:: I spend a lot of time mentoring young or new writers and freelancers, and they all ask me a version of the same question: How did you get here? My path is long. My feelings are strong. And so I decided to write this story.
**Author’s note: I started writing this piece as a possible preface to my forthcoming book THE FREELANCE ACADEMIC: TRANSFORM YOUR CREATIVE LIFE AND CAREER (Snowraven Books, June 2019). The piece became something else, so now it’s here. If you like the piece, you might like the book.**
I spend a lot of time mentoring young or new writers and freelancers, and they all ask me a version of the same question:
How did you get here?
My answer always varies, mostly because my path to “here” is so long. My answer also varies depending on my mood that day: How angry do I feel, today, about the state of higher education? How annoyed am I, currently, about the prejudice against so-called “self-publishing”?
My path is long. My feelings are strong. And so I decided to write this story.
I’m writing this piece not just for the people that ask me questions, but also for me. Writing this story helps me in lots of ways: It helps me get my thoughts in order. It helps me on those days when I just don’t have the energy to let someone “pick my brain”—I can point them to this story, and they can read instead.
Writing this story also helps me better understand the path I took. You might think, given that I lived it, I would understand my path just fine. But sometimes the connections between events aren’t clear to me. Sometimes writing about them is the only way to understand them, so that’s what I’m doing.
Often, that’s why writers write anything.
I’m sharing this story with you, though, in case it can help you.
How did I get here? Let’s start with where “here” is: I’m a novelist, and a nonfiction book writer, and an essayist for magazines. I’m also the co-owner of a small, traditional book publisher. It took me a long time to get here. A lot of pain, a lot of turns. A lot of hard work.
Here’s the full story. Truly. From the very beginning. It’s really long, and you might not make it all the way through. That’s okay—skip to the parts that help you.
It’s a cliche at this point, but I really did always want to be a writer. I wrote in spiral notebooks when I was a kid, filling them with stories. Most of them were fantasy tales, and a lot of that fantasy was wish-fulfillment. I wanted to be able to fly. I wanted to have a horse that could talk. I wanted to have a horse, period. In my stories, I could have all of these things. I could have other things too, like friends I could count on, people who understood me and who loved me and who didn’t want me to change.
I didn’t stop writing in high school. My college application essay was a four-page poem. (Bold? Cocky? Who can tell?) And then, in college, I could finally take creative writing workshops. At the time, I didn’t know what creative writing workshops were, I just knew that I had to apply for them, and so I did. My first workshop experience was incredible: Mary Oliver taught me and five other students poetry, and I learned so much about what words can do. She was only at my undergraduate school as a visiting writer, and then she was gone, and I never saw her again. She changed my life forever.
My second workshop was a fiction workshop with a tenured professor at my institution. The professor, a man this time, an author of strange, short-run literary fiction, mocked some of us openly. I was one of the ones he mocked. He said that although I wrote excellent dialogue, my stories had the depth of a soap opera. He told me I should give up fiction and write screenplays instead.
There was another woman in the class whom he hassled. He called her “Anne Rice” because early in the semester, he asked us the authors we like to read. You can imagine what she said, and how he took it. And you can imagine what being called “Anne Rice” for a semester in a workshop of over a dozen students did to her.
Like the workshop with Mary Oliver, the fiction workshop also changed my life, but not quite in the same way. I stopped writing fiction for a decade. I took that screenwriting workshop—the very next semester. I took a course on essay writing—I didn’t even know that was a thing until I took that course. I graduated college a year early (I didn’t love my undergraduate school), and off I went.
I worked for a bit after college, and then I returned to school at the Writing Seminars (that’s what they call their creative writing department) at Johns Hopkins University. It was a top program, and well funded. I had a fellowship that covered most of my (incredibly high) tuition. Back then, JHU’s program was a 1-year MA degree, not an MFA. I’m not sure why, when everywhere comparable was an MFA. Regardless, I learned a lot about sustained writing, and I took a fabulous poetry workshop with the poet Tom Sleigh, and a narrative writing workshop focused on memory with Carol Burke.
