejection, some failed to reply at all. None sent me a personalized rejection with reasons for passing on my story.
Maybe my query letter was weak? Maybe the manuscript wasn't ready? The freelance editor I'd hired, who'd formerly worked for a respected traditional publisher, seemed satisfied with both my letter and the manuscript's opening pages, so I don't think they were the problem (though they could have been!).
I suspect my story fell through the cracks. I imagine the historical-fiction agents concluded the story belongs in the Christian publishing world, given its religious context, and that the Christian-publishing agents concluded I don't have a big enough "writer's platform" (i.e., social media presence or email subscriber list), from which to sell the book.
This outcome caused me to consider independent or "small" publishers that accept submissions directly from writers, rather than requiring agent submissions. In particular, a writer-friend put me onto a small literary press open to fiction with religious and historical themes but not restricted to them. It seemed like a good fit, and my friend had a connection with the editor.
I submitted my manuscript to them. Four months later, I heard back: they decided not to publish it. The rejection was warm, encouraging, and showed they'd read at least some of the manuscript (progress?), but it was still "no."
While the fifty agent-rejections mostly rolled off my back, I confess the single small-press "no" soaked in. Because of the publisher's seeming openness to manuscripts like mine—those that marry fiction, history, and religion—it had felt like my last best hope of publishing. I may yet send the story to other agents or small presses, but for now I've decided to leave it in the drawer.
It's my goal to pray four offices each day—morning, midday, vespers, and compline. Though I rarely hit all four, I usually manage two, and often three. What I love most about the practice is it keeps me praying the Psalms. However, in the week after my small-press rejection, the psalmist's talk of "the happiness of those who trust in God" felt like a cheese grater on my knuckles.
Why do I want to publish my story, anyway? Why do I want to publish anything, for that matter? Isn't it enough just to have written the story for myself, for God, or for its own sake—for the joy and good of creating? Is seeking to publish simply hubris?
There's something deeply valuable in the mere act of creation. By creating we imitate the Creator and perhaps exhibit something of the image stamped on us when we ourselves were made. We cook a meal, we knit a sweater, we make a thank-you card, we write a story. Such acts and their products are good simply because of what they are: reflections of the good and great God who creates.
But these things we make are most often made to share. The meal is for my wife. The sweater is for my nephew. The card is for my daughter. In fact, it seems the very Template for creating involves sharing. If God is a trinity, then the first act of Creation was on display for its three members (not to mention every Act thereafter). And even that sharing seemed insufficient: God made other living things—plants, animals, human beings—with which to share creation. Acts and products of creation are gifts.
There can be something therapeutic about writing "just for oneself." Spilling pent-up thoughts on a page in a private journal has brought me a modicum of peace on many occasions. But, in the end, what we write, too, is to be shared. Perhaps more than a meal, or a sweater, or a card, writing is inherently an act of communication. Our writing always has at least one Reader, so writing in a private journal (or anywhere for that matter) amounts to a form of prayer, whether the writer knows it or not.
Publishing, then, is a natural extension of something built into writing. It's the act of sharing something meant to be shared. Of course, not everything we write is (or should be) published. Most of what I write is for family members, friends, and colleagues.
But sometimes, on more rare occasions, when it seems a piece could be helpful, encouraging, or interesting, even for those who don't know me well, I try to launch it into the world more broadly. I post it on my blog. I send it to a journal. I write a letter to an agent or publisher. Since I rarely know when a piece is right for a wider audience, I send it around and let others with experience decide.
So, there can be something appropriate about seeking to publish one's writing. It need not be hubris. Rather, it can be an act of sharing something that should be widely shared, of giving a gift meant to be given. It can be. But it isn't always. A better question for me, right now, is why do I want so badly to publish my manuscript?
Significant Work and Permanence
Most of my life, I've struggled to feel my work is significant. By day, I've worked as a water engineer, designing creek and wetland restorations, contributing to the proper regulation of pollution in rivers and lakes, and now helping to plan and manage water imports to southern California from the Colorado River. When I step back and look at those tasks, I can affirm they're important, and that my work has been significant because it's helped accomplish them. But it's rare I feel their significance.
Writing has been different. Though I only realized it later in life, whenever I write, I feel a fit between the activity, the product, and my soul. Somehow writing scratches an itch I've always felt but mostly couldn't reach. My writing feels significant, and my novel manuscript especially so. Publishing it would tell me I'm not wrong about that.
As I've aged, I've realized this quest for significance in my work is (at least in part) a kind of reaching for permanence. In my role as engineer, my work is easily forgotten. I'm a replaceable cog in a big machine. And none of my tasks has ever shaped my life, or anyone else's, in a lasting way. Once the task is done, who gives thought to the slope-ratio of a restored creek bed, the concentration of a contaminant downstream of a wastewater discharge, or the rules governing storage in a vast reservoir? These tasks may be important, but their influence is generally unseen: it leaves no conscious trace.
Writing seems different. Words, stories, and books have shaped me since I was young. I recognize authors' names, I admire my favorites, and I treasure their words. Their work sits on shelves in my house, in libraries, and in stores, and their book covers shine forth on websites. When I was a mere reader, I often thought of what published writers have made, reflecting on ideas, meditating on verbal beauty, considering characters, savoring stories. Perhaps if it were published, my writing, too, would live on in the minds and hearts of many others, and then so would I.
A week after I heard the bad news from the small press, I stood in the lonely ninth-floor conference room at work, lights off, in front of the massive windows looking out over downtown Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance, praying the morning office. As I struggled to make the words of a Psalm my own, a flock of four seagulls drifted over the building and into view, floating in front of the window. They passed on, over the train station and its coffee-carrying passengers below, floating toward the mountains.
In truth, my life is little different from the gulls. Light, transient, ephemeral. Dust, grass, flower of the field, the psalmist calls me: "The wind passes over it, and it's gone." At our best, no matter the work we do, our lives shine with a fleeting beauty, witnessed by a relative few, as we float toward the mountains.
Despite appearances, there's little difference between my anonymous-feeling work as an engineer and my significant-feeling work as a writer, even should I be published. Both will fade, both will be forgotten by most, and neither will yield my permanence.
In the end, more likely than not, my work will have lasting significance only for those close to me, for those for whom my work forms part of our connection: my colleagues, whom my work informs; my family, friends, and church community, whom my work sustains and encourages. They know me, I occupy a certain role in their lives, so what I do, what I make, takes on special significance for them.
My work approaches the permanence I seek only as a constituent of these relationships that matter most to me, above all my relation to the great Worker, the great Creator, before whom my life and work are forever present, forever seen. For, as the psalmist tells us, "the steadfast love of Yahweh is from everlasting to everlasting," whether my novel stays in the drawer or finds its way into the world.