Deesha Philyaw: Publishing Is Not What You Want Driving Your Self-Worth
In Conversation with Courtney Balestier on the WMFA Podcast
Writing can be lonely work; WMFA counters that with conversation. It’s a show about creativity and craft, where writer and host Courtney Balestier talks shop with some of today’s best writers and examines the issues we face when we do creative work. The mission of WMFA is to explore why we writers do what we do, so that we can do it with more intention, and how we do what we do, so that we can do it better.
Deesha Philyaw’s fiction debut, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, is a National Book Award finalist. She and Courtney talk about creating complex characters, writing Black women, and staying true to your vision even in the face of rejection.
From the episode:
Courtney Balestier: I want to talk about your writing life in general, but I would love to do that via “Peach Cobbler” because I read you talking about how many times it had been rejected, and I was really struck by your commitment to your vision as you were getting this feedback. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that experience of getting this feedback that you just know doesn’t speak to the story, and how you sort of soldier on through that and are able to say, no, this is how it should be, and I’m going to stick with that until somebody agrees with me.
Deesha Philyaw: That’s one of the great things about writing a collection, is you have lots of stories and so you have less chance of becoming obsessed with getting one published. It’s like, I must get this story published—okay, it didn’t get published, I’m gonna keep working on these other things. I try to think about it in terms of fit. Not that I’m going to keep writing and rewriting to try and make this story fit this particular place, but if an entity comes back and tells me we didn’t think it was a good fit for us because of this or that or whatever, it could be useful information. Toni Morrison said that’s how we should take critique and revision—you’re just getting information. It’s not personal.
I think to the extent that you can not take the feedback personally—and it’s easier to do that if you don’t have so much at stake writing one story or even one book. Anne Lamott, I read her years ago, and she was like, listen, when you publish your book, nothing’s going to change. Your mental illness is still going to be there. If you hate your thighs, you’re still going to hate your thighs when that book comes out. And so, I think you can say on a smaller level, it’s the same for stories. Getting the story published is not going to be the thing that fixes your life. And if you’re waiting to be happy once you publish a story, that’s not really happiness. If your happiness and your sense of self-worth and your sense of your value as a writer is tied up in whether somebody at a publication wants your story or not, you’re really giving people way too much power over you. And so, it’s a matter of fit. Everything’s not for everybody. That’s what I took away from “Peach Cobbler,” is that it wasn’t a good fit for these publications. They know what they want. They know what their readers want, or they believe they do. And they decided that it wasn’t my story.
Obviously, people, never ever argue with an editor. I’m also an editor so I’m on both sides of it. If somebody tells you that, say thank you and just keep going. Don’t rewrite it and try and send it back. None of that. But what I did that was helpful was, I have other people read my work before I send it out and as I’m sending it out, so when I do get feedback—when I get a good rejection, where they tell me why and give me some feedback that I could find useful—then I go back to good writer friends of mine and share it. I also have people who read my writing who are not writers; they’re readers, but they’re good readers. They give me a a different perspective than my writer friends do.
And then my agent was an editor before she was an agent, so she’s got a great eye. There are stories I’ve sent to her before I sent out. And “Peach Cobbler” is one where one time I got feedback that it was just too long, and I looked at it, read through it again with that in mind, thinking of places that possibly could be cut out or that I was being a little indulgent or something, and I just couldn’t figure out where to cut. And so, I went to my agent and I said, this is the feedback I got. I can’t figure out where to cut. She read it again, and she’s like, I can’t think of anywhere to cut. At that point, then, it’s a matter of finding a good home for that story. I’ve done all I can do, and also I don’t want to keep working on the same story over and over again. At a certain point, I’m like, that’s it. That’s what it’s gonna be. It’s going to make it into this book or it’s not, or it will find publication somewhere or not. And that’s okay, too. We don’t have to publish everything we write.
I think just having a little bit of distance and working out stuff about self-worth and self-esteem and your purpose and all of that. It can’t be dictated by whether or not you’re publishing, because publishing is fickle, publishing is biased, publishing has a lot of shit going on with it. That’s not the thing you want driving your well-being.
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Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, McSweeney’s, the Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight, and elsewhere. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, she currently lives in Pittsburgh with her daughters.