My program degree was in nonfiction writing, and I wrote a terrible memoir for my thesis. I mean, terrible. But like I said, learning to write something that was long was important, and wrangling with fact and fiction, and memory—that was important, too. I graduated in 2000. I was 23. The Writing Seminars offered me a job as a lecturer in the department, but I thought the money was ridiculous so I turned it down. That job becomes important later in this story.
I went straight from JHU to law school at UNC Chapel Hill, and the shock to my system was severe. There are a few things that have happened in my life where I think, looking back, “Was that the very best idea I could have made?”—and heading straight into law school after a year writing and knowing I wanted to be a writer, without giving myself a chance to work in that field—that was one of those not-so-great decisions.
Law school, especially the first year of law school, is hard. It’s hard not just academically, but also emotionally and psychically. There’s nothing fun about it. There’s nothing to romanticize. You’re in class all day, carrying five or six books the size of cinderblocks, taking courses about obscure subjects that the professors seem to make more obscure on purpose, so you have to buy even more books, called “study guides,” that are even larger (and just as expensive) as your textbooks, so you can teach yourself the material. Everyone around you is pretending that they’re doing “just fine” because to show any weakness in law school is to fail, or, I guess, to be eaten by a lion since apparently law school is like the Serengeti (I never understood this part), so it was really hard to make friends at first, although I did make a couple of really good ones eventually.
I did learn a few things in law school that were really important, though. I learned to work really hard all the time when work needed doing. I learned to read words really closely, over and over, because the meaning of those words, in law, isn’t just for fun; words can mean someone’s life. I learned there actually is a correlation between hard work and good grades (unfortunately not until after the end of my first year). I learned the law is wildly unfair. I learned there are things I can do about that, sometimes.
I remember one day during graduate school I looked at all of the novels and other books on my bookshelves, books I’d carried with me through the years, and I realized that it had been years since I’d read a book for enjoyment. Law school sucks all of the air of your life, and it leaves you with nothing but itself. It some ways, that’s the only way to learn law—total immersion. In other ways, law school leaves you completely reformed, broken and remade, a drowned thing come back to life.
I am not exaggerating. If that wasn’t your experience, that’s fine. (I also imagine you didn’t end up a law professor.)
By the end of law school I had things figured out—but not after getting terribly depressed in the middle of things, which should have surprised no one, least of all me. I applied for and earned a federal clerkship after law school, which is both very prestigious and also lets you put off any decision-making for a year. I always joke that a federal clerkship is like dipping your resume in gold. I was lucky I got one. I learned a lot from my judge and co-clerk (who are still my friends), and I had time to think about what I wanted to do.
And what I wanted to do was go to graduate school.
I attended the University of North Carolina Greensboro for my doctorate in English, and one of my first-year composition students once said to me: “Duke, then Johns Hopkins, then UNC Law, and now here—you’ve really gone downhill.” And the words stung, although I laughed them off at the time.
UNCG accepted me quickly, with a full teaching fellowship, and professors who were kind and supportive. The program was interesting and filled with interesting people, and I couldn’t see how, at the time, attending Yale would have made me a better or smarter person than I was attending UNCG. But then, for a time, I doubted myself and my decision. Maybe I should have gone to Yale. Maybe I had compromised and sent my career downhill. But now that I’m older, I realize that I made the right decision.
After all: I was so happy in graduate school. I took the best things I’d learned from law school and my clerkship and used them to excel. I took my close-reading skills, my knowledge of a field outside of my chosen one, my practical experience representing clients and writing court opinions, and then I worked my ass off, bringing the same work ethic that I used in law school to my graduate program. I worked in the margins—when my friends and I gathered to visit, I would bring my reading. When there was free time at the local bar, I would write ideas in my notebook. I was always working. But—and this is the important part—not in a way that wore me out. In a way that energized me. I had time to read what I wanted to read and explore. And I had time to chase my ideas down rabbit holes, to make connections with words.
