It's Not About the Gift Shop: Yet Another Parable on Publishing
In my previous professional life, I worked with upper elementary and middle school kids as a classroom teacher. Though teaching's no cakewalk, I loved the work, the certain knowledge that I was making a difference, and the kids.
Most days. But not so much on the days that we took field trips. In big, suburban schools, the powers that be are all hung up on fairness, so you couldn't take just one class; it had to be the whole grade level. Which meant we had to wrangle numerous buses, find a venue the would accommodate a hundred-sixty or more kids (or run them in shifts, which was nearly impossible to pull off, for reasons I won't get into), and go into strategic planning sessions to coordinate the volunteers, the eating arrangements, students' pharmaceutical needs, etc. By the time the big day arrived, the teachers were already exhausted, but the kids - whoa. Those kids showed up with snapping little firecrackers in their eyes, and the ones with behavioral problems or hyperactivity (those who thrive best on the everyday structure of ordinary days) were all shaken little cans of soda, ready to explode at the first snap of some unseen pop top.
It was a lot like herding cats, but with the help of volunteers to lead the small groups (considerate teachers took the majority of the "shaken soda" types), bribes of extra recess for the best class, and the liberal application of threats, we managed to get the kiddos to the Valuable Educational Experience in Question, which was sometimes a museum or in one memorable case an arboretum, where we did the nature talk and walk. But however cool and educational the place was, it didn't matter. Because all we heard from the moment we arrived was "When do we eat our lunches?" (Invariably, this would start up around 9:30 AM and become an unrelenting chorus by whatever time we had arranged.) And most of all, and especially after the mighty Feast of the Box Lunches, we were regaled with the inevitable, "When can we go to the gift shop?"
The gift shop was the Holy Grail, the kids' raison d'etre for the whole shebang. Nothing else mattered, from space shuttle simulators to Sam Houston's leopard-skin vest to one docent's demonstration of a flintlock rifle. (Once they found out they wouldn't be allowed to shoot the thing themselves, the "When's lunch?" and "Where's the gift shop" chorus started.) And, for the record, kids raised in a heavily wooded suburb (uh, The Woodlands. Hello?) couldn't give a rat's rump about the arboretum's wonders (with the exception of the copperheads. Snakes were fun to either dramatically shriek over or poke with sticks 'til a teacher dragged them off. Or both.)
By the time we got them loaded on the buses, the teachers were all mentally reevaluating their career choice, the hyperactive kids (now sleeping, having worn themselves and everyone around them to a frazzle) were bound for in-school suspension, the kids' allowances had morphed into cheap tchotchkes, and nobody remembered a darned thing about the Valuable Educational Experience.
As I watch newly-sold writers hustling or hurtling or struggling toward publication, I often get this same sense that they're mostly missing the whole point of the experience. They get on writers' loops or read bulletin board or blog posts about self-promotion. They let the "experts" (often people trying to sell them the plastic tchotchke of some service) convince them their maiden effort will be the last one if they don't pour lots of time, money, and attention into Getting the Word Out. They start hearing stories of catastrophe, start watching for harbingers of disaster even as they jealously eye the great successes. Panic-stricken, they rush from one great Educational Experience (first round of edits) to another (cover art/copy description), from one amazing wonder (receiving printed covers or Advanced Reading Copies) to what ought to be the climax (holding their debut book in their hands or seeing it for the first time on a store shelf "in the wild.") By the time they reach this pinnacle -- a pinnacle they've dreamed of for years -- they're too pooped to enjoy it, and they head home disappointed, certain that they've missed the gift shop of the Times bestseller list or appearances on Oprah, The Today Show, and the pages of People Magazine.
As you wander the pathways of publication, take time to marvel at its wonders. Shut off the distractions of too many e-mail loops (I've set mine all to "no-mail" for a while) and find that place of peace inside you, the place so still and quiet, you can enjoy the singing of one songbird in a bare, mid-winter tree.