For the man who called me for advice about how to get published

For the man who called me for advice about how to get published

To the man on the phone who called me today at my university office and asked if I had a few minutes to help him figure out how to get published.

First, wow, the phone rang. That hardly ever happens. I wasn’t sure it worked.

Second, no, I don’t have a few minutes. I’m getting ready to go teach a class, and I’m frantically trying to grade a few more quizzes.

Have you heard of the Midwest Writers Workshop? It’s here in Muncie. I’m on the planning committee. It’s really great.

Also, have you tried looking at my blog? I’ve got a lot of info there.

Or this blog?

Or maybe this one?

You are very persistent. You just want a moment of my time. You’re doing what all those books say you should do: reach out and ask for help and advice.

I worry that you’re going to ask to buy me a cup of coffee.

Then you ask me again—very earnestly.

And I take a deep breath and say (not quite this, but close), “No, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to talk to you, and I’ll tell you why. Because I have 50 students this semester, and I had 50 last semester, and the semester before that, and the semester before that. They ask me questions—constantly. They never stop asking questions. And it’s my job to help them. I’m all about helping them. I fall all over myself helping them, actually. Which is why they keep asking me questions, because I just keep answering them.

“I give away too much. Ask anyone who knows me.

“And I’ve decided that I have to draw a line somewhere, and so my rule is that I can’t help everybody. I only help people I know because they took a class with me or they went to school with me. Sometimes, I break this rule and help people I only know on the internet, but I definitely do not break it for perfect strangers who call to chat me up.

“And you should know, Man on the Phone, that this is the fifth or sixth time this month that strangers have asked me to help them, and I know it’s lonely out there as a writer, and I think it’s good that you’re taking the bull by the horns and taking action. That’s great. But no, I’m not going to sit here for 30 minutes and pour my wisdom into you. No, you can’t pick my brain. At least, not like this. Follow me. Friend me. My brain is available to you in all kinds of ways. But right now, you will have to find another way to learn how to get published. Trust me. There are many, many ways to learn this. I wish you good luck.”

When I said this (a much kinder, much shorter version of this) your voice caught in your throat and you said, “Thank you for your time.”

Why did you have to make me feel bad, Man on the Phone? Why?

I want you to know that I finished my quiz grading and went to my class and told those 20 students about your phone call.

And then I said, “You guys have no clue what it’s going to be like five, ten years from now. How much you will miss these classes, each other. How much you’ll miss these deadlines I give you. I stand up here every day and watch you reading your phone while I’m trying to talk to you about how to write well and get published, and it makes me want to scream. I watch you blow off the readings by visiting writers that we provide for you. I listen to you bicker about this professor or that, complain about how my assigned readings are “too depressing.”

Few of you ever come to my office hours. The Man on the Phone desperately wants to come to my office hours, but I’m protecting my time—for you!

“So often, you guys turn me into the enemy, and I’m not your enemy. Hoo boy, do you have it all wrong.

“My advice: find two or three people in your classes who you can trade work with in the years to come, because you’re going to need those people. Bad.”

My students sort of sat there stunned, but they nodded their heads. Like maybe I’d spoken a little truth. Like “Whoa.”

Man on the Phone, I taught for 75 minutes and returned to my office to find 15 messages in my queue, waiting for answers. Because it’s not just my students who want to communicate with me, it’s lots of people.

Two weeks ago, I was up late one night and sent out some despair tweets:

10 years ago, I feel like I could write/teach/serve AND have a life. Now, I feel like it’s teach/serve/answer emails/write

I spend more time fielding the voluminous communication coming at me than ANYTHING else I do, including reading/responding to student work.

Bitter truth: the situation will only get worse insofar as email, etc is concerned. Already unable to handle it all. 10 years from now?

Bitter truth: I don’t even have it that bad. I don’t administrate, edit, direct, coordinate any large groups. But I will. You betcha.

I’ve started opening up my email accounts to show students how many messages I get in a day. “Think about how you will get your msgs read.”

Maybe you don’t care about this, Man on the Phone, but your call has unnerved me. I’m actually sitting here writing this at 5:59 PM on a Wednesday when I have a class in 30 minutes I haven’t quite prepared for. You’re taking up my time, Man on the Phone!

But I write this because I want to say: I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, but I hope that eventually, you find the answers you’re looking for. Someday, when you tell the story of how you got published, I don’t mind being your bad guy.

