Thursday, August 4, 2011

little jars, tasty jams: thoughts on making it big

There's a delightful French expression INTERN heard once which goes "les bonnes choses viennent dans des petits pots" (or something like that). Literally translated, it means "good things come in little pots," but INTERN has always read it as "tasty jams come in little jars."

Lately, INTERN has been thinking about what it means to be successful as a writer, and how different-sized jars of success each come with their own particular brand of delights. You don't "make it big" one time, but over and over, leaving a sticky jam trail in your wake...


Jar #1: You hand sell 10 copies of your poetry book Ode to a Bolete and make out like a bandit (fifty BUCKS!), which you gleefully spend on pints for you and your poetry buddies. You can't get over your good fortune, and in the following weeks you write your best poetry yet.

Jar #2: You win a small poetry contest for your chapbook Lament for a Lactarius, and the prize is publication by a micropress run out of a friend's friend's basement in Portland, OR. Now this is it, this is the bigtime—somebody ELSE is publishing YOUR POEMS. Sure, your "publisher" is a tweaky hipster boy with those earlobe extender plugs, and the name of the press is Sour Kitty Editions, but you are being published just the same.

You still have to buy your own pints at the launch party, BUT STILL.

Jar #3: After submitting your new poetry collection Sonnets for a Suillus to just about every small press in Writer's Market, you just about get a heart attack when Waterbrook Press, a tiny but established house based in Elora, Ontario (where's that? oh, who cares! you think to yourself) offers you a real. live. book deal.

They send you a three hundred dollar advance which you use to buy groceries, just so you can brag to your friends that your Book Royalties are paying your grocery bill and not be flat-out lying.

The cover design is a little clunky and you notice a few typos when you're paging through your poems, but there it is—your book. Your first real book. This time, the launch party takes place at your local library, where are you advertised as a Local Poet. The library springs for cookies and coffee. Six people show up, three of whom buy your book at the end. Later that week, you are interviewed by a community radio station.

Basically, you're famous. You never stop feeling proud of yourself, even when Sonnets for a Suillus only sells 62 copies over the next three years.

Jar #4: You get a Very Exciting E-Mail one day. An editor at one of the better small presses happened upon a copy of Sonnets for a Suillus at a garage sale and "fell head over heels in love with your voice" (her words! she actually said that!) If you have another manuscript ready, please consider submitting to Better Small Press.

You jump up and down. And squeal. To be perfectly honest, things have been pretty quiet for you since Sonnets for a Suillus came out. Waterbrook Press shut down when Bill and Mary, the couple who ran it, retired to Florida, and you've been too busy with your job to enter any more contests.

Over the next few weeks, you scour your poetry folder for good poems, poems worthy of sending to Better Small Press. You work day and night, writing new poems, better poems, the best poems of your entire life. You send them to that editor and hold your breath. When she comes back two weeks later (two whole weeks! it's cruel!) with an offer, you're so relieved you faint on the carpet.

Your editor thinks your working title, Dirge for a Deadly Amanita is a little heavy for the overall tone of the collection, and together you come up with the new title Ghazals for Gomphidus.

Better Small Press really has their act together. You're actually a little embarrassed when you think about your experience with Waterbrook Press, which wasn't a real publisher after all. With Better Small Press, Ghazals for Gomphidus get some attention—you do a dozen radio interviews and read at six different libraries and two highschools. A few poetry websites run reviews of your book. A month after Ghazals for Gomphidus comes out, you get your very first piece of fan mail. You're so touched you actually weep.

Jar #5: Things are going well. Extremely well. You release another book with Better Small Press (Cinquain for a Chanterelle) and it wins some kind of award. Suddenly, you're getting REAL attention. A writers' conference invites you to be their guest poet. A local poetry festival invites you to be their featured reader. The local highschools invite you to run poetry workshops with students. Somehow, you've become a real poet. A poet with a Bio that contains more than a list of your hobbies. You've made it. Really made it, this time.

You get a two more pieces of fan mail. One of them is from another poet, a poet you've HEARD of—ohmygod, did THAT POET actually read YOUR BOOK?

You can't believe how successful you are, how charmed and magical this whole ride has been. You are so, so grateful and lucky.

Jar #6: Your third book with Better Small Press wins a Lannan Literary Award. That $150,000. One. Hundred. And. Fifty. Thousand. Dollars. For writing poetry.

Suddenly, you're not just local-poet famous. You're famous famous. You get interviewed on NPR and CBC Radio Canada and some other big stations. You are invited to be a guest poet at Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writer's Conference. Creative Writing departments at a few small universities get in touch about openings as a poetry instructor. You do readings at independent bookstores and more than six people show up. Plus, your editor at Better Small Press takes you out for pints, and Better Small Press pays for them (even though you are now the proud owner of $150,000).

Fan mail turns into fan e-mail. People are really READING your poems. People you don't know and haven't met. You have a Following. You spend hours crafting heartfelt responses to every e-mail.

The Lannan Award lets you quit your job, and you designate an entire room in your house as your Writing Room. You thought you'd made it before, but all that seems like kid's stuff now. Now, you really know what it means to be successful.

Jar #7: Your next book, Pleiades for a Psilocybe, wins both the Nobel Prize AND the Griffin. Has that even happened before? Suddenly, you're being interviewed in the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly. Even crazier, your book is chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection, and you're invited as a guest on her show. Apparently, grown men who have never read a book of poetry in their lives start weeping uncontrollably when they read Pleiades for a Psilocybe.

