Five Writers Weigh in on the Weird Shame of Publishing a Book
Jennifer Huang Talks to Kemi Alabi, Liz Asch, Sejal Shah, Alina Stefanescu, and Stephen J. West
When I was in high school, I learned about the period of martial law in Taiwan and realized how this history affected my family, my upbringing, and how I related to the world around me. I felt this history deeply in my body—it held me back from speaking up, trusting others, forming connections. I wrote my debut poetry collection, Return Flight, in part to combat this affect. I wanted to speak about the people who had been left behind, issues pushed under a rug, stories hidden in the periphery. I wanted to acknowledge them and, perhaps, release them from the shame that kept them caged.
While writing, I didn’t realize how these poems would feel once they were out to the public. How sharing with a cohort, professors, and a few friends feels much different than knowing that any stranger could access the book at any time. How years and years of childhood shame would come up—and that voice telling me to be quiet and be small, again, so loud. How it’s not only my own shame that I carry and hear, but also familial, ancestral, and societal.
A few days after I found out my manuscript was going to become a published book, I unconvincingly told my therapist that I was excited. The joy I had felt from receiving the news was quickly eclipsed by an avalanche of anxiety, fear, and shame. My therapist responded, “Sometimes when good things happen to people who have experienced trauma, there is something inside of them that believes that the good thing will be taken away. So they brace themselves.”
Having this explanation for my emotional response calmed me. But then, as the months went on and the publication process became more real, the feelings in my body only intensified. As much as I tried to hide the shame and let it go, I couldn’t—and I wouldn’t. A curious part of me wanted to talk about it, and I found myself asking other authors, Did you feel this vulnerable when your book came out? Did you feel this much shame?
The answer was a resounding yes.
I wanted to know more, so I kept writing and reflecting. Then, I put out a Twitter call back in October 2021 to see if any other authors would be open to talk to me about shame and publishing. I am grateful to the five authors in this conversation—Kemi Alabi, Liz Asch, Sejal Shah, Alina Stefanescu, and Stephen J. West—for their time and honesty. I have collaged our separate email correspondences into one longer one, connecting the dots between my initial questions, each person’s responses, and my own. As a result, the responses have been cut down, though their original meanings have been preserved. All writers have approved of this final version before publication.
I felt the gaze of future reviewers, critics, peers focusing on my work, scrutinizing me through my book.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown writes, “Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.”
I wrote this to combat the secrecy and aloneness on which shame loves to fester, with hopes that this conversation might help other writers feel less alone. More than a half year later and a few months after the publication of my book, I can look back and see how working on this piece helped me navigate what I was feeling back then. Though whispers of book-related shame still try to catch my attention, they grow less and less every day.
Jennifer Huang: How have you experienced feelings of shame during the book publishing process?
Liz Asch: I’m mulling over the word shame and the ways I think I receive or hold or carry it. It has multiple aspects: Feeling shame from a regretful action, perhaps reasonable, or “healthy,” a means for apology or amends. Being ashamed for being who you are, or for an action for which you received negative attention unjustly or unreasonably—like feeling embarrassed and diminished and low. Being shamed—when we are scolded, humiliated, lose our dignity, get separated from others, or punished. And carrying self-prescribed shame—a self-induced loss of dignity, self-criticism…maybe related to a reasonable cause or maybe made large or thrown out of proportion due to low self-esteem.
Can we carry shame in anticipation of the rejections of criticism of others? I think so! Especially when publishing a vulnerable book, right? We carry anxiety and it is anticipatory of catastrophe. Seems similar to me. Feels like a thing I do. You?
Stephen J. West: When I received the email from Kelson Books declaring, “Yes, we love your manuscript, we want to publish it,” I was with my spouse, Karleen, and two of my closest friends, Ben and Sally, who were visiting from Atlanta. They had been with me through the book writing journey for a decade. I couldn’t script a cooler moment, but the sudden dance party that followed in my entryway literally lasted a minute, tops. I felt the gaze of future reviewers, critics, peers focusing on my work, scrutinizing me through my book—Soft-Boiled is nonfiction after all. I feel that shame preemptively. Maybe the most I’ve ever felt as a writer. This book acceptance landed a heavier load of shame than any rejection I’d received, and it isn’t close.