(These are habits that I feel like I’ve lost today, today when I have to be more “efficient” with my work, and I feel like my work, and my spirit, are poorer for it. I’m working hard to get back to that place, despite the pull of family and other responsibilities.)
In fewer than four years, I earned my doctorate in English with a speciality in rhetoric—think Aristotle, and Nietzsche, and Augustine (they all seemed to be men, and yes, I noticed), but my professors were some incredible women, and they inspired me.
While I was in graduate school, I pulled out an old draft of a novel I’d worked on years before. My fiction was shit, of course, according to Professor Soap Opera back at my undergraduate school. But I thought maybe, just maybe, he was wrong. I rewrote it while I studied for my comprehensive exams, which were nowhere near as debilitating as the bar exam. And then I met a man who became my boyfriend for a while, and he was a novelist, and he helped me revise it. He wasn’t right about everything when it came to my fiction, but he was right about some things. “A novel is all about structure,” he told me. And he was right about that. He was also a sexist bloviator with an uneasy relationship with the truth, so we didn’t last long. (You know you were, dude, if you’re reading this.)
I sent the book off to an agent, and the agent read it, and she liked it, but not enough to sign it. I was crushed, actually, because I tend to be crushed by things. But then I started writing another novel, because I also tend to take things that hurt me and turn them into new things of my own that don’t hurt anymore. That becomes important later.
The second novel was better. It wasn’t great on its first go, but it was pretty good. I wrote it after I graduated from my doctoral program, after I got married, after I accepted a position as a lecturer in an English department for not very much money.
Remember that job that Hopkins offered me right out of my master’s program? The job I turned down because it seemed preposterous with its course load and low pay? That job was basically the job I accepted in the English department at the institution that hired me after earning a law degree and a Ph.D.
Academia is, by the way, preposterous.
The thing was, by the time I took that first job, I knew it. So I didn’t expect higher ed to save me. I started writing, a whole, whole lot. I remember one of my fellow non-tenure-track (NTT) colleagues saying: “We don’t have careers. We have jobs.” And what he meant was this: We were doing short-term wage work with no possibility of advancement and no job security. We were the higher ed equivalent of the laborers any field brings in to fill gaps. Accounting firms do it during tax season. Law firms do it when they land a big case. The problem with higher ed, though, is that they’re doing it all the time—the short-term wage work has become the norm, not the gap-filler.
Anyway, I’m not sure if I was able to see the cracks in the foundation because I had a law degree or because I’ve always had an overly practical mindset, but I knew that if I wanted long-term job security, I would have to create it for myself.
I revised the second novel, and I wrote my first textbook. I sold that textbook to Pearson during my second year as an English lecturer—I didn’t make a lot of money, but what I did do was create a foundation for more work in the future.
Around that same time, I was hired to teach one section of legal writing at a law school in another city, and then the next year I was hired to teach a section of legal writing at my own institution’s school, so I did that instead. The income supplemented my income earned from the sections of composition I taught in the English department. Teaching multiple sections across multiple campuses is the norm for people who have jobs like I did. It’s how we make ends meet, save up enough money to have a 401(k) or a mortgage. But I was also pregnant and trying to start a family, and the work was hard.
Indeed, I gave birth to my first child the day my book proofs were due. I brought my proofs with me to the hospital and while I labored, I marked them with a pen. He was born seven weeks premature and had to stay a week in the NICU. I finished the proofs sitting by his bassinet.
This work: it wasn’t easy. But was it worth it?
A few months later, I was invited to write another textbook by a colleague, one who was nearing retirement and who wanted to change the game. She needed a partner who could bring an area of expertise that complemented hers, and that person was me. I had a newborn baby, and we worked long, ridiculous hours inventing something that had never been invented before.
We created an entirely online, interactive tool to help law students improve their grammar and style in the highly specialized discourse community of law—after years of teaching them to write and hearing from hiring attorneys that this particular skill was holding our students back. We wanted a way to help our students have confidence when drafting contracts and briefs. And unlike my first book, this one did, after a couple of years, start making me money. We wrote another textbook, and it made some money too, not as much, but some.