Literary Citizenship Teaching The Biggest Things Writing

32 comments

  1. I love this speech, and plan — when the fire is in my belly – to deliver it to my own students:

    … “You guys have no clue what it’s going to be like five, ten years from now. How much you will miss these classes, each other. How much you’ll miss these deadlines I give you. I stand up here every day and watch you reading your phone while I’m trying to talk to you about how to write well and get published, and it makes me want to scream. I watch you blow off the readings by visiting writers that we provide for you. I listen to you bicker about this professor or that, complain about how my assigned readings are “too depressing.” Few of you ever come to my office hours. The Man on the Phone desperately wants to come to my office hours, but I’m protecting my time—for you!So often, you guys turn me into the enemy, and I’m not your enemy. Hoo boy, do you have it all wrong.”

  2. Kathy M. Newman says:

    Great post, Cathy. I recently (and agonizingly) told a PhD student at a non-CMU university that I wouldn’t be on her dissertation committee. I STILL feel bad about saying no, but it was definitely the right decision for me. I told both my therapist and my husband yesterday that I get 200-300 emails a day and neither one of them believed me. But I know YOU believe me. Keeping going my friend, on your path to mentor and help your students and to show them how to be connected to others in the world of writing!!!!!!!

  3. Gail says:

    Wonderful insights, Cathy. Interesting he called you. Most people just email. I get this a lot with photography too. A kind of “Can I pick your brain” message that pops up a few times a week. Have you thought about creating an FAQ site somewhere within your blog (it doesn’t even have to public) where you can refer people to when they email you the same questions over and over? My friend Annie has a wildly successful food blog and most of her comment responses go “See my response in the FAQ section”. That might be one way to help you cut down that email time — time I know you’d rather be writing!

  4. Oliver says:

    This post leaves me conflicted. I don’t know you, just ended up here in a roundabout way. I certainly applaud your ability to say no in a seemingly helpful way and use the situation to give your students some perspective. However, is writing becoming nothing but “connections” online rather than face-to-face (or phone-to-phone as it were) interactions? You direct the man to a host of online options, but maybe not all writers work that way. If he had Tweeted you in short bursts, would you have responded similarly or answered his questions? No criticism here of how you handled it, I’m just genuinely curious about the changing landscape of communication.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Oliver, THANK YOU. Yes, I think you raise a valid point. I wonder if I didn’t use social media at all, would I have more time for one-on-one or face-to-face communication? I think yes. And I can remember getting calls like this at my university office in the days before I used social media, and in those days, I often answered. But the problem is–I feel like I must use social media to demonstrate to my publisher that I have a platform. (And also because I like it.) I need to think about your point. Might be worth a follow up post. Again, THANK YOU!

  5. Ian Wilson says:

    Cathy,

    A lot going on in the post but I want to bring it down to the question of how one maintain an artistic life.

    Maybe you have to draw more lines, not just with the stranger on the phone but with your students and whatever demands teaching makes on you. Maybe you have to draw more lines that separate the writer from the carnival barker, the ceaseless promoter, the creator of a “platform” (how I despise that word) you say the publisher wants.

    Your post also makes me think about the differences between teaching and other kinds of work. I’ve worked for large corporations for the last 25 years and there’s another set of demands, different demands, different limitations on maintaining a writing life in that context. I have to get up early to write and devote my lunches and weekends to it as well.

    Then I just read a Paris Review interview with Eugenides who says he gets up around 10 and devotes the entire day to writing. Is that the life? Or a different prison?

    I think ultimately you have to say no more often. You have to preserve yourself.

    • Cathy Day says:

      It’s interesting, isn’t it, that this advice–say no more often–is what John M. is saying cost him his teaching position, and what John K. says costs him bad evaluations. It speaks to the heart of the problem.

      • Ian Wilson says:

        Well don’t get me started on the whole evaluation process and how bullshit it is. John’s situation may say as much about the politics of his department as anything else. I just feel at some point you’ll cease to be a writer because the writing part of your life will be crowded out by all the other demands. Maybe it’s because I’ve always worked for a corporation — and taught on the side — that I take this position.

  6. My wife writes and I can’t even ask her to look at a novel draft I just finished, because I know she’s too busy, she hardly gets any time to do her own writing. Luckily, a good friend from workshop (15 years ago) asked to look at it. We’ve read each other’s drafts before, but it had been a few years since the last time, so I just assumed everyone was too busy and I was going to be all alone on this book.

    I’ve been really worn down by student apathy, but I can’t even imagine a student tuning out in a writing workshop. What the hell?