Kemi Alabi: My debut poetry collection Against Heaven almost died of shame. I had to fight shame just to write each poem. I was so ruled by shame, I didn’t even notice I had a full-length collection. Shame almost stopped me from sending it out. Shame almost made me withdraw it from my first round of submissions.
When it was accepted—very quickly, and for an award I didn’t think it could win—shame stalked this book throughout the revision process, making me doubt every impulse that made the book work in the first place. Shame convinced me everyone had made a mistake, or had an ulterior motive, or was so dulled and overworked by the pandemic. And then I was so ashamed of my luck that I felt gross even celebrating this temporary admittance to a club I swore to bust up. And then I felt so sick and ashamed of my shame. How stupid and exhausting, all of it.The myth of meritocracy placates us by wallpapering over the brutality of transactional relationships.
Sejal Shah: When I told my father about my advance, he said, that’s a joke, because he had seen how long I had worked on my book. I also thought I would know more about publishing because I had been in the literary world for a long time. I felt ashamed of needing help, due to my health and neurodivergence. The publicist I initially hired took the deposit and ran. I was ashamed that I had been so naïve. Finally, I felt ashamed I had not made more specific and direct asks from established writers I had known for a long time. So many different and intersecting kinds of shame—it was truly exhausting!
Alina Stefanescu: I have experienced shame when a book is published and I failed to “promote” it through traditional means, such as lining up tours and readings, sending email announcements, engaging a publicist, or anything else that would express value in the book. This happened with my first poetry collection (which was about abortion), and I am doing it now with my fourth, Dor.
Liz: I think about how we carry shame in ourselves. For me, it feels like a heavy burden. It makes me close in on myself. It makes me keep myself small. It makes my heart burrow deeper in my chest. In my body, it’s foggy and sticky and wet.
Jennifer: For me, spiky, cavernous, pressure-building. Lonely and loud is another way I would describe it. Where do you think the shame comes from?
Stephen: Perhaps shame comes from the standards we can’t meet? Or those we think we should be meeting?
Alina: Part of my shame comes from the knowledge that I live in a capitalist system which valorizes based on profit, and so my shame to promote mingles with my shame to be part of the system. The myth of meritocracy placates us by wallpapering over the brutality of transactional relationships. Another part of my shame comes from not having an MFA or any of the degrees which create networks. I’m shameless about promoting the work of peers, but have trouble believing that the words of a white female deserve the same attention as those of a Black poet or POC.I didn’t realize how much I had internalized the wider culture’s definition of success.
Stephen: Similarly, my shame about writing a book takes root in this conundrum: as a creative person, I feel a compulsion to make things that express my perspectives on the world and share them with others—like writing a book. But as a white, cis/het man who is aware of and supports the recent transformation to amplify own voices and give greater platform to traditionally marginalized writers in the publishing industry, I know my book isn’t needed right now. Maybe isn’t even wanted. At all. But while I know my book isn’t needed, I wrote it and want to see it published. It’s that disconnect that I’m ashamed of.
Liz: I had so much fun writing my queer erotica book, Your Salt On My Lips. It was exciting, salacious, sensual, creative, and relatively smooth as far as writing goes. It was good medicine for me. It was an exercise in confronting my own taboos around sexuality and shame. I got to normalize lust and libido and sexual adventure and embodiment during sex. The rebel in me felt empowered writing this book and the activist in me felt a sense of purpose.
But there is another part of me. And that part is soft-skinned and hiding, feeling over-exposed, and shame and some regret. That part of me feels weak and is scolding myself that I was too risqué, that I was too vanilla, that I’ll be misunderstood, and that I made mistakes and my good intentions are not or will not be heard and seen. My inner critic holds the mic there.
Kemi: Poetry is my playground—a place to practice freedom. Through this practice, I hope to connect with others, moving out of this culture’s imposed isolation and into a shared imagination with readers. I think shame is a maladaptive protection strategy. The shame is fear that my best efforts will fail and I’ll be further isolated by my weirdo art that no one wants or needs.
My shame tells me to stop and find better things to do than embarrass myself while the earth burns. My shame tells me to keep my cherished things private or risk their destruction and desecration. The part of me that fears being disposable mistakes perfectionism for survival, so shame becomes the very intrusive editor of my every thought and action. This isn’t too strange of a reaction to a deeply racist, cisheterosexist, classist, and ableist culture that wants me to shut up and die.By developing my writing practice in a community of queer and trans people of color, I’ve been able to protect myself and my craft from the annihilating force of shame.
