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.