    Last year I wasn’t rehired in a non-tenure-track 3-year renewable full-time position (after nine years) because, I was told, the hiring committee decided I cared more about writing than teaching (teaching writing). I was just off my best year of writing yet, after years and years, with my first novel published and getting a great reception, a writer’s grant from the state (which they only give to one or two writers per year), a story collection was a finalist in a book contest, and so on… It turned out my writing worked against me. Being in a non-tenure track position, they felt that’s not what they hired me to do, even though I was teaching a fiction workshop every semester. I was working constantly and they questioned my integrity as a teacher. Franky, it doesn’t matter. There were plenty of other teachers lined up to take the position, which was never guaranteed to me, no matter how well I performed.

    And what I wanted to say was that that wasn’t the half of it. That first novel was really a third novel, as is often the case these days. With each of those novels written while teaching 100 students, and then sending it out to agents for a year each time, and then to small publishers. I had finally gotten my best book out there after years of hitting a wall, and so this was a really low blow. My livelihood, my family, and my ability to continue to write were all threatened by a committee of colleagues who had never seen my teach and in a large department, saw me as replacable. I’d always gotten great evaluations, which helped me land a job at another university a couple of weeks later.

    But a supportive community of English scholars and the time to write? I wish.

    • Gene Laskowdki says:

      I assume that the non-tenure faculty had not organized and voted to unionize so that what happened to you will not happen again. The University of Michigan lecturers and GSI’s did so.

  7. John says:

    [Apologies in advance for length.]

    Since we spoke about this yesterday, three different students have asked me to read scripts they are working on outside of class. They want feedback on something that I did not assign, and that I don’t really have time to read. One of the scripts is 28 pages long. This is just what I’ve gotten since yesterday.

    I have 60 screenwriting students and another 20 intro-level creative writing students right now, along with an honors thesis I’m advising and another 20 students at another school where I moonlight. Every single one will write a screenplay this semester and take it through multiple drafts that require feedback from me. I’m happy to do it, but holy cow, that’s a lot of writing.

    So when I get above-and-beyond requests, I run through the questions and panic: What would I do if they all asked for help on something outside of class? Does my responsibility to them end at the assignments I give them, and simply cover the 16 weeks they’re enrolled with me? Holy crap, what am I going to do if they start sending me full-lengths? What, exactly, is my job?

    When I taught at BSU the first time around, this happened all the time. I’d get weekly requests from students: “I have a script I’m working on, and it’s X pages long. Can you look at it this weekend?” Often, it just stunned me. I had a guy bring a full 3″ D-ring binder to class one day. “I’ve been working on this novel since high school. Can you take a look at it?” It was handwritten.

    There’s no way to say no without upsetting people. Sometimes, I even got negative feedback on my instructor evaluations: “He wouldn’t look at my writing because he’s ‘too busy.’ Uh…isn’t that your JOB?!?!” Off the cuff one day, I said to one, “Well, you’re asking me to do extra work that isn’t related to a class assignment, so what’s in it for me?” That student’s response ended up on one of those “rate your professor” web sites. Great.

    “Isn’t this your job?” Well, no. It’s not. It’s my job to teach students who are enrolled in my classes by assigning them work specific to the course competencies and then evaluating that work based on a predetermined rubric. How does your pet project fit that description?

    No, I do not get paid to take your work home on my own time and give you free feedback, and if you’re not offering to compensate me for my time (a la freelance consulting fee), then that’s what you’re asking. I cannot justify the time expended in any official way to the university. It’s not classroom instruction. It’s not professional service. It’s not community involvement. It’s just a time leech.

    The worst part (yep): I’ve had total strangers from other departments (sometimes not even enrolled students) sending me unsolicited file attachments and asking for feedback. “Professor so-and-so sent me.” That part was infuriating. If anyone would understand why that’s not okay, it would be another prof.

    The real pisser is that if you give feedback, most of them don’t even say thanks. Most just disappear — no response at all. Was it something I said? Or even better, they go away without saying thanks, then revise and send it again. “How about now?”

    That guy who wrote the “No, I Will Not Read Your F—ing Script” post? Look at the rage comments he gets. People tear him apart. He’s “arrogant.” He’s a “dick.” He’s in “a position to help and the least he could do to show his thankfulness is to help others.” People ridicule what he does for a living, saying that it’s “not real work.” They ridicule his time. These are people who would kill to be in his shoes.

    He isn’t even paid to teach people. We are, so it’s tougher to rationalize saying no, and even tougher to get people to understand why not.

