(This is the fifth article in a series by Stories To Tell editor/designer Sarah Hoggatt recounting her experiences in publishing her poetry and nonfiction.)
Do all authors think the book they’re working on is crap at some point in the writing stage? I’m beginning to suspect most authors struggle with this at some point and I have recently been finding my place among them. Are these ideas worth following, worth exploring? Are these words worth writing down? And what’s more, how are these struggles of my own ever going to help someone else?
I look at the collection of poems I have thus far – 106 of them – and shake my head in disbelief. The lines laying across the pages are filled to overflowing with my heartache, with my longing for God, conversations we have, with the love I feel for the people around me which is so much bigger than myself that it leaves me staggering to my knees, and with unanswered questions and hungers still hanging out there with my arms open wide. How is this mess of myself ever going to be a mosaic of deeper truths?
I learned a couple of books ago that I am not the best judge of my own work. While I have my own personal favorites, those poems usually aren’t the ones that resonate most widely with other people. In fact, it’s usually the poems I just had to get off my chest, the ones I spilled out between tears and pink eraser bits, the words I howled to the wind as I stood on my soapbox crying out to the wilderness, people tell me they find incredibly meaningful. These are usually the same poems I come close to not including in a book as they are just too personal. Luckily for those who read my books, my editors play defense around the trash can, convincing me to keep those words in the collection. Though I well know by now they are right, every time I get to this stage of putting a book together, I am right back there trying to find a gem among those 106 poems and wondering if it even exists. My editors tell me, indeed, these words are absolutely worth publishing but I just don’t see it right now.
My lack of self-grandiosity, of not thinking my work is a gift to the world, is, I believe, needed for any author about to publish and is thus why I’m not too concerned about my own opinion but am trusting my editors instead. I’ve opened my heart and shared what’s in it. It get’s riskier every time I do it. But writing and sharing thusly is vital to the core of who I am so I keep coming back and laying it all out there hoping someone will come along, hear the words, and find something worth holding onto. Robert Hughes understood this when he said, “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” If we were always confident about our writing, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. A true artist is always pushing themselves to be better at what they do, more creative and more daring. They question their work and it’s that push, that questioning journey that helps others ask questions of their own.
So I stand here with a question for myself: would I ever want to know the full effect my words have? And the answer quickly comes – I don’t – at least not in this expression of life. I love feedback like most any author does. It feels incredible to know the seeds I planted in the ground have born fruit of their own and it inspires me to keep going. But would I want to know the full effect of where all those seeds have traveled? I don’t think so. I want to continue questioning my work. I want to keep asking myself if it’s worth publishing. I want editors who will push back and tell me to do it anyway even when I want to hold back. I want to take the risk of vulnerability, of being real. If I wasn’t, if I hid away and never said what is bursting inside me to be said, I think I would explode. I have to say it. I have to share it. And if I have to get over myself to do it, then so be it. The words were never ultimately meant for me anyway.