For the first time ever, chain bookstores start carrying your book (it has that fancy Nobel Prize winner thingy on the front cover). Not only that, they start carrying your older books—and people start buying them. The sales figures on all your books go up. People even start hunting for that embarrassing piece of juvenalia Sonnets for a Suillus. One day, you come across an extremely rare copy of Ode to a Bolete for sale on eBay for three hundred bucks (three hundred BUCKS!).

You accept a position as the Distinguished Chair of Poetry at the creative writing department at NYU. Your calendar swiftly fills up with engagements—poetry festivals, writers' conferences, keynote speeches. When you're not teaching, you spend all your time on the interminable book tour that has become your life.

Your inbox is flooded with e-mail. You receive dozens of e-mails a week from people who have been touched in some way by your books. But now, people are also sending you THEIR poetry and asking for advice, and you're not so into that. Some people also e-mail you about their personal problems and you're not sure why—you're a poet, not a therapist, and you don't even know them! You still write back to every e-mail, but it's taking longer and longer, so you mostly keep your responses to a one-sentence thankyou.

Jar #8: You spend all your time touring, speaking, teaching, and being wined and dined. After years of toiling in obscurity, you are now rubbing shoulders with John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin and Sharon Olds. You really do pay your grocery bills with poetry money—and your rent and car insurance, too.

Then one day you get a call from an editor at W.W.Norton. She knows you've been working with Better Small Press for a long time, but isn't it time to move to a bigger publisher who is better equipped to handle your needs as a famous poet? At first, you are adamant in your refusal. Then she drops some numbers.

You agonize for weeks. When you finally call your editor at Better Small Press and tell her you're moving to W.W. Norton, she breaks down weeping on the phone. You feel like a murderer.

But W.W. Norton really does do a better job of managing your career. Your books get co-op at Barnes & Noble, your print run goes way up, and there are full-page ads for your books in the pages of the New Yorker. Universities make bulk orders of your books for use in literature classes.

People write essays about you, about your work. There's talk of a biography. You've become so famous that being you is a bigger job than one person can handle, so your significant other quits his/her job to help manage your career. You get so much e-mail (so much WEIRD, overly personal e-mail) that you stop responding altogether. You also start turning down speaking engagements—if you accepted them all, you'd never have time to write!

You get a reputation for being "reclusive". Indeed, you rarely go out in public unless you're being paid six figures. You go to sleep at night confident that if you die before you wake up, your poetry will go on being read for generations and generations.

You've made it. You've finally made it...


So when did you really become successful? When you won the Nobel Prize? Or all the way back at Jar #1, when you were still stapling your poems into chapbooks at home? If you feel like you've made it when you reach one milestone, why does that achievement feel silly as soon as you reach the next one?

And the hedonic treadmill rolls on...


  1. Jars #1 & #2 seem like small jars. Numbers 3 and onward seem like pretty big jars to me.

    I think success is a series of hurdles that you need to jump over but then also managing the hurdles and balancing the running and jumping with that thing called Your Life.

    Me? Hurdle #1 was writing a book that was good enough to query on. Hurdle #2 is trying to get an agent interested in repping me and my book. Hurdle #3 will be getting said book published. Hurdle #4 will be getting the next book through the same edit/revise/publish process.

    Will I agree when my publisher begs me to go on a European Book Tour? (In my dreams) Sure. For each and every book in the series? (In my dreams' dreams) Maybe. After all, I still have this Day Job that keeps the bills steadily (sorta) paid and the health insurance coming in.

    Besides, isn't writing supposed to be, at least in some part, fun? Too much of that other stuff sounds like serious Not Fun to me.

    (great post, btw)

    -- Tom

  2. That's a fabulous litany of events and I agree that the achievement began way back at jar #1 (really when the poems were finished--that's an accomplisment, finishing) and the success just increased from that point. Of course, the last jar can be seen as the apex and the general public usually sees it that way. But I think the poet is the only one who can say when they feel like they've arrived.

    Thank you for this wonderful post.

  3. The hedonic treadmill has been on my mind a lot lately. We constantly say "I could be happy if only X would happen" - and as soon as X happens, we're happy for a second, and then it becomes Y.

    On the other hand, the effort of truly living in the moment - enjoying what you have, not pining after the future - turns out to be pretty exhausting (for me, at least). I've tried.

    You come up with an answer to this one, let me know!

  4. Every journey has to start somewhere. Jar #1 is a good place for that though, that being said, I agree with Pamala Knight when she pointed out that actually finishing the first work is an accomplishment in itself. How many of us started out wanting to write a book and only got halfway (or less) before stopping for whatever reason? I know I did for a while.

    This post really sums up the journey to professional status brilliantly. Thanks for bringing it to us INTERN!

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  6. My favorite INTERN line: "...and you're not so into that." Funny.

    Nothing replaces creating.

  7. I think it's when people you don't know personally read your poems and pay to read more

  8. Wow, that was awesome.

    I feel like this is more than a writing thing. This is a life thing.

    I'd say Jars 1 and 2 and 3 are awesome, but small. Everything else is big, or even huge. I'd call #3 successful, but I wouldn't call it making it. That said, when I go through these steps, I'll probably think each one is the be all and end all of my career. XD

  9. A local book club selected my self-published novel to be read by the club. Sitting with eleven people seriously discussing my writing was the greatest thing to come out of the whole publishing experience so far. It doesn't matter if the novel doesn't take off. I'll always have the memories of that event.

  10. The question is, what are all those mushrooms doing in jars supposedly containing tasty jams?