    We are dealing with people’s sense of entitlement and the presumption that our job is easy and our time is limitless and constant. We don’t work in the salt mines, for sure, but we can’t honor all requests. It’s just not possible. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to explain that to people, or so I’ve found. We’re the dicks.

    I added a clause to my syllabus. “I am not able to look at material not written for this class.” It doesn’t work. It just makes me look like a dick on the first day of class.

    As for those three students who asked me since we last spoke? Well, like a sucker, I said yes to all of them — as long as they contact me over the summer. They likely won’t, but we’ll see.

    If they do, I have a little rule: If your writing is full of typos or doesn’t hook me on page one or otherwise isn’t ready, then I can stop reading whenever I want — including page one. It’s the only way I’ve found to manage it all, in the absence of just saying, “No,” which for me does not seem to do anything to stem the tide (and I inevitably look like a dick).

    However…

    I’m keenly aware of how many people would love to be in my position, but BSU chose me (multiple times), and I can’t say no. It’s the worst part of the job because I can’t get a handle on it. It’s an ongoing thing. As long as I get requests like this, I’ll struggle with it.

    Finally, “Oh, you can’t look at student work, but you can write a 1,000 word comment complaining about it?” Well, yes. Because I’m at home today, and I’m the captain of my own free time. No one else can tell me what to do with my free time.

    Maybe I just blundered across the answer.

        • Jeanne B. says:

          I’m a department secretary at a big Midwestern University and I empathize with the difficulty in drawing a boundary between what you will and won’t do outside of class.

          I had a thought about the disclaimer on your syllabus that, as you’d stated, results in students forming a negative opinion of you. You have every right to add that. However, it may read better if softened with a more positive tone:

          “Due to (pick one or substitute another justifiable reason) time constraints and/or college policies, I am only able to look at material written specifically for this class.”

          As a secretary, I’ve had a lot of experience softening the information I have to deliver to students. 🙂

  8. Katy says:

    I was stunned by the attention you gave to my work and the amount of time you spent with me in office hours in graduate school. You are a wonderful giver of knowledge and I definitely miss that opportunity. You made the right call. I hope you find some balance–maybe you’ll be given a GSA to help you field your emails!

  9. Wow, you really hit a nerve with this one, Cathy. All I can say is congratulations for setting limits. They seem perfectly reasonable, and I’m willing to bet that the Man on the Phone eventually finds the answers to the questions he has, and maybe because of the short speech you gave him. If he doesn’t find those answers, then chances are he would never have found them.

  10. Jean F says:

    I’ve made my living as a freelance writer (no teaching) for more than 20 years. I, too, receive similar unreasonable requests from people I meet casually. They find out what I do and say, “Oh, that sounds like fun. How do I do that?” No one helped me learn to write or to market my services and giving away information, which is all I have to sell, would be insane.

    I used to get upset by these inquiries until I came up with this answer. I tell them first they must get completely out of debt and save enough money to live without income for at least a year (two would be better). This is much like what I did when I started, so it is a truthful answer, but not the one they want. It does, however, get them to go away.

  11. Cathy, thank you so much for this post. I have many calls and visits from strangers who think I’d like to read their poetry and give them feedback on it. Often they are completely surprised when I tell them that my obligation is to the students in my classes. After all, a stranger wouldn’t approach a doctor on the street for a recreational view of a rash, right? Because the doctor is always looking for new rashes to view and diagnose?

    I thought that this just happens with poetry, since seemingly I would be able to offer critiques of work on the fly at cocktail parties or while I am watching my son’s baseball game or trying to grade papers at a coffeehouse. I’m especially drawn to the comparison between the advice-seeker and the student who doesn’t give a crap. People always email me and say that they miss my prompts and my comments, but at least a quarter of my undergraduates are texting under the seminar table the first time around.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks Mary. I wrote this in a rush a few months ago, and I was surprised when it seemed to resonate with so many people. Not just writers, but all kinds of busy professional people. I’m glad it helped you, too.

  12. Balance is crucial and hard to find and sustain. Teaching demands are endless, writing time is limited. It seems the problem could be viewed as one of compensation. Your “free” time is not free. How about saying yes to requests if you want, and then how much your time will cost. As in: I am willing to read this manuscript for one hour and that will cost you $100 (or whatever), paid in advance (as a consultant). Shows you value your time and also would like to be helpful, use your expertise. That would limit requests. You could indicate that as your policy to both cold callers and students. You would be teaching a valuable lesson: how to protect and value your time.

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