While writing these books, I got pregnant with my second child. And while I was pregnant, with another friend and colleague, I drafted another textbook proposal. We sent it off to Oxford University Press, and they accepted it. We started down a years-long journey of writing a major composition textbook with a major publisher.
If this seems like a lot: having two kids, writing four textbooks, and teaching lots of writing classes on multiple campuses, you’re right. It was. My fiction writing fell to the side because something had to give. Also, while I was pregnant with my second child, my husband’s mother fell ill, very suddenly, and died. It was horrible. To have a one-year-old, and to be many-months pregnant, and to be working 80-hour weeks—and then suddenly, to have her die—it was awful, and one of those moments that defines things, in retrospect.
I don’t like 80-hour work weeks. That becomes important later.
Some of you reading this might be thinking: Why am I talking so much about the money my books earned? This is the story of how I got to where I am today: a person who writes fiction and essays for a living, who started a small press with no outside investors. It’s very important that we all know that those things happened because I did things years and years ago to make it possible for those things to happen financially. I wrote a book in 2009 that make it possible to start a press eight years later. Those two things are directly connected.
You will see, as I tell this story, more and more decisions that I make that are the result of a direct cost/benefit analysis. Will this project make me money, or earn me connections—which in turn buys me freedom to do the work I want to do?
That colleague with whom I wrote the legal style learning tool? She recruited me to come work full-time at the law school. I applied for the job, went through the whole campus visit, and got the job. At the time, I was thrilled. (At the time.)
I had my baby in April, and in the fall, I started as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Law. What does “Clinical” mean? It means non-tenure-track. It means that the law school created a special jobs without tenure for professors of legal writing, advocacy, and rhetoric (hey, that’s me) because…well, they never really gave us a good reason. That’s just the way they did it.
The benefits of working at the law school seemed great. My salary nearly doubled. Ostensibly, my workload lightened (I went from teaching four courses per semester, across multiple campuses, to two.) But in reality, my workload did not lighten. My other courses, the ones I taught in the English department and even before, in the law school, were mine to control, were ming to design, composed of my curriculum—I even wrote the book for some of them.
The law school, however, didn’t trust the new legal writing department very much, at least at first, and so our workload was immense. I had thousands of pages of grading—multiple rounds of review on so many different legal documents that we were required to teach. I was required to hold student conferences on each document, five per semester, which took an immense amount of emotional labor. After that first semester, with a two-year-old and a newborn at home, I started to wonder whether I’d made a terrible mistake.
The massive, rigid curriculum came from on high, and was, of course, evidence of mistrust of the non-tenure-track writing faculty. The rest of the law school needed proof that we were competent and worth spending money on. No one cared whether we were burning out. I was definitely burning out. After the first year, I was so exhausted I could barely fathom returning in the fall. So when I got a phone call from a university across the country to join their English faculty in a tenured line—a recruitment call to apply for a job—I jumped on it. I was thrilled. I spoke with my husband: How could we possibly make our life work if I lived many states away and his work was stuck here, in North Carolina? He told me to apply for the job. We would figure it out.
So I did. I ran down all of the letters of recommendation. I put together my fancy portfolio. I sent it off, and was invited to interview at the Modern Language Association annual convention in Chicago. I pinned my hopes on this job interview (even though I didn’t realize it at the time). My husband and I hired a sitter for the kids, and we made the trip to Chicago into a vacation. It was bitterly cold, and yet we had so much (tax-deductible) fun.
And when I went in for the interview, something was wrong. I could sense it. I had some friendlies in the room—they recruited me, after all—but there were others I didn’t know, and they really didn’t want me. I felt off-balance. And I did poorly.
I wasn’t truly surprised when I got the call that I didn’t get invited to the campus interview, but I was sad. That’s when I realized how trapped I felt by my job at the law school. That’s when, in the back of my mind, an escape plan began to form, one that I didn’t share with anyone, most of the time, not even with myself.
