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Business of Writing, The Writer's Life

Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes — an AWP Panel

A year or so ago I was submitting about 200 short stories to lit journals per year. I had two novels I believed were complete and in a year’s time I sent out maybe 150 query letters and samples. My book review editor position immersed me in a network of indie presses, and I communicated with dozens of publishers and reviewers daily. Out of all those submissions, queries and networking I had about six stories accepted, no agent, no book deal.

Now, for the moment, none of that. And I’m enjoying writing more than I have in years.

2013-AWP-logoLast week the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) accepted my panel proposal for the 2014 annual conference in Seattle. This is the event that draws 11,000 writers—unknown, famous and infamous—from around the world for three days of books, seminars, networking and general renewal of one’s inspiration. Most of the 500-plus panels are concerned with the craft of writing, pedagogy[1], or the state of the market. A few dozen are readings of the works of a well-known writer, or a publication from the local area. Ours, as you may infer from the title, is not like that.

Those other sessions are fine and traditional and all that, designed to appeal to the success side of the industry and foster the hope that literary accomplishment is just a submission or query away. Established writers and teachers come to stay up on current trends and news. Students and new writers are excited about the possibilities that await them. But I wanted to offer something different, something for the writers in the middle, those (yes, like me) who have been writing for years and have not seen those possibilities materialize. We’ve been published occasionally, but it’s nowhere near enough to even consider quitting the day job. The novels we’ve written are publishable, but remain unpublished. We didn’t come up through the ranks of the university system, so teaching jobs are out of reach. Maybe we set our goals too high.

Many writers in that position eventually quit, rationalizing that writing perhaps wasn’t their uncultivated talent after all. They may find a renewed passion for their first careers, or realize the joys of family, or find another calling and put the unfinished novels and stories in the closet. But some keep on writing just the same.

There are a lot of us, I think. We know our work is good and therefore find ways to adjust to the realities of the writing life, as unfair as they may appear to be, because we love what we do, society’s relentless pressure to succeed be damned. That’s what the session is all about, finding ways to keep going when everyone and everything connected with writing tells you that you haven’t measured up, that it’s time to grow up and reassume your responsibilities. That it’s time to stop. But we don’t.

I am thankful to AWP for taking this panel on. Thankful, even more, to my co-presenters, Kobbie Alamo, Teri Carter and Q. Lindsey Barrett, for believing as I do.

As for the submissions and the queries and the job apps and the self-marketing, my withdrawal from the vortex of industry-imposed insanity is temporary. In other words, I’ll get back into that crap when I’m ready. For now I’m writing, which is what I set out to do. I am stoking the fire, feeling the heat.

Hope to see you in Seattle.

[1] I swear, if I didn’t know what pedagogy meant, I would think it was some kind of disease. You’d think a bunch of eggheads could come up with a better sounding term.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


19 thoughts on “Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes — an AWP Panel

  1. It’s amazing you’re such a prolific writer with real industry connections and have still come up largely empty-handed. Quite depressing. I love the sounds of your panel, and it’s certainly different. I’m pretty new at this and still have the optimism of those who haven’t been exposed to the industry beatdown. Still trying to find my niche. Not ready to give up yet, but there are days I wonder if it’s worth it, after working on an article or story for weeks (yes, it takes me that long because I’m a newbie), only to discover I’ll be paid $30 for a submission, if I’m lucky. The number of unpaid markets out there seem endless and growing. I guess for now I’ll keep on keeping on, because in the end it’s about doing something I love.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | August 10, 2013, 1:18 PM
    • Thanks, Gwen. It has to be about doing what you love, otherwise we’ll all wind up too bitter to writer anything worthwhile.

      Posted by jpon | August 11, 2013, 1:31 AM
  2. You will definitely see me in Seattle. This is such a fresh, interesting topic for discussion and I’m eager to hear what all of you have to say. Well done, Joe.

    Posted by Averil Dean | August 10, 2013, 2:01 PM
  3. Who DID come up with pedagogy. I’m not even going to tell you how recently I had to look that up. Sad but true.

    Looking forward to this panel, Joe. You did such a great job with the title and the content, and this is a panel I would go to for sure.

    Posted by Teri | August 10, 2013, 9:13 PM
    • Thanks, Teri. I’m optimistic about the panel. Some good response on Facebook and Twitter leads me to believe we’ll be well attended.

      Posted by jpon | August 11, 2013, 1:34 AM
  4. Congratulations on the panel, Joe, and visualizing all KINDS of success for ya!

    Any, yeah, “pedagogy” does make me squirm when I first see the word (that was the BEST they could come up with?!)….

    Posted by fpdorchak | August 10, 2013, 10:34 PM
  5. I’m sure that your panel presentation will be interesting, useful and educational. Kudos.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | August 11, 2013, 2:52 AM
  6. You AND Teri AND this important subject? I can’t believe I’m going to miss it. Maybe you’ll throw us poor working people a bone and give us a summary afterward?

    Posted by girl in the hat | August 11, 2013, 2:58 AM
    • Sounds like a plan. A lot of people here, on Facebook and Twitter have suggested recording the discussion.

      Posted by jpon | August 11, 2013, 10:48 PM
  7. Yes. We want you to record it and slap it up on YouTube for the rest of us.

    Posted by Jon Zech | August 11, 2013, 3:25 AM
  8. Yes, you do seem to have a finger on the pulse of the writing industry. I share a request with Teri, above, that you post about it for us when you get back. A follow-up that way from the same perspective is always helpful. (As to “pedagogy,” it shares a prefix with “pedarasty,” and one spends a lot of time hoping that that’s all it shares! He-he!)

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 11, 2013, 1:32 PM
    • And if AWP won’t let us, I’ll find someone to take notes. Certainly seems like there’s interest in this subject. I wonder if the publishing establishment will take note.

      Posted by jpon | August 11, 2013, 10:50 PM
  9. thanks for this wonderful post. you really are able to articulate the longing of so many of us to “make it” by being vetted by mainstream (or even the “alternative”) publishing industries, but how completely fraught it’s all become. as for pedagogy, well of course professors are going to come up with the weirdest word possible, and wait, now there’s andragogy, because pedagogy (like pediatrican) refers to kids. Stay tuned for more terms, as the academy finds ways to publish on what is now called in some circles the “scholarship of teaching.” be afraid. be very afraid.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 14, 2013, 12:25 AM
    • Andragogy? I can barely pronounce it. And the “scholarship of teaching” sounds a lot like some academics desperately trying to justify their positions. Me? I got street smarts. I’m okay wid dat.

      Posted by jpon | August 14, 2013, 2:02 AM

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