Lighthouses Along the Way

River of DustThe galleys of my forthcoming debut novel, River of Dust, just landed on my doorstep and I don’t yet know half of what that means. Sure, I grasp that I now get to see what my book will look like as I comb the pages sentence by sentence. But beyond that, what does the future hold for both my book, and me? A few weeks ago, my friend Meg Medina, author of wonderful Latino-inspired and inspiring books for young people, said that being an author is different from being a writer. I scoffed. For decades I have taken myself seriously as a writer and treated myself as a professional, although I didn’t yet have a novel published. I know about getting up every morning, going to my desk and carrying projects to fruition all on my own. I have six novels under my belt, and have published short stories and poems. But, I’m beginning to sense Meg is right.

The book world these days is an amazing and exciting place, filled with constant activity and change. It leaves me breathless, and I only glimpse a tiny corner of it. But, by becoming an author, I seem to have traded in the constant worry over whether I would be published for a different worry: how to keep up with the maelstrom of social media, on line book review sites, book blogs, and other author venues? Authors need expertise in marketing, publicity and self-promotion. Everyone is networking, or, to think of it more positively, making friends and colleagues, all the time. I enjoy it. I genuinely want to keep up with Book Riot, The Rumpus, GalleyCat, The Millions, Bookslut, Goodreads, The Book Lady’s Blog, and dozens of other book-related sites, not to mention Twitter and Facebook.

I’m beginning to think that the distinction is that writers have the luxury to worry about whether their work is any good, whereas authors mostly worry about whether they’ve done enough each day—each hour—to keep up with fellow writers and the reading public.

A few weeks ago, I started stressing about getting blurbs for my novel. The question seemed to be: just how annoying was I willing to be to authors whom I admire? It’s not a fun thought. But then something shifted in my thinking, and I decided to play around with it. I might not ever even send the notes, so I aimed high. I wrote to Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson. Annie Dillard and Ha Jin. Allan Gurganus and A.S. Byatt. And there are others to whom I’d still like to write: Michael Cunningham, Penelope Lively, Alice Munroe, Edward P. Jones, and more.

These letters felt absurd—who was I to bother them?—so I decided to just go for it and tell famous authors how their works have served as beacons, veritable lighthouses, to me as I braved the frustrating and often boring waters of writing for decades. Their novels inspired me to keep going as I sloughed along with my unpublished books.

In the end, my letters to the famous authors were thank you notes. I even stood in the hot sun in Washington, DC, at the Library of Congress Book Festival for an hour and a half so I could hand one to Marilynne Robinson in person. Kind of nuts, I know. But I wanted to thank her face-to-face. It felt like something an aspiring writer would do.

Or perhaps it’s what all writers have the privilege of doing, even when we become more established authors ourselves. We always need the example of other authors to help remind us of why we write. At all levels of expertise, we rely on the inspiration of others to keep our own work strong.

Because, in the end, as it was at the start, it’s all about the work—even as we learn the overwhelming new tricks of our trade.