Meanwhile, at work, I did well. The institution didn’t treat us well—one of our number went on maternity leave that fall, and instead of hiring a visiting professor like everyone does everywhere, they just took those extra students and made the rest of our classes bigger. It was such a profound insult I still choke when I think about it.
The “they,” of course, is the faculty with tenure, those who can vote on things, who make decisions. At any institution, NTT faculty have 50 bosses—everyone who has tenure is more senior than you, can make decisions that affect you. It’s so tiring to try to keep them all happy. After that fall, I stopped trying. I felt trapped by my job. I had two children to care for. I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t quit. But I couldn’t figure out a way to be happy.
I did my job. I was excellent at it. Truly—I was like, really good at teaching legal writing. If you think about it, it’s right up my alley. It’s a shame that the job the law school created was so terrible that I couldn’t do it anymore. Or, perhaps it’s not a shame. Because here I am.
After three years, I put together a promotion portfolio—they made us do the same amount of work for promotion to Clinical Associate Professor (NTT) as a tenured professor had to do to seek promotion—a giant notebook full of stuff that gets passed around for a faculty vote. I submitted it, and I went home, and I hoped I would get promoted. I wanted to negotiate for better working conditions.
I remember the day I got the call that I was promoted. It was the day Nelson Mandela died, the same day my niece was born. This was in December of 2013.
All three things happened on the same day. And the death of Mandela, and the birth of my niece, really threw my terrible job into perspective. I remember where I was when the person called me to tell me congratulations: I was at a coffee shop where I used to work a lot. I hung up, ran to the bathroom, and cried big, ugly sobs. I wasn’t happy. I was devastated. I think I was hoping they would have fired me. I was well and truly stuck, now.
I carried on. I wrote up a list of things to negotiate for now that I’d been promoted. I was the first of our number to be promoted—the first of the new NTT writing faculty—so I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I made an appointment with the dean to have a promotion talk. I made notes, requests, ones that I thought were reasonable.
I was so wrong.
I asked for basic things, not even the things the tenure-track faculty received, even the most junior new-hire. I asked for humble things, I thought. But when you are non-tenure-track legal writing faculty, you can never be too humble, I learned. The dean rejected all of my requests outright. All of them.
Friends, I didn’t even receive a raise. Not $1000. Not $500.
I think the dean and his fellows thought they had me over a barrel; if not consciously, at least unconsciously. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Never be over a barrel.
I went home to my husband, and I told him what had happened. And then I said something that changed my life forever: “I feel like, if I gave myself one chance to do the things I’ve always thought I was meant to do, I might be able to do them.”
And he said, “I think you’re right.”
And we looked at the money I was earning from all of those books I’d been writing over the years, and we figured out how we would make things work financially. And then we came up with a plan.
I made an appointment with the person in charge of these things and asked for a leave of absence of one year. The meeting was in the spring of 2014. The leave year would be 2014-2015.
Now, because I was NTT, this leave of absence was unpaid, and I had to pay for all of my benefits, such as health insurance, totally out of pocket. My one-year absence wasn’t a “sabbatical.” It was unpaid leave.
I had one year to give it a go. I was too nervous to just walk out of there and never look back. I needed to know that I could come back if I totally failed.
In retrospect, I was giving myself a grace period. (Now is the time to go read Kelly J. Baker’s GRACE PERIOD: A Memoir In Pieces, in which she recounts a similar period in her life, and whose title I’m borrowing here.)
Meanwhile, I’d started working on what would be my final textbook: THE COMPLETE LEGAL WRITER, a truly gorgeous book that I co-wrote with another friend and colleague. With that big, bold title, we set ourselves a massive goal. And we achieved it. I love that book. It was an amazing send-off for my academic career.
And then I did this: I networked like crazy. I took a course on how to pitch and write freelance articles, and then I pitched and wrote freelance articles. I wrote columns for Chronicle Vitae (part of The Chronicle of Higher Education). Incredibly (to me, at the time), I wrote regularly for The Toast. I created a website, blog, and online portfolio. I networked with authors—other novelists who might help me sell my novel. I researched small presses.