I’m a queer Black nonbinary poet without generational wealth or an MFA, and with roots in spoken word. A poetry field so consumed by the academy—which reifies all of our culture’s nasty hierarchies, creating binaries of good and bad, laudable and disposable—would of course activate my shame machine, despite all the work I’ve done to disable it. And an external world that routinely dismisses the value of poetry would do the same.
Sejal: I felt despair about everything around my book launch—the pandemic, the George Floyd protests. Most authors I know who published books in 2020 were disappointed to have had long-planned tours disappear. The world was on fire—we knew our books didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And even though I was proud of having made a book, I felt sad my family didn’t understand what went into it. My mother told me she felt she had failed as a mother because of what I revealed in a few essays. So, many different kinds of disappointment and shame. I wanted my family to see that their investment in me had mattered. That was my mistake; a person’s value is not based on a book or any other work—creative or otherwise. I didn’t realize how much I had internalized the wider culture’s definition of success.
Jennifer: How have you worked through these feelings of shame? What helps?
Sejal: I met a few people along the way—some even strangers and acquaintances—who did show up and help. They went way out of their way to school me on aspects of publicity and specifically publishing with a small press. It wasn’t just the particulars of what these folks did—it was that they knew how difficult it is to publish a book and understood its value and the inherent value of creativity and artmaking. Their generosity made those values visible to me again. Now, I’m doing what I can to support others. It’s been a tremendous relief and gift to offer friends what I needed and didn’t know how to ask for.While the book is a fixed thing, I am not.
Kemi: I don’t live in the world of this shame. By developing my writing practice in a community of queer and trans people of color who are grounded in a completely different type of making and living, I’ve been able to protect myself and my craft from the annihilating force of shame. Poetry feels good. Art feels good. This doesn’t mean it feels easeful or cathartic; the work I’m making, that others are making, is some gnarly, difficult shit. But it’s grounded in the pleasure of art as freedom praxis and in the material, literal work of saving lives, recovering minds.
Shame doesn’t live there except as an exorcised demon and examined remains. So when I’m feeling shame, it’s because there’s a cop policing my head and my heart, and I must reground in my commitment to abolition. That’s been a series of experiments, but the through line is returning to the pleasure, connection and care of it all.
Alina: I have worked through these feelings but haven’t found answers or solutions. Structurally, having three kids limits my participation in the book launch culture—and sometimes I think they are my reprieve and my excuse. It’s a gift to write and a gift to read, and I hold the gift parts close.
Liz: I try to not give the shame side much airtime. But I do think it’s useful to tap into it sometimes to debunk the myths. When I do that I remind myself that I cannot control anyone’s response to the book, that of course this book will resonate with some and not with others, and that this book might push peoples’ buttons and that’s okay—and I am not taking on the responsibility of doing it perfectly or comprehensively or without issue. I’m here to learn and to grow. While the book is a fixed thing, I am not. I get to keep learning and opening to more awareness.
Jennifer: What you say about the book being a fixed thing but you are not resonates with me. I think a part of the shame I feel comes from a fear that people will assume that the “me” who wrote the book is the same “me” I am today. And it’s helpful to have these kinds of reminders that we are imperfect beings.
Liz: Yes, and then I remind myself I’m proud of this book, and I’m proud of writing it. I remind myself how many hours and years I put into it. I think of this ancestor of mine who wrote provocative queer things in the early 1900s in Poland who I feel spiritually is helping me write this book, and I raise a glass to him in the ethers. So, that’s how I combat it on a good day. Other days I feel scattered or nervous or unsettled and I need a friend or my partner to talk it through with, or I lean on some somatic practices to get my body in better shape. And sometimes I need to just sit with it and let it be and not put all my energy into clearing it out or trying to fix it, too.
Stephen: Staying away from social media helps immensely. So does walking through the woods. Looking up at the sky. Looking at satellite photos of deep space. Raking leaves. Petting my dog. Carving a linoleum block. Listening to moody music. Burning a candle. Taking a bath. Doing one thing at a time, in the moment, alone, with immediate results.