3 min read

17. What does 'successful writing' mean?

Writing about experiences to understand them can become a slippery slope to "I need to get this essay published."
17. What does 'successful writing' mean?

You're reading The Ponder, and I'm Devin. Welcome! This is where I connect the dots between seemingly disparate ideas floating around in my head. Thank you for being here. I hope you stay awhile.


It's late Friday afternoon and all my brain could manage is what's below. Stay safe, hug your loves, eat or drink something delicious.

The dots

  • "The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people have not lived—nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died—through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not he had ever, really, been present at his life. For if he had ever been present, then he was present still, and his world would open up before him." — James Baldwin, ANOTHER COUNTRY
  • "I think a lot of the time what we mean by writing well is very subjective and there can be a lot of different criteria. For some people, writing about trauma well means that it helps them work through something. But is that going to be writing trauma well for an audience? And which audience? You really do have to think through these questions as you’re writing trauma and decide, what is your end goal? And what are you going to consider a success?" — Roxane Gay in conversation with Monica Lewinsky

How do they connect?

James Baldwin wrote, "The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through." And yet, sometimes, I act like it is. I push forward, leaving the event unexamined.

It's no surprise.

The culture I live in encourages avoiding dealing with events, especially if painful ones. People in power reap benefits when those with less power ignore their trauma and live "their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain" (as Baldwin wrote.)

When I want to know what it is I lived through, I write. That's been true for a long time, before writing and making money got tangled together. Writing about experiences to understand them can become a slippery slope to "I need to get this essay published."

Early in my freelance years, I got a gig writing some features for a parenting website. Every week, the editor sent an email with the stories they were looking for, complete with pre-written headlines. It often read like a list of traumatic events: "My Pregnancy Was So Bad It TKTKTKTKTK" "Why I Couldn't Tell Anyone About My Miscarriage" "My Milk Never Came In & TKTKTK (really gripping angle TK)"

You get the idea.

I was a young woman with a journalism degree, a desire to get published, and a tremor of urgency and competition in my heart. Part of me really wanted to write the stories they asked for that packaged and drew lessons from my trauma. I wanted to "win" by publishing. But I couldn't bring myself to do it—perhaps I wasn't brave enough. And I was in a financial situation where I could choose what to write. So, once the well of experience I was willing to share dried up, I stopped writing for them and about parenting (publicly). I withdrew.

Publications need stories. Whether the writer is ready to tell the story isn't always taken into consideration. (And all praise and love to editors and publications who DO care about this, who DO protect writers. I know you exist. Thank you).

The answer isn't to deny the trauma, sweeping it off the counter and into the trash like cooking scraps. The answer isn't that publishing is inherently wrong. Something more nuanced is needed. Roxane Gay wrote, "You really do have to think through these questions as you're writing trauma and decide, what is your end goal? And what are you going to consider a success?"

A world of possibilities opens if we follow Roxane Gay's approach. Yes, it is a success to write through trauma and never show it to anyone. And it is a success to write something for publication in hopes of reaching other people. All definitions of successful writing can feed into each other so that we don't end up living "in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain," but in a world where the pain is accepted, examined, and transformed. —DKP

P.S.

  • Thank you to tiny driver book club for the stimulating discussion of WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING that led to this Ponder — sign up for tiny driver to learn about the next book club & join in on the fun
  • This is your reminder to read Jules Chung's luminous short story ORANGES in Jellyfish Review
  • Consider pre-ordering Sean Avery Medlin's new book 808S AND OTHERWORLDS out of Two Dollar Radio Press (order via Palabras Bilingual Bookstore and you can get a signed copy!)

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