I revised my novel, and I had friends read it. I submitted my novel to small presses. I received acceptances. I selected one of them.
All of this happened before the end of 2014. I knew, before the New Year rang in, that I wouldn’t be going back to my institution.
After a taste of the success I’d dreamed about in that secret place in my heart that I only allowed myself to visit every once in a while, I couldn’t go back to work where I once told a colleague, “They only allow me to be 70% Katie.”
I was on my way to being all of me for the first time in my life. I realized, for the first time, that the point wasn’t money. The point was joy. Being home when my kids needed me, instead of late at the law school grading extra papers or holding extra conferences because someone else, someone less expert than I am, decided that’s what I needed to do.
It took me until I was thirty-eight years old to figure all this out. But I did. I told them I wasn’t coming back. The grace period was over. It was all on me, now.
The Things I Carried
It wasn’t easy being unemployed. Often, I was afraid. I was afraid every time a story was killed by a publication, and I didn’t get my check. Every time a royalty check was less than I was expecting it to be. Every time a story made too small a splash. Every time a story made too big a splash. Every time a troll attacked me on Twitter. Every time no one noticed me on Twitter.
Friends, freelance writing—writing on the internet—writing, period—is hard when you have anxiety. I gave up a stable job with a stable income to do work that is wildly unstable. It was not easy. It is very important that I say that. I need to say it 300 times. I could write an entire essay composed of just those words. It was not easy.
But it was worth it.
My novel came out with the small press. And then I wrote the second novel, and it came out a year later, in 2016.
And then something terrible happened. My publisher told me that they didn’t want my next book.
Now, in the world of fiction publishing, this sort of thing is not unusual. Publishers often say that they don’t want your next book. That’s why authors publish with multiple publishers. It still hurts, though.
And without a home for the next book I was writing—the books I was writing were a series, of sorts, what I call “linked novels,” which feature a cast of characters that you follow through years of their lives—I felt adrift. They held the rights to the first books. I was writing the next. I didn’t know what to do.
So I stopped writing. The words stopped coming. I had no place to put them. I was adrift.
Meanwhile, I felt adrift in other ways as well. The constant hustle of freelance pitching was beginning to exhaust me, after only a couple of years. I thought, there must be a better way than this. Thoughtful, long essays, yes. Those made sense to me. But these short, hot takes—they didn’t make sense.
Especially after Trump was elected president. After that, the news started moving so fast, it was impossible to keep up. Pitching stories pegged to the news wasn’t fun anymore. Before Trump, I wrote for so many news outlets. After Trump, I stopped. I honestly just stopped.
And there was more. My family needed me more than ever. My children did. They started going through things that reminded me so much of my own childhood that what I was hearing weren’t just echoes, they were shouts, screams even, down a wormhole. No one had helped me, back then. But the path to helping them became clearer with each passing day.
I thought, What if I were still at the law school? What if I were still working 80 hours a week?
I thought, Everything happens for a reason. I thought, I never thought I’d be grateful that others were cruel to me when I was a child.
My children needed me, and I was there, and during this time, which in retrospect was just the sort of fallow period I needed, I took a lot of notes, I didn’t write novels. I stopped pitching stories with 24-hour turnarounds.
But I did talk to my friend L., and constantly.
L. also published novels with the same small press I did. L., in her other career, is an artist and graphic designer. L. also received the same email I did, that they weren’t interested in publishing her future novels.
L. said to me, “We could do a good job publishing books.” L was right.
As the Crow Flies
It took me a long time to figure out just how right she was. But between us, we had a particular group of skills that made us a perfect pair. A lawyer to write contracts. A graphic designer to design book covers. A web designer and writer to create and maintain a website. Two novelists to acquire and edit books. A marketing person, and person with a large online network of writers. Plus we really like each other a lot. And we are very, very stubborn.
