Early on in my writing career, a gifted teacher told me, "At some point, you'll know your writing's good. You'll have figured out plot, characterization, voice, pacing, sense of place, everything. At that point, the key is finding someone receptive to your writing. Someone interested in what you have to say."
Fifteen years later, I had published more than 40 stories in literary magazines. Had I found someone receptive to what I had to say? A few times a year, I'd receive a letter that began, "We're happy to inform you. . ." The story was eventually published and I never heard from the editor again. This process repeated itself over and over. Although writing for me was the most personal of acts, sharing it with the world was oddly impersonal. Conversation was a monologue, a voice in my head, never a dialogue.
Submitting fiction to Wising Up Press's anthology on Families: The Frontline of Pluralism was a more intimate experience. I was eager to share my fiction with authors giving their own perspective on the subject. I wanted to read their stories, memoirs and poetry and I hoped we'd gain insights from each other's work. When the anthology was published, I felt a part of a literary gathering. Each piece in the collection was distinctive and unique, but the whole reflected a universal yearning to understand the constantly evolving construct of family. I wrote down the names of authors so I could locate more of their work. I sent them e-mails letting them know what their writing meant to me; they responded in kind. Suddenly I was part of a literary community and I discovered that the scope of my own writing broadened, that I was bringing more to my writing table because of new insights. Publishing a story in a second Wising Up anthology, Double Lives, Reinvention and Those We Leave Behind, brought a deepening of this communal spirit.
When first invited to join the Wising Up Press Collective's editorial board, I saw it as a new venture in my writing life. I didn't know precisely what would be involved, but I couldn't resist finding out. And, of course, I was flattered; Wising Up Press has very high standards and the editors were offering me entry into a small, select group. Most appealing, the Collective was new, still shaping its identity. Getting in on the ground floor meant I had the opportunity to contribute to the vision of the press. After having been on the receiving end of the writing process for so long, the idea of shaping and influencing the direction of a publishing venture was heady, exciting. When I met the other members of the Collective, authors whose work had moved me deeply, I knew immediately that I wanted to brainstorm with these people about writing and publishing. The energy of the group was infectious. We traded stories about our own publishing histories, what went well and what didn't. Defining what we wanted the Collective to be, how we could reach others who could help us meet that vision, and possibly extend it, was exhilarating. Each member of the Collective would happily wear every possible hat. While reading an exceptionally moving manuscript, I realized that I wasn't simply editing a memoir, but that I'd be advocating for its publication. The writing was poignant and confident, but more than that, the author embraced me with a work that was at once personal and universal. I turned the last page thinking, this is exactly right for Wising Up Press.
My own experience with literary agents is probably similar to that of many authors, which is to say there was more discussion of money than literary merit. Of course, blanket statements shouldn't be made for a reason, but the bleak economy has certainly taken up residence in publishing houses and Oprah can only promote so many books. One agent suggested I update the time period in my novella by 25 years and switch the locale to New York or Los Angeles. Yes, I could have, but that wasn't the story I wanted to tell, and I didn't want to tell a story that someone else could have written.
Needless to say, I was very ripe for an alternative publishing experience when the staff of Wising Up Press suggested I publish my book, Only Beautiful & Other Stories, through the Collective. Throughout the process, from selecting the sequence of the stories to arranging a photo of my niece to appear on the cover of the book, I kept thinking, "This is too good to be true!" Heather Tosteson, my editor and publisher, made sure I was happy with every aspect of the book from font size to the tiny icon on the spine of the book. I knew the end product would be exactly what I wanted it be because someone as invested in the book as myself was facilitating and ensuring publication. I decided how many books would initially be published and Heather brilliantly arranged that my collection of stories be available for purchase from Amazon.com on my birthday! Yes, Kerry, there is a Santa Claus!
To hold one's own book for the first time is a momentous occasion. In my case, I went for broke, ran around the house cheering until I lost my voice. No, I didn't become rich or famous, but publishing a book brought all number of unexpected blessings into my life. Those people who had supported and encouraged my work for years were thrilled to celebrate with me. The champagne flowed and there were endless hugs. Readings around the country reunited me with family and old friends. I gave a reading in one of my favorite childhood libraries located in South Buffalo, the setting of my novella. It was a euphoric experience that never would have occurred had I changed the setting of the book. For weeks, the phone rang and friends excitedly told me about having read a review on Amazon.com or an article in a local newspaper. My daughters asked if they could give their teachers copies of the book as holiday presents (I'm a cool mom!). And, most satisfying, people wanted to talk to me about the book, to share their impressions, to ask questions, to tell me what impacted them. Each conversation opened a door, allowed me to make or reinforce a connection with someone who had so kindly taken the time to read my book. For months, I have felt an expanding sense of gratitude for every aspect of this publishing experience. From start to finish, it has been one of the most life-affirming events. Looking ahead, I can't wait for other writers to experience what I have, to embark on a journey that may be personal with the first steps but will ultimately allow them to connect with the universal.