Blue Crow Publishing was born back in early 2017, and we formed the legal entity that same year. We published our first titles in the fall. We founded three imprints: Blue Crow Books for adult fiction, Snowraven Books for adult nonfiction, and Goldenjay Books for young adult fiction. We spent a lot of time crafting a statement of beliefs (kind of like a mission statement), to list our guiding principles; it is important to us that BCP be something special, something different, in the world of publishing. We didn’t want to go into publishing just to make money.
We want to make the world a better place. Besides, there isn’t much money in it, at least not yet.
Along the way, we bought the rights to our own books back from our original publisher, and we republished our books under BCP’s adult fiction imprint Blue Crow Books. Friends: I agonized over this decision. L., for her part, thought I was being silly. By publishing our own titles, too, I thought we were devaluing our company somehow. I got entangled in my own perceptions of self-publishing, which, for some reason I looked down upon when I engaged in it, but not when, say, other amazing authors did it. Indeed, many of my absolute favorite authors are self-published authors. I mean, my absolute favorites. (See the appendix at the end of this post for a list.)
So, until recently, I kept my personal relationship with BCP secret. I didn’t share the hard work I did acquiring titles and editing them, helping authors build their careers. I didn’t hide it—my name is on the website—but I didn’t share it, either. I’d let my own fears push me back into being 70% Katie again.
I spoke about my fears about “self-publishing” with my friend K. recently, and, like L., she told me I was being ridiculous. The books I wrote were great, she said. The nonfiction books helped people; the novels were great stories, well-reviewed and well-loved. What was the problem? Why would my books suddenly change when the imprint was no longer a different press? When I got my rights back, did the quality suddenly drop? And were the books by other people that we published better than our own, simply because they were written by other people? Did L. and I really hold ourselves to less exacting standards than we held other authors?
That’s a joke, by the way. You have never seen a pair of people hold each other to more exacting standards than L. and I hold each other when we edit each others’ books.
And still I wrestled. I still held out hope that I could publish one book, just one book, with a big, “real” publisher to give myself some sort of legitimacy.
And that’s when it all hit me. That’s what I’ve been looking for my entire life: legitimacy. Except I’ve been looking in the wrong places.
Mary Oliver gave me all the tools I needed to be a writer. But when I looked to my fiction professor in college for legitimacy, he stomped on me, and so I believed him.
I didn’t believe in myself after graduate school, either. I knew my master’s thesis was crap, failing to realize that master’s theses are supposed to be crap. I didn’t think I could hack it without a professional degree.
So I went to law school, and then graduate school, collecting letters after my name in search of the ever-elusive legitimacy. And after graduate school, when it was time for the higher ed job market, and there were no tenure-track jobs to be found, I felt illegitimate then, too.
Without tenure, without a big-house book deal for my novel, without any of the things that looked like real success, how could I know I was successful?
Good lord, what a mess I was. They say the shortest path is as the crow flies. Perhaps that’s true. But that’s not how we live our lives. We take the narrow paths between tall trees that obscure our view. It’s hard to have perspective. I have it now, but it’s an ongoing process requiring good friends and constant efforts to maintain a positive outlook even when things look dark.
And that fiction professor from my undergraduate institution? He submitted a fiction manuscript last year.
To me, at Blue Crow Books.
Katie’s list of self-published (some or all of their work, in some fashion) authors whom she loves, in no particular order:
- SM Reine
- Courtney Milan
- Alisha Rai (The Pleasure Series)
- J.C. Daniels/Shiloh Walker (Especially the Kit Colbana books)
- Mary Fan
- Elsa Holland
- Hailey Edwards (I adored the Beginner’s Guide to Necromancy series)
- K.F. Breene
- One other author whose books I loved reading and whose books I recommended to everyone for a while, but who, one day, belittled me on social media when I was trying to do something good, and I cannot ever see my way around that. I won’t ever name them, and certainly not here. But I’ve taken a lesson to heart from this experience, and you should, too. The lesson is this: the pain you cause people, even casually—they will remember it. Perhaps forever. Pain, it hurts. So think hard before striking out. Make sure you have a good reason. And know that what you are doing is permanent.
- More to come as I think